MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. (WBTW) — Only a few decades ago, a body would need to be transported all the way to Jacksonville, Fla., if someone wanted to be cremated.
Now, as more people are choosing cremation over burial in South Carolina, it’s become the overwhelmingly popular funeral option in Myrtle Beach.
“The closer you get to beach sand, the higher the cremation rate goes,” said Jim Bowdre, the manager and owner of Myrtle Beach Funeral Home and Crematory.
He estimates that about 90% of his clients — who are mostly retirees from elsewhere — choose cremation over traditional burial. In South Carolina, the cremation rate was anticipated to surpass the burial rate for the first time around 2020, according to data from the National Funeral Directors Association. The state’s cremation rate, which was 20% in 2019, is expected to reach 76.1% by 2040.
Cremation rates have traditionally been lower in South Carolina, and throughout the South, than compared to the rest of the nation. The South Atlantic region, which includes South Carolina, has a cremation rate of 55.1%. It’s the highest in the Pacific Region, at 69.3%, and the lowest in the East South Central region, at 34.8%.
Of the 80 crematories in the state, 10 are in Horry County, according to licensing data from the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control.
The National Funeral Directors Association attributes the rising cremation rate to factors like cost, environmental concerns and religions that have lifted prohibitions on the practice.
In Horry County, cost is a factor, but it partly stems from the area’s influx of retirees, according to Atu Williams, who owns Ocean View Funeral Homes and Cremation Services, which has locations in Myrtle Beach and Conway.
“They don’t have any cemetery plots like they would if they were from another state, and were raised in another state, and grew up in another state, with families buried in cemeteries,” Williams said.
He said Ocean View’s clients are mostly locals, and that about 28% are choosing cremation. He’s recently added a crematory to the Myrtle Beach location, which he said makes Ocean View the first African American-owned crematory in the area, and one of only a handful in the state.
The Black population, Williams said, is starting to choose cremations more frequently.
He expects cremations to make up at least half of all his death calls by the end of the decade.
But while cremation is becoming popular for cost-conscious customers, it also poses a threat to the funeral home industry.
Funeral home revenue is forecasted to decrease as more cremations are performed, according to a 2020 report from the National Funeral Directors Association. Despite being in the majority, cremations only make up 5.6% of the industry’s annual revenue.
“The increasing cremation rate has been the most significant challenge to the funeral service industry because cremation is generally performed at a much lower cost than casketed burial,” the report reads.
While Blacks are seeing cremation as the less-expensive option, Williams said the business hasn’t seen a significant financial hit.
“With our cremations with African Americans, they are starting to do a lot of traditional funerals, and cremate afterward,” he said.
Bowdre said that he set up Myrtle Beach Funeral Home and Crematory because he saw a need to provide a funeral home that specialized in cremations.
“We actually developed a plan to handle the cremations that we are doing, which we are able to take care of, to the point where we are able to pay our bills,” he said.
Decades ago, when he worked in Virginia, Bowdre handled one cremation every five years.
Out of the 700 clients he sees annually in Myrtle Beach, about 95% are from out of the area. He’ll receive calls from out-of-state funeral homes clients had made burial plans with, but since bodies cost $3,000 to be shipped, the funeral homes will often get authorization from the family for their loved one to be cremated in Myrtle Beach.
Retirees, he said, also don’t want to spend $12,000 on a burial when they could spend $1,200 on a cremation.
“The biggest thing is the expense, I think,” he said. “A lot of people that are retired here, they don’t spend money wildly like we do in our youth. They have learned to tighten their belt and make due with the assets that they have.”
Kelton Lewis, who owns Lewis Crematory and Funeral Services in Myrtle Beach, said the difference in burial and cremation rates vary even between Conway and Myrtle Beach.
“You see a lot of difference across the waterway with the traditional funerals, versus when you cross the waterway to Myrtle Beach, because of how many people moved to the Myrtle Beach area,” he said.
A lot of local families who have traditionally chosen burials, he said, are now switching to cremation.
After being in the business for 30 years, he estimates that 90% of his business is now cremations.
“The people I knew wouldn’t have thought about cremation back then,” he said.
More than half of funeral homes nationwide have seen an increase in cremations due to the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the National Funeral Directors Association. Lewis’s business, which normally sees 28 to 30 cremations a month, performed 48 in February.
Although he said it’s too early for him to estimate if the pandemic will expedite the rise in cremations, he doesn’t see the practice slowing down.
“I don’t see it going back to the way it was,” Lewis said.