The Evolution of Death-Related Traditions Reflects Varied Approaches to Grieving | News, Sports, Jobs


News photo by Julie Riddle Chad Esch, owner and funeral director of Bannan Funeral Home in Alpena, places an urn in a specially adapted holder in a hearse at the funeral home last week.

ALPENA — Nearly 20 years after a fatal accident ended his son’s life, Tom Hilberg is still watering the flowers at his son’s grave.

A handful of stones rested on the black headstone of Bradley Hilberg at Holy Cross Cemetery in Alpena on Monday, memorabilia left by friends who sometimes stop by the grave to remember the 21-year-old who died when he was electrocuted during a summer job before his junior. year at Michigan State University.

Losing a loved one hurts, but a place to remember that loved one helps, said Tom Hilberg.

As Michigan’s funeral and death-related traditions give way to new customs, fewer residents are opting for the burials and services once considered the norm.

Cremations now go far beyond more traditional coffin burials, and people are increasingly choosing to delay or even eliminate funeral services. Death no longer requires burial, or even a headstone.

News photo by Julie Riddle Eric Ross, owner and funeral director of Karpus Hunter and Ross Funeral Home in Alpena, displays caskets in a funeral home showroom on Monday.

In northeast Michigan, funeral directors are concerned that current trends are preventing some survivors from healing from their loss.

People deal with loss in all kinds of ways, said Tom Hilberg, who celebrates the 19th anniversary of his son’s death on Friday.

For him, a tombstone and a bouquet of flowers in view of the Alpena High School football stadium offer a balm to his grief.

“It’s a sacred place to come to,” the father said. “Sometimes when you have anxiety, you come and talk to him.”


News Photo by Julie Riddle Jeff Faircloth, owner and funeral director of McWilliams Funeral Home in Alpena, presented the funeral home last month with a necklace designed to hold cremated human remains.

In northeast Michigan, about 70% of deaths result in cremation, according to Brian Walborn, owner of Sunrise Crematory, which serves the Alpena area.

A decade ago, a quarter of deceased people were cremated and “before that it was almost zero,” Walborn said.

Also the owner of a business that sells burial vaults, Walborn added the crematorium in 2014 after vault sales plummeted.

Local funeral directors say families are asking for cremations more than ever, part of a national trend that will see three-quarters of deaths in the United States result in cremation by 2040, the National Funeral Directors Association predicts. .


News photo by Julie Riddle Kristie Morlan, sales administrator at Crow Memorials in Alpena, presents a columbarium to the company last week.

At Crow Memorials, adjacent to Evergreen Cemetery in Alpena, traditional headstones still have a market, but more customers are buying headstones built to hold cremated human remains, sales administrator Kristie Morlan said.

The remains of several people – potentially an entire family, including pets – can fit in a columbarium, a monument resembling a traditional headstone and placed on a burial plot.

Such options reduce death-related costs and match some people’s emotional needs, Morlan said.

Nationally, a simple cremation, without services, costs an average of about $2,000, compared to $7,600 for an average adult burial with viewing and ceremony followed by burial, according to the National Funeral Directors Association. .

Michigan does not limit the disposal of cremated remains, and some family members choose to scatter the remains or keep them at home.

News Photo by Julie Riddle Tom Hilberg waters flowers at the grave of his son, Bradley Hilberg, at Holy Cross Cemetery in Alpena on Monday.

This option helps some people cope with a death, but it may deprive others of a designated place to visit to process their loss, said Chad Esch, funeral director at Bannan Funeral Home in Alpena.

“People deserve a piece of granite with their name on it,” he said. “Proof that someone cared about them at some point.”

He has helped families place a marker on an empty grave decades after a death so they have a place to visit.


Even more drastic than the rise in cremations is a drastic drop in traditional funeral services.

Many families are delaying funerals or memorial services for months or not requesting any service at all, local funeral directors say.

The movement towards delayed or non-existent services was accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic, when people banned from gathering discovered they could mark the death without long-standing funeral traditions.

However, delayed serves often result in a scab of emotional injury being ripped off, Esch said.

Many families plan a service months later, only to find the family can’t attend, and the community — which would have rallied shortly after the death — moved on, Esch said.


Whether to save money or to stave off grief, trends toward cremation and distancing from public services can rush survivors before a crucial chance to let those affected by a death say goodbye, said Jeff Faircloth, funeral director at McWilliams Funeral Home in Alpena.

“It’s final,” Faircloth said of the cremation process. “Once that happens, that’s it. This opportunity does not return.

Deaths without services or burial can take an emotional toll on funeral directors, who also need closure as the last person to spend time with a body, Faircloth said.

More pressingly, he worries that funeral trends nationwide reflect a society that prioritizes the disposable.

“As a society, we devalue life and the life lived,” Faircloth said. “Not just life, but the value that our elderly have.”

Yet, he acknowledged, grief is deeply personal and those in the midst of it must decide what they need in order to be able to heal.


Even those who shun tradition may yearn for some ritual.

Local funeral directors say people are increasingly asking for creative additions to services to celebrate the lives of their loved ones. Others request medallions containing the cremated remains of a loved one or bearing the imprint of a fingerprint.

At Karpus Hunter and Ross Funeral Home in Alpena, fewer families than elsewhere are requesting cremation services, said funeral director Eric Ross.

When he bought the business in April after many years working at another local funeral home, Ross was shocked to find that at least half of the customers still wanted traditional casket burials.

He attributes the anomaly to the funeral home’s traditional connection to Catholicism, although the business serves all faiths.

The Catholic Church has allowed cremation for decades, but encourages the burial of cremated remains.

Whether in old or new ways, people want to commemorate a loved one, Ross said.

Once relegated to the coasts, options like green burials and living urns — which use human remains to feed the root system of a tree or shrub — have made their way to northeast Michigan, including recently planted live urns under hydrangea bushes in Alpena, Ross said.

Whatever the method, those in loss need to find what helps them say goodbye, he said.

“It’s part of the healing process,” Ross said. “Whether it’s a fingerprint, a necklace or a tree.”

Julie Riddle can be reached at 989-358-5693 or Follow her on Twitter @jriddleX.

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