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Higher costs, plus anguish of sudden loss, push some black families to abandon traditional burial rituals

on December 1, 2011

When Deborah Thompson finally received a call in 2009 from her runaway daughter, Tamara, she was relieved but frightened. “I want to come home,” Tamara said. “But I’m caught up.” She wouldn’t say exactly where she was, and rushed off the phone. That was the last time Deborah spoke to her daughter. The next phone call Thompson received was from the Oakland Police Department. Tamara had been raped, strangled and left dead on a West Oakland street. She was 17 years old.

Thompson had raised her daughter in Mountain View, in Santa Clara County. But after Tamara met a guy online, she frequently traveled to Oakland. Thompson had warned her daughter of the danger, but Tamara did not listen. Now, the worst thing for any parent, ever—Thompson had to make a decision about her own child’s funeral.

Like many African American families in the Bay Area, Thompson’s family had migrated to California from the South. In Alabama and Texas, where her relatives were from, long-standing practice called for a proper burial when someone died. Thompson’s mother, father and uncles had all been memorialized in this way. There had been one cremation in the immediate family—Thompson’s brother, who was in prison and died of HIV complications so severe that prison officials told them cremation was probably the best option. But it had always been family tradition to arrange a funeral with an elegant casket, a viewing, and burial with a graveside service.

Thompson contacted Jones Mortuary, in East Palo Alto, to arrange her daughter’s service. That’s when she realized that the kind of funeral she had grown up with could cost her as much as $10,000 more than the simpler process of cremation. A state victim fund would help with some of the expenses, but Thompson was unemployed, and nobody budgets for their child’s sudden death. Thompson was overwhelmed with the process but she knew she had to make the decision.

Thompson isn’t the only one to have faced this decision. In Oakland’s and other Bay Area African American communities, where the standard funeral has traditionally included a casket and burial, more families— especially those who have suddenly lost a child to violence—are now considering cremation. When life insurance policies and prepaid burial plots do not exist, cremation is one way to help bereaved families alleviate financial strain.

“If some families had the money, they would probably bury their loved ones,” said Shirell Hall, who has worked in the funeral business for 21 years; for the last eight years she has served as the funeral director for Baker Mortuary in West Oakland. Baker Mortuary is the sister mortuary to Whitted-Williams Mortuary in East Oakland. Both among the most trusted funeral businesses in the city, they serve roughly 350 families a year, most of them African American.

Ten years ago, families at Baker would rarely choose cremation, Hall said—but now three of every five families elect that option. National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA) numbers indicate that this a national trend. The rate “has slowly but steadily increased,” said NFDA spokesperson Jessica Koth. In 2005, less than a third of American deaths were handled with cremation; by 2010 that number had grown to 40 percent. This increase is particularly striking in communities that have long relied on the traditional funeral and burial to honor the deceased.

As part of its current showroom renovation, for example, Baker Mortuary is preparing to display not only caskets but also a wide array of urns.

“It’s not so much that they’re headed in that direction,” said Baker staff administrator Robert Brown, referring to some families’ decision to elect cremation. “They just don’t have another choice.”

The coroner’s office charges the same initial expenses to families, regardless of whether the body is headed for cremation or burial. The funeral home then charges for transferring the body to its facility; Baker’s fee is $325 if the pickup location is within 25 miles.

After that, though, the prices differ. Direct cremation—with no service at all—costs $1350, Hall said. For a funeral service plus cremation, there’s a flat fee of $3895, which includes a limousine and casket for the service, and body transfer to the crematorium. Urns—brass, wood, or marble—range from $80 to $475. They come in different shapes and sizes. Families may also use their own covered containers to hold cremated remains.

For a burial, there is an array of other costs: $1,395 for paperwork; $650 for embalming; $175 to cover casketing, dressing, and cosmetics; and the burial casket itself, which can cost from $500 to $25,000. Hall says the most popular casket, the Gemini, comes in a variety of colors and is priced at $1195. Rental caskets are available for $700, but families are then responsible for a container to bury their loved one in.

The plot costs at least another $1200. Basic headstones—name, dates of birth and death, epitaph—can start at $2000 (online sites offer more affordable headstones, but cemeteries don’t have to be accountable for the upkeep of headstones brought in from outside). Pictures, vase holders, and fancier styles or kinds of stone, can raise prices to nearly $5000 for the headstone alone.

Depending on the cemetery chosen, the total cost for a traditional funeral and burial can reach nearly $15,000.

Laquita Johnson was confronted with the same tough decisions when her son Timothy Barnes, 24, was shot to death in East Oakland by unidentified gunmen in May. Johnson looked into burial costs, but “the price to throw dirt over your child is ridiculous,” she said. And when she thought about it, she decided burial wasn’t something she would be able to handle. The finality implied when burying your child was something she could not accept, Johnson said. Her youngest son wanted to bury Timothy, to have the option to visit Timothy’s gravesite, but ultimately they all agreed that cremation was the best choice.

Cremation served as a coping mechanism, allowing Johnson to still feel spiritually connected to Timothy even though he was physically gone. When the mortuary returned Timothy’s ashes, they were encased in two rectangular green marble containers. “I wasn’t ready to let him go,” she said. “Instead of going to that high burial ground, his burial ground is right here with me. I can talk to him every night and every morning when I wake up.” His ashes sit in a glass cabinet in the dining room next to his obituary and other childhood pictures.

Roger Kiel’s 19 year-old daughter Shanice, a student at San Francisco State University, was killed in October after attending a tattoo party in San Leandro. She agreed to give two more friends a ride home. As they were pulling away, someone fired on the car, leaving three of the six passengers dead. Shanice died instantly from a gunshot wound to the heart.

Kiel says he once witnessed a cremation after a close friend, who suffered from sleep apnea, suddenly died in his sleep. The family could not afford both a funeral and a burial plot, so they cremated him, and the friend’s wife asked Kiel to accompany her to the crematorium. He agreed, but watching the doors open and the body move into the furnace felt like watching the “gates of hell” open, Kiel said.

So when Kiel was notified of his daughter’s death, he was heartbroken—and very clear that cremation was not an option for his daughter.

“When I think of cremation, I think of burning trash,” Kiel said. “Nobody in my family has ever been cremated. I wanted to know that she would be resting the way I saw her last.” He said cremations are “too final” and don’t allow “the spirit to move on.”

Kiel is now waiting to hear from his insurance company to see if he will need extra money to pay for Shanice’s headstone, which is estimated at nearly $5000. He’s trying to sell his car, he said, to help with the costs of the headstone; he is willing to do whatever it takes to ensure his daughter’s final resting place is perfect.

“People cremate to save money,” Kiel said. “It doesn’t deal with love.”

As for Thompson, with the help of California’s Victim Compensation Program (CalVCP), she made her decision—cremation. CalVCP offers grants of up to $5000, for funeral expenses, to families for victims of violent crimes. When Tamara died that amount was $7500, which would have made a simple burial a possibility—but Thompson was sure she would not be able to handle the process. She held a funeral for Tamara, then had her remains transported for cremation.

“If it wasn’t for the assistance of CalVCP, paying for all of Tamara’s expenses, I don’t know what we would have done,” Thompson said.

She still dreams about her daughter. In a recent dream, her oldest daughter handed her the phone to talk to Tamara. Tamara said she was all right, but Thompson knew it wasn’t true because of the sound of her daughter’s breathing. Thompson woke with tears streaming down her face, but forced herself to stop. She knows that she must continue on with her life, she said, even though her daughter is no longer here.

Resting on top of a high mantle, Tamara’s ashes sit in a burgundy and gold colored brass urn. Sometimes Thompson takes the urn down and holds it.

“All I have is memories and bad dreams,” Thompson said. “I didn’t want to go there thinking I would talk to her at a gravesite. She is always with me.”


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