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August 1999

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The first U.S. crematorium was established in Washington, Pennsylvania in 1876. 3

Ashes to Ashes, or the Worm's Lament

It costs me never a stab nor squirm
To tread by chance upon a worm.
?Aha, my little dear,? I say,
Your clan will pay me back one day.?

Dorothy Parker 1

Trends | Demographic Characteristics | Oregon vs. the U.S.

Alas, for more and more Oregonians, this is no longer true. We are cheating our vermiform cousins of their rightful due. For the first time, more than half of all Oregonians who died were cremated. During the past several decades, the proportion of decedents who were cremated has increased inexorably. By 1997, and for the first time, just over half of all resident deaths ended in cremation. 2 This article briefly summarizes the demographic characteristics of Oregon residents by type of disposal of remains, information not available from the Center for Health Statistics? Vital Statistics Annual Report , but requested by data users with some frequency.

Cremation has been practiced for millennia; European pottery vessels from the Neolithic period have been found filled with human ashes. 3 Cremation was the preferred burial custom in Europe between 1400 B.C. and 200 A.D., but by the Third Century Christianity had become widely accepted and with it the doctrine that forbade cremation (because of the belief that the body could not be resurrected if it were destroyed). Since the late 1800s, however, cremation has become an increasingly popular option. (In other parts of the world, such as India and Japan, there was no gap in the practice of cremation.) Economic and sanitary considerations are the principal reasons for the increased number of cremations in recent years. 3

Figure 1.
Disposal of Remains, Oregon Residents, 1980-97
(6K GIF)

In less than a generation, the proportion of Oregon decedents who were cremated more than doubled (Figure 1). In 1980, the first year such data were recorded, 23 percent of Oregonians who died were cremated while 65 percent were buried. By 1997, the figures were 50 percent and 39 percent, respectively. During the same time period, internment in a mausoleum became less common while removal of remains (out-of-state) became more common.

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Gender, age, race/ethnicity, years of education and county of residence are all linked to the method of disposal of remains. Table 1 presents the percentages of persons who were buried or cremated.

Gender. In 1980, males were only marginally (4.5 percent) more likely to be cremated than were females. Over time, however, this difference has continued to widen so that by 1997 males were cremated 13 percent more often than were females.

Age. Cremation is the selected option more often by/for middle-aged Oregonians than by/for their younger or older peers. Nearly two-thirds of 45-to 54-year-olds (65 percent) were cremated after death compared to about two-fifths of children ages 14 or less (37 percent) and elderly ages 85 or older (41 percent).

Race/ethnicity. Race/ethnicity, and its concomitant cultural practices, is strongly linked with the chosen method of disposal of remains. Those least likely to choose cremation were Chinese Oregonians (27 percent) while those most likely to do so were Japanese Oregonians (69 percent).

Education. Strongly correlated with the manner of disposal of remains are the years of education of the decedent -- the greater the number of years of education, the more likely the decedent was to be cremated. Among adults 25 or older, just 32 percent of those with no education were cremated compared to 63 percent of those with a post-baccalaureate education, a twofold difference.

Figure 2.
Percentage of Decedents Cremated, by County of Residence, Oregon, 1997
(22K GIF)

County of residence. A striking geographic pattern is apparent across the state with as much as a nine-fold difference in cremation rates between counties (Table 2). Curry County, the county with the highest cremation rate for residents dying in Oregon (72 percent), is the state?s most southwestern county (Figure 2)(22K GIF). Trending northeast from Curry County, a pattern of decreasing likelihood of cremation extends along a southwest-northeast axis ending in Wallowa County, the county with the lowest cremation rate (8 percent). The reason for this pattern is unclear, but the distribution of crematoria may be a factor.

Occupation. In general, white-collar decedents and/or those in analytical/creative occupations were most likely to be cremated while lower education blue-collar workers were least likely. Table 3 lists the occupations in which the decedents were most and least likely to be cremated. 4

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Nationally, 21 percent of all decedents were cremated in 1996, a figure less than half that seen for Oregon. 5 (During 1996, 36 percent of Canadian decedents were cremated, but in British Columbia the figure was 65 percent.) Like Oregon, the U.S., too, shows marked geographic patterns in the proportion of decedents cremated. Rates are highest in the western states and lowest in the southern states (except for Florida). In 1996 (the most recent available data), Oregon?s cremation rate (48 percent) tied for fifth highest nationally. The states with the highest proportions of cremations were: Hawaii, 58 percent; Alaska, 55 percent; Nevada, 54 percent; Washington, 49 percent; and Montana, 48 percent. The five states with the lowest proportions of cremations were: Mississippi, 4 percent; Alabama, 6 percent; Kentucky, 6 percent; West Virginia, 6 percent; and Oklahoma, 6 percent.

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1. Parker, Dorothy. Thought For A Sunshiny Morning, Scholastic, May 23, 1936.
2. The most recent year available.
3. Infopedia. Funk and Wagnall?s New Encyclopedia. SoftKey International Inc. 1996.
4. Based on all Oregon residents who died during 1996-97 and for which more than 25 deaths were recorded by occupation.
5. The most recent available national and Canadian data are for 1996 from the Internet Cremation Society

Center for Health Statistics
Health Services
Oregon Department of Human Resources
800 NE Oregon Street, Suite 225
P.O. Box 14050
Portland, Oregon 97214-0050

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