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Ashes to more ashes

High costs of burials, an increasingly mobile population, longer lifespans and changing religious mores have more and more people opting for cremation.

Published March 6, 2005

[Times photo: Scott Keeler]
Capt. John Polivick, president of Funeral At Sea in Largo, watches a biodegradable urn float away from his 30-foot boat three miles west of Clearwater Beach in the Gulf of Mexico. Polivick, 52, performs about 150 to 200 such funerals at sea a year.

Sometimes there are tears. Most times there aren't. But Capt. John Polivick almost always says a prayer. Short and wiry with a thick mane of gray hair, he leans over the stern of the boat, takes one last look at the thick, muddy trail of ashes swirling in the waves and begins to mutter the words:

"Do not stand at my grave and weep. I am not there; I do not sleep."

This tiny patch of the Gulf of Mexico is not the river Styx but it's as close as you can get to it in the Tampa Bay area. The Largo sea captain comes out here about once a month to scatter the cremated remains of his clients.

A former Catholic altar boy, Polivick is not big on fancy last rites, but he makes a decent living as a ferryman for the dead.

"It's definitely interesting work," Polivick said.

Polivick, 52, performs about 150 to 200 such funerals at sea a year. Some are attended by family members. Most are not. But either way, the price is hard to beat. Polivick charges $100 for an unattended scattering at sea and from $375 to $700 for funerals attended by up to 22 people.

Cremation is big business in the bay area and in Florida, and it's getting even bigger around the country. Cremation Association of North America executive director Jack Springer estimates cremation is about a $700-million-a-year business. It's also grown leaps and bounds in recent years. About 28 percent of those who died in 2003 were cremated rather than buried, according to the international death-care industry group. A little more than 40 percent of the dead will be cremated by 2025, or about seven times the number cremated in 1975, according to association estimates.

Changing religious and cultural mores and the rising cost of traditional burials are two reasons for the increase in cremation, Springer said. The Vatican's 1965 decision to allow members of the Catholic Church to chose cremation over burial is just one of many such changes.

But, Springer said, the fast pace of modern life and an increasingly mobile population account for much of the increase in recent decades.

"People are dying older and dying away from home, and that is the population that is driving cremation these days," Springer said.

That's especially true in Florida, a state that attracts retirees from all over the country. Nearly 50 percent of all deaths in the state resulted in cremation in 2003, according to the association, making Florida second in the nation after California in the highest number of cremations.

Those numbers help Polivick's Funeral At Sea and the Palm Harbor office of the Neptune Society do a brisk business. The cremation service company's office on U.S. 19 has been open for 10 years and has handled thousands of cremations, said manager Maryann Yannon. The company usually charges $1,399 for cremation and a no-frills, unattended funeral at sea that is usually handled by Polivick's company, she said.

Nationwide, the Neptune Society handled 20,000 pre-arranged cremations and an additional 9,000 deaths last year, said company president Jerry Norman. The company has 23 offices across the United States - and counting. One of the only publicly traded cremation service companies, the Neptune Society's stock price has grown in tandem with its national expansion and increasing demand for low-cost funeral options. The company's total revenue jumped from $5.6-million in December 2003 to $6.8-million in September 2004.

"We consider ourselves a Wal-Mart of the death-care business rather than a Nordstrom's," Norman said.

Norman credits discount pricing and a low-key sales pitch with the California-based company's success. While traditional funeral home directors and service companies have been known to take a "top-down" selling approach, pressuring grieving families into buying upscale burial packages at a time when they're most vulnerable, Neptune's base clientele typically pre-arrange their cremation, he said.

"It's not the smartest day to buy a new home. It's not the smartest day to buy a new car. It's definitely not the best day to spend thousands of dollars on a funeral," Norman said.

Yannon said many of her clients sign up for cremation because it gives them greater flexibility, allowing their families to hold a memorial when they want, where they want, at a price they can afford.

"It's nice for the families to have an alternative," Yannon said. "I have one family that couldn't decide what to do with the remains, so they're splitting it three ways."

But most who chose to be scattered at sea make those kind of decisions ahead of time. One day last week, Polivick and his friend Capt. Ben Dauterman, 60, sailed three miles off Clearwater beach and helped bid farewell to 30 people.

"It's kind of sad because it probably means they probably didn't have any loved ones with them at the end," Polivick said. He hefted a large lavender disposable urn in his hands. He gently lowered the ashes into a ring of floating gladiolas. "But it's what they wanted."

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Candace Rondeaux can be reached at 727 771-4307 or

[Last modified March 6, 2005, 00:14:20]

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