Log in


Cremations, ash keepsakes, celebrations growing in popularity


SUN CITY WEST — Scott Darby enjoys it when families attach meaning to a loved one’s life.

“We are meaning-making machines,” Darby said, describing the role of funeral home director at Camino del Sol in Sun City West in 2022. “We want to make our spaces a place to talk about loved ones — to attach meaning to that loss.”

Funeral homes and cremation services have been the home of many changes during the past few years — some of which were driven by the COVID-19 pandemic. The wants and needs of customers, whose finances are in flux, have changed as well.

Dan Salter is the president and general manager of Sunland Memorial Park Mortuary and Cremation Center in Sun City. He points out that here in the Valley, with so many blended families that blur geographic, cultural, generational and even continental ties, it’s important for everyone to write down what they’d like to see happen when they die.

“The kind of funeral or celebration of life you’d like might not necessarily be the same at 30 or 50 or 70,” Salter said. “Things change. Hobbies change. The people in your life change.”

The Cremation Association of North America says in 2021, the U.S. cremation rate was 57.5%. That alone was a jump from the 56.1% rate for 2020. By 2025, CANA estimates, the cremation rate will reach 64.1% in the U.S. and 81.8% in Canada.

Technology and approaches

Darby and Salter both said the interest in recording and, in many cases, livestreaming a funeral or celebration of life or memorial increased dramatically during the COVID-19 pandemic. The technology funeral homes put in place for such livestreams seems to be here to stay.

Where the two differ is on how certain age groups approach death in 2022.

“The older generation doesn’t want to talk about death,” Darby said. “The younger generation will talk about it. That’s good, because even though their parents are in the market, and they aren’t in the market yet, you really wanted to have as much planned out as you can. Emotional times are when you see emotional spending, and those are far from the best time to make decisions.”

Salter said age seems to have less to do with end-of-life planning as culture does. Adults with strong ties to a particular national, regional or religious culture tend to plan less, as there is an assumption they’ll follow cultural death and funeral traditions.

Those without as strong a tie to tradition are free to think about death, discuss it and make plans, he said.

“Money doesn’t have much to do with it,” he said. “That might affect ambitious or elaborate plans, but the thought and the planning doesn’t require money.”

Making plans

Darby said he wants all family members to feel like they have a role in a loved one’s remembrance. He said families becoming emotional at a funeral home or during planning or holding a memorial service is common.

“It’s another reason why each of us, while of sound mind and body, should write out exactly what we want to happen in our memorials and with our stuff,” he said.

Salter said cremations are chosen for 68% to 70% of all deaths his company attends to across the Phoenix metro.

“The number of cremations, compared to in-ground burials, has steadily gone up and up,” Salter said. “At one point, most places with cemeteries were encouraged to develop about 1 acre of land per year in anticipation. That’s not the case anymore.”

Darby, on the other hand, said cremations account for about 95% of Camino del Sol’s business — driven by several factors.

“One, you have Pope Francis saying in 2016 that cremation is acceptable for Catholics, as long as ashes are kept in an urn,” Darby said. “Plus, here in parts of the Valley with so many part-time residents and/or ties to places out of state, shipping cremains is much easier than transporting a body over a great distance.”

Darby points out the U.S. Postal Service is the only major courier that will ship cremains. Most other couriers, including UPS, FedEx and DHL, won’t do that.

“USPS does a pretty good job with it, too,” he said.

Many Americans have chosen to memorialize loved ones by storing all or part of their ashes in jewelry or other decorative storage displays. He said funeral homes often make and sell such displays and jewelry, Salter said.
Salter and Darby both said memorial services have become more important over time. This is true not only places like Arizona, they say, where being outdoors for a lengthy graveside service is arduous, but nationwide.
“We want to be able to say we helped a family tell a person’s story,” Salter said.

COVID-19 impact
Salter said COVID-19 applied additional anxiety to families. This was especially true in cases where a loved one died at home alone or at a medical or care facility, with no one able to say goodbye to them, leading up to or after death, because of restrictions.

“That was really rough,” Salter said. “Now, in addition to precautions we’ve always taken, we’re notified by the party reporting a death to us, that the person had COVID-19 or another communicable illness.”

Darby said while he appreciates a general move to more upbeat, positive celebrations of life as a means of dealing with grief, he realizes respect, tradition and natural sadness and high emotions are all still important elements.

“We really try to meet people where they are,” he said.