FOX 11 Investigates rise in cremation rate

Cremation urns

GREEN BAY (WLUK) -- Resting in peace for our loved ones no longer comes with a burial plot. Cemeteries are becoming a thing of the past. The latest figures are from 2016, and for the first time, more than half of all deaths resulted in cremation, at 52 percent. That’s up from 48 percent the year before.

The growing concern over cremation is what's being done with all those remains. Not to mention it raises ethical and religious issues.

Many wish to have their ashes spread in the ocean.

Others have had the ashes packed into a shotgun shell and are spread with a bang over their favorite hunting ground.

Still others choose to become a lasting part of their favorite sports team, but being spread in or around a stadium.

Steve Wolfe was a die-hard Packers fan. He chose all three of those options. FOX 11 Investigates caught up with his wife of 50 years, Jana Wolfe, at her home in Iowa.

“So whose idea was it to spread ashes at Lambeau Field?” FOX 11 Investigates asked Wolfe.

“It was something he mentioned before he passed away, that he'd always wanted to go to a game,” said Wolfe.

Wolfe chose the Green Bay Packers-Los Angeles Rams preseason game last year. She wanted to spread the ashes on the field, but all the stadium security altered her plans.

“I just stopped at one of the flower beds (outside the entrance) and took my little container of ashes, and dumped him into the flower bed,” said Wolfe. “That way he can see everybody come and go to lots of games.”

Wolfe doesn’t think her plan was unique. Packers President Mark Murphy believes it’s happened before.

“I do, just knowing our fans. But I have not seen it, but I have heard stories,” said Murphy, who indicated he understands Packers fans have a very strong connection to Lambeau Field.

Packers fans are not alone. During a Packers-Philadelphia Eagles game at Lincoln Financial Field in 2005 one Eagles fan ran onto the field spreading his mother’s ashes. He dropped to his knees and made the sign of the cross. He was arrested, fined and the game went on.

Keep in mind in Wisconsin there are no laws saying what should happen to the sterile, cremated remains. That's up to you.

But the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources does not allow scattering ashes on state lands and waterways -- including Lake Michigan. In other public spaces such as parks, permission is needed from the agency overseeing the land. And on private property you should have permission from the landowner.

As for the Packers, a spokesman tells FOX11 Investigates, “We understand the desire of some fans to have their ashes, or those of friends or family, spread at Lambeau Field, but it is against facility policy and against the law.”

The Packers organization does offer fans the opportunity to buy engraved bricks for placement at Lambeau Field. The commemorative bricks can be used to memorialize a loved one.

Green Bay police say those dispersing ashes at Lambeau Field can be cited for unlawful conduct at a public event. And be fined up to $1,321.

The Green Bay area didn’t get its first crematory until 1978 at Malcore Funeral Home.

Matt Malcore is a fifth-generation funeral director in his family.

“Across all faiths, I think there’s a general embrace that cremation is something that’s okay with any of the churches,” said Malcore.

Last year Malcore Funeral Home added a new state-of-the-art crematory that includes more space for family to say their final goodbyes.

“We wanted to be able to serve our clients in a way that best fits them,” said Malcore.

The practice of cremation in the United States, though, pales in comparison to some countries. In Japan the cremation rate is nearly 100 percent. Japan’s two main religions require cremation. Statistics show in Sweden, 80 percent are cremated. In Great Britain it’s 75 percent. In Germany, 55 percent.

Dan Wieting is president of Wisconsin Funeral Directors Association. He says many families choose cremation over burial to save money.

“You can save $2,000-$4,000,” explained Wieting.

Cremation can save the cost of a casket, a burial plot and the actual burial. On the high end, it can save $10,000 or more, all depending on the varying costs for such items.

Another reason for cremation: today’s mobile families. No longer do families stay put in the same home town.

“They’re all over the country, so more of a convenience to families as well,” explained Wieting.

The rise in the cremation rate was also propelled by the Catholic Church. It formally approved of the practice 55 years ago, although change from tradition took time. By 1985 the cremation rate in the United States was still just 15 percent. The church remains clear about the disposition of the ashes.

“It’s really important especially for those of Christian belief, Catholic belief, we believe that we need to make sure the remains of our loved ones are buried because it’s a way of showing respect,” said Rev. David Ricken, bishop with the Green Bay Catholic Diocese.

Last December, the Green Bay Diocese offered a blessing from Ricken and free burial in its mausoleum for the cremated remains of family loved ones that never found that final resting place.

Ricken says the burial process is for the deceased and those left behind.

“Life has a cycle and death has a cycle. Grieving has a cycle. Part of that cycle is to be able to bring to completion the grieving and placing a person in a tomb,” said Ricken.

As for Wolfe, she may be part of a growing number of people okay with cremation and the unconventional options it offers. She makes no apology for her choice to help her loved one live in peace.

“Some people might think it was disrespectful just to put him in a flower bed but in my heart, I felt it was something I needed to do and I felt good about it,” said Wolfe.

If the trend continues on pace, 70 percent of Americans are expected to choose cremation by the year 2030.

NASCAR’s Bristol Motor Speedway in Tennessee is an example of a venue which does allow the spreading of ashes for race fans in certain areas.

Cemeteries are also finding alternatives for those choosing cremation. At Woodlawn Cemetery in Allouez there is a “Cremains Garden” where ashes are poured directly into the ground and covered with soil and a flat, small headstone.

Woodlawn also has an outdoor columbarium with multiple niches for cremated remains in urns. The cemetery plans to add more in the future to meet the growing demand.

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