FORT MYERS, Fla. (AP) — Fewer Florida families are entombing their loved ones' bodies underground — opting instead to send the remains into the Gulf of Mexico, shoot them into the sky or wear them in a locket.
The traditional burial, once so important in the grieving process, is becoming a thing of the past.
More than half of Floridians who die are cremated instead of buried. The practice is even more common in southwest Florida, where financial, practical, religious and sentimental reasons are causing more people to choose cremation.
"What's interesting is cremation seems to be becoming the new tradition for many families," said Barbara Kemmis, executive director of the Cremation Association of North America.
Florida cremated 59 percent of its dead in 2011 — the second highest percentage in the U.S., according to the most recent Cremation Association statistics. Florida ranked third for growth in cremations that year, behind California and Texas.
In 2012, 74 percent of Lee and 73 percent of Collier county residents who died were cremated, according to the most recent Florida Department of Health statistics. That's compared to 69 percent in Lee and 68 percent in Collier in 2008.
At Mullins Memorial Funeral Home & Cremation Service in Cape Coral, about 85 percent of clients choose cremation, according to owner Shannon Mullins.
A major reason is cost. A basic cremation costs an average of about $2,250, according to the Cremation Association. That's compared to about $8,350 for the average burial.
Another reason was demonstrated last month, when a southwest Florida father exhumed his deceased son's body and was appalled at what he saw. Jesse Watlington, 11, died in October 2012 after he was struck by lightning. His family buried him at Fort Myers Memorial Gardens, but later moved to Orlando and decided to re-bury Jesse close by.
When workers opened the grave, the burial vault lid was cracked, and the casket inside was full of water.
Certain caskets and burial vaults can keep water out, but only for so long, Mullins said. Especially after a rainy season in southwest Florida, where the water level is so high.
Cremation is also a practical option for southwest Florida's seasonal and transplant residents, as cremated remains are cheaper and easier to transport, Mullins said.
Cremation fits people's modern lifestyles and gives families more options, Kemmis said. There are a handful of cemeteries in southwest Florida, but unlimited ways to lay cremated remains to rest.
Mullins dedicates one wall of his funeral home showroom to casket options, and three to urns. There are urns that display pictures, are disguised as lamps, worn as lockets or are biodegradable. Mullins sells a Florida Gators urn and a $695 urn hand-made by an artist from Sarasota. Families can encase their loved one's remains in concrete and send them to the bottom of the ocean to create a reef. They can put the remains into a blown-glass work of art, or extract the carbon from the remains to create a diamond.
Cremated remains also can be interred at traditional cemeteries, such as Fort Myers Memorial Gardens.
"Probably our most beautiful area is our cremation area," General Manager Donnell Sullivan said.
The cremation area has been open four years, and it's so popular Memorial Gardens is looking into an expansion.
Perhaps the most unusual way to lay a loved one to rest — shoot the remains up in a rocket over the Gulf of Mexico. At 3,000 feet a parachute deploys and floats the remains down to the water.
Mullins has conducted the rocket launch twice in his career — once was for a deceased fireworks fanatic.
"No two people grieve the same way," Kemmis said, "so I think this personalization is just so important."
Bill Krumrey, 69, of Cape Coral, had his mother buried in August. It's what she wanted — to be next to her husband in the family's Chicago cemetery, he said. But Krumrey plans to be cremated.
"(It) makes life simpler," he said.
Members of Bob Bastuba's family have always been buried, but the 68-year-old Fort Myers resident thinks he will break tradition and choose cremation. His wife likes the idea because it's cheaper. They're considering internment in a veterans cemetery in Michigan, where he's originally from.
Anthony Loehle, 21, of Fort Myers, wants to be cremated and have his ashes planted with a tree.
"That would be kind of awesome because it would help the environment a lot," he said.
But cremation isn't for everyone.
"Some people because of religious beliefs, or because of natural fears of flame or fire, want nothing to do with that," Mullins said.
At Friendship Missionary Baptist Church in Fort Myers, about 2 percent of members choose cremation, according to Pastor James Bing. Five years ago, no one did.
But the church doesn't dictate how its members lay their loved ones to rest, Bing said. While he's not sure he would want to be cremated, the practice doesn't bother him.
"In the Old Testament," Bing said, "bodies were often burned. So cremation really is not a new phenomenon."
The Catholic Church once banned cremation, but now allows the practice as long as the remains are interred instead of scattered.
Religious faith also dictates not just whether, but how some families approach cremation. Hindu and Sikh families are more likely to ask to watch the process, Mullins said.
He allows families to watch, but 85 to 90 percent have no desire.
Many families don't want to know how the process works, and also decline to read the cremation authorization form.
"Half the families want to know all you can tell them," Mullins said, "and the other half want to know nothing."
But that's changing, according to Kemmis. As more people begin to understand cremation, more people want to see it and be involved.
"There's no taboo about it," Kemmis said.
Mullins wants to cater to that trend by installing a larger window in his crematory from which family members can watch their loved one enter the machine, and putting in a room where the family can relax and reminisce during the roughly two-hour cremation process.
Oversight hasn't kept pace as cremation has become more popular, according to Jessica Koth, public relations manager of the National Funeral Directors Association.
State governments oversee the cremation industry — in Florida it falls under jurisdiction of the Department of Financial Services' Board of Funeral, Cemetery and Consumer Services.
Federally, the Funeral Rule provides oversight for crematories operated by funeral homes. But it does not cover independent crematories, Koth said.
"They're not required to adhere to the same standards that funeral homes do," she said.
The Funeral Rule helps protect consumers, Koth said. Her association advocates for a similar law to cover all crematories.
In the meantime, the National Funeral Directors Association offers voluntary certification to crematory operators. Started in September, it's the first program the association has developed exclusively for cremation. As of mid-December, the association had certified 131 operators through training covering ethics, safety, liability and crematory operations.
"I think as cremation has become more popular," Koth said, "we've certainly stepped up our efforts to help our members, funeral directors, better understand the needs of families that are choosing cremation."
Information from: The (Fort Myers, Fla.) News-Press, http://www.news-press.com