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Cremation: A Logical Choice For an Expat Here

by Garland M Baker on November 1, 2004

Tomorrow is All Souls’ Day, a Roman Catholic time to commemorate the departed, believed to be in Purgatory. The day purposely follows All Saints’ Day, today, in order to shift the focus from those in Heaven to those in Purgatory.

Regardless of how difficult it may be to admit, death is a part of life everyone must face. How one deals with death is as important as how one deals with life.

In Guanacaste, Costa Rica it is a custom of the local people in small towns to have a party for someone who has died when that person is considered to have lived a full and fulfilling life and has left no unfinished business behind.

It is important to leave a plan for loved ones. Most people only think about death in terms of a will. A will is only part of a good succession plan. Another important element of a good plan is leaving instructions on one’s preference as to burial or cremation.

Most Costa Ricans do not embrace cremation, but many other countries do. Cremation has expanded rapidly worldwide. Since 1973, the number of cremations in North America has more than tripled. Countries such as Japan (97 percent), Great Britain (70 percent) and Scandinavia (over 65 percent) continue to show a high percentage of cremations. It’s predicted that by the year 2010, cremations in the U.S. will be close to 40 percent.

For expats here, cremation frequently is the most practical solution because a normal body is reduced to about six pounds of granular material that can easily be shipped.

The word cremation comes from the Latin word cremo which means “to burn,” particularly the burning of the dead. Most archaeologists believe that cremation was invented during the Stone Age, about 3000 B.C. It was most likely first used in Europe or the Near East. It became the most common method of disposing of bodies by 800 B.C. in Greece, and 600 B.C. in Rome.

When Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, and the followers of other religions were exiled, exterminated or burned at the stake, burial became the only method of disposing of bodies of good Christians throughout Europe.

Not until an Italian professor developed the first modern cremation chamber in the 1870s did a movement towards cremation in Europe and North America begin, which has continued to the present day.

People’s increasing mobility drives much of the new interest in cremation. People often retire to another state or country away from their children. So there is less ancestry tieing them to a community and to a community cemetery.

There are other factors, including the lower cost of cremation and high sensitivity to environmental concerns, driving this choice. Some also believe that fire purifies at death and releases the spirit from the body.

Jardines de Recuerdo pioneered cremation in Costa Rica with its sponsored regulation “Reglamento de Cremación de Cadáveres y Restos Humanos” on Nov. 25, 1986. The funeral firm brought the first cremation oven to the country in 1985. Over the years, most of the cremations done by Jardines de Recuerdo have been preformed for foreigners. However, slowly the trend is catching on among Costa Ricans. Currently, cremations are estimated to be about 15 percent of deaths in Costa Rica, compared to the United States, 25.5 percent, and Canada’s 42.7 percent.

Article 5 of the regulation states that all bodies to be cremated need to undergo an autopsy and that a permit must be issued by health officials. Both procedures are now easily accomplished, and done at the crematorium in most cases.

Cremation costs around $2,000 today in Costa Rica. Transporting a body from anywhere in Costa Rica to San José for cremation costs about 500 colons per kilometer. There are no choices of urns at the funeral parlor, they only have one model, but some interesting alternatives exist in the market. For example, Biesanz Woodworks offers a cremation box in wood. There are no services currently offering the spreading of ashes in Costa Rica. The urn provided by Jardines de Recuerdo is hermetically sealed and the company can provide a special authorization to transport remains out of the country. Jardines de Recuerdo is currently the only funeral company in Costa Rica offering cremation.

The American Citizen Services Section of the U.S. Embassy provides assistance to Americans in their time of need. The section can be reached at 519-2000 ext. 2452. For an American who dies in Costa Rica, the embassy supplies a death and export certificate for families to return their loved one home.

It is a good idea to have a Costa Rican attorney prepare a legal brief and have it written in a notary book regarding wishes of cremation. Even though it is not 100 percent necessary, the document can expedite the process if no other immediate family members can be located at the time of death. It is also a great idea to pre-pay either a burial or a cremation because one can lock in a price today for a service that hopefully won’t be needed for a long time.

Most attorneys in Costa Rica do not understand that a will is just part of a good succession plan. Everyone should have a good plan to help the living. Deciding on a choice of burial or cremation is just one step. Other aspects to consider are how property will be transferred or distributed among heirs. Probate in Costa Rica is a difficult and time consuming process, as it is in many countries of the world. There are many things to consider creating a good succession plan before one dies, and today is a good day to reflect on all of them.

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