Riverside Cemetery opens new site for cremains

lfabian@macon.comSeptember 19, 2013 

When Cecil Coke Jr. started working at Riverside Cemetery in 1974, cremation was a rarity.

“We buried about five cremations a year,” Coke said while driving through the historic burial grounds, which has records dating back to 1887.

The practice has become so common in recent years that the cemetery has designed a new 162-niche columbarium, an above-ground resting place for ashes. It is at least 25 percent cheaper than traditional burial plots.

The practice of cremation is not new.

When money was scarce during the Depression era, Hart’s Mortuary began cremating remains in 1931.

“Back then, the only reason people chose cremation was because it was a less expensive alternative to burial,” said Milton Heard IV, president of Hart’s Mortuary and Crematory. “Now they prefer cremation to burial.”

In the ’90s, Heard estimates that cremations accounted for 10 percent of their business. Now it’s more than 40 percent.

A 2007 report from the National Funeral Directors Association put the cremation rate at 35 percent six years ago.

“Now it’s becoming more common to think about memorializing when you have a cremation,” Heard said.

Coke’s parents opted for cremation before his father died in 2003.

Their remains are encased in a marble bench that serves as a grave marker on the family plot.

“Not everybody has the luxury of having a cemetery lot to put something like that on,” said Coke, Riverside’s president.

Other cremains are buried at Riverside and one of the mausoleums has smaller niches for urns, but the new columbarium is the first of its kind in the area, Coke said.

Freestanding compartments can be purchased and trucked to a cemetery, but Riverside’s brick memorial wall was built on site.

Architect Shannon Fickling kept the design on a human scale with all the spaces within arm’s reach, compared to some that are 20 feet tall, Coke said.

The new wall-like structure is a short walk down from the main mausoleum. It frames new estate plots that back up to a hill where there is room for construction of future columbariums.

Crape myrtles flank the site, and the estate section is landscaped with roses, camellias and long-living ginkgo trees.

Each niche can hold two small containers of ashes, but decorative urns are not required.

People can get as creative as they wish, as long as the container can be properly sealed and will fit within the 12-inch aluminum frame inside the wall.

Coke has buried cremains in a purse, jewelry box and a piece of china.

When considering cremation, it’s important for people also to think about where they will be stored, he said.

“People ought to pick a spot while they’re living and the children won’t have to worry about whether they’ll take them home and put them on the mantel or the TV or dump them in the rose garden,” Coke said. “Think about it. You’ll sell that house one day.”

Nowadays, more people are splitting up ashes among relatives, or burying some and putting others in a keepsake.

“We can put a small amount in a hollowed-out cross or for necklaces and smaller containers,” Heard said. “We can order a sculpture with cremains inside glass.”

Another benefit of having someone’s cremains interred is the preservation of historical records at cemeteries like Riverside.

“In theory, you can pick up ashes, scatter them and never run an obituary,” Heard said. “Someone could just be gone.”

Future generations looking for their ancestors would have nowhere to turn.

Having a place to visit and a memorial marker can help families find closure, Coke said.

Names and dates will be inscribed on the granite.

If a church had enough members choosing to be interred there, a permanent memorial marker or wall could be erected, Coke said.

Although the columbarium is designed to be a final resting place with sealed, nonporous compartments, it does offer flexibility for loved ones in a mobile society, Coke said.

“If you transfer or something, we can arrange to have it moved to wherever you are.”

To contact Liz Fabian, call 744-4303.

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