MILWAUKEE — For the first time in state history, the number of cremations in Wisconsin has overtaken the number of burials, according to a state report released today.
The trend had been moving in that direction since at least 2002, when 62 percent of people were buried and 29 percent cremated. The rate of cremation grew 1 to 3 percent each year until 2011, when cremation became the most common method of handling remains.
“Cost is a factor,” said Barbara Kemmis, the executive director of the Cremation Association of North America in Wheeling, Ill. “But based on the way the cremation rates have continued to rise, they haven’t jumped in a way to suggest the recession is a factor.”
The state Department of Health Services said 22,547 people, or 46.9 percent, were cremated in Wisconsin in 2011, while 22,016 people, or 45.8 percent, were buried. Another 6.5 percent were entombed in above-ground structures and less than 1 percent donated their bodies for medical research or education.
Wisconsin’s numbers reflect the growing trend of cremation across the U.S. and Canada. At least 18 others states have higher rates of cremation than burial, according to the cremation association.
Claire Smith, a spokeswoman for the state health department, said she saw nothing to indicate the rate of cremation would slow down in the near future.
“Considering it’s been a trend for a while I imagine that it would continue,” she said.
Kemmis said the national average cost for cremation is $1,650, compared to $7,300 for burial and casket costs. Cremation costs generally include the cost of transporting the body from the place of death to the funeral home, the actual cremation and a temporary urn. Nicer urns can range from $100 to thousands of dollars, she said.
Burials are more expensive not only because of the casket and the expenses to dig a gravesite and fill it in, but also because of possible ongoing bills to keep the gravesite maintained.
Cremation is especially popular on the West Coast. Utah is the only western state where fewer than 51 percent of people are cremated, Kemmis said. Nevada led the nation with a 72.2 percent cremation rate in 2010, followed by Washington at 70.9 percent.
It’s also popular in Wisconsin and Michigan, in part because of the proximity of Lake Michigan, she said.
“The rates tend to be higher in communities near the lake,” she said. “People are tied to the water, they have boats. Maybe they want to be scattered there.”
Most states allow the scattering of ashes in bodies of water as long as it’s done at least three miles from shore, Kemmis added. She recommended contacting local Department of Natural Resources officials for specific guidelines.
Cremation is also preferred by those who perceive it as a greener option than burial, and may also appeal to families with relatives in other states or countries who might not be able to gather in time for a burial, which is more time-sensitive.
In other findings, the report on Wisconsin deaths said the two leading causes of death in 2011 were heart disease and cancer, which combined to account for 47 percent of deaths.