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Having the Last Word

Planning a funeral with personality.

By Jean Lang

The body of a 51-year old man was carried by a horse-drawn caisson in Dadeville, Ala from his house to the church. A procession of friends on ATVs escorted the casket along its two-mile trek. Everyone was dressed in camouflage, even the ministers.

Funerals are much more varied than they used to be, even in conservative Alabama, says Randy Anderson, who owns Radney Funeral Home in Alexander City, Alabama, and has been in the funeral business for more than 25 years.

“As of late, we’ve seen less and less church connections. Funerals are moving away from the religious, and becoming more personal,” says Anderson, who also serves as the treasurer and a board of director for the National Funeral Directors Association, (NFDA).

“Funerals are moving away from the religious, and becoming more personal.”

At the young man’s funeral, he says, the church was still a key part of the services, but other aspects were added. The deceased liked horses and all-terrain vehicles, so they were incorporated into the procession to the church. He also liked country music, so at least one of his favorite country tunes was included with more traditional church hymns, says Anderson.

At another service, Anderson remembers, fishing tackle was on display. “People are looking to do things to celebrate that life,’’ he says. “They want it to be upbeat.” Some funeral homes are even getting liquor licenses and offering food and alcohol on the premises. Alabama allows food, but not alcohol for such services. Anderson says at one reception, the funeral home provided tea cookies, made with a favorite recipe of the deceased’s.

Those who are in or have studied the funeral business say the trends have moved toward more public, personalized tributes, followed by an increasing number of cremations, some of which are driven by financial reasons, others by environmental concerns.

David Sloane, a professor of American History at the University of Southern California and author of several books, including “Is the Cemetery Dead?,” says families are looking to take back the reins from the institutions that controlled the burial processes, such as funeral homes, churches and other organized religions. And with that, tributes are becoming more personal and public, such as with roadside shrines, ghost bikes and vehicle memorial decals. (read an interview David Sloan here)

“People are looking to do things to celebrate that life. They want it to be upbeat.”

“When death isn’t as marginal, more people talk of death,” says Sloane. And while it’s still a topic that’s difficult for some to discuss, he says, more are trying to plan and make their final wishes known. Studies by the NFDA support this. Almost half (45.9 percent) of consumers attended a funeral at which non-clergy presided over the service, according to the NFDA’s July 2018 NFDA Cremation and Burial Report: Research, Statistics and Projections.

According to the NFDA, the number of people who felt a religious component in a funeral of a loved one is very important dropped from 49.5 percent in 2012 to 38.7 percent in 2018. “Thirty percent of consumers would consider using a celebrant, 48 percent would be interested in exploring green funeral options, 38.6 percent are either very interested or somewhat interested in donating their body for medical research and more than half (54.1 percent) have attended a funeral at a nontraditional location (e.g., outdoor setting, cemetery, personal residence and/or public venue),” says its website.

Their studies also found that people consider preplanning to be important, though it remains on most people’s to-do list: 74.5 percent of consumers indicated it was very important to communicate their funeral plans and wishes to family members prior to their own death; however, only 25.5 percent have prearranged all or part of their funeral.

Anderson says his funeral plans are among the hundreds of preplanned funeral files he has on hand and he pulls it out frequently when he thinks of something he wants to include or change.“Mine is planned, very well planned,” he says. To help others plan their funerals, he recommends looking at  the NFDA website, RememberingALife.com.

“Having the talk of a lifetime can make the difference of a lifetime. It can help reacquaint us with our loved ones and help us get to know them in a new and different way,” states the guide.There are other online guides as well, including those on www.funeralwise.com. The “Word to the Wise: A Series of Guides” helps inform people on everything from affordable funerals to funeral etiquette.

“The best time to plan a funeral is before you need it.’’

Because funerals can be more casual, guests want to know what to wear to one. The site advises not to “pick this time to be a rebel.” It suggests mourners consider where the service will be – i.e., beach more casual than a place of worship – and look to err on the side of dressing up as opposed to dressing down. It also says it’s ok to ask for advice from family members or the funeral director if you aren’t sure.

Molly Gorney, senior content developer for www.funeralwise.com, says the company encourages people to think about their funerals ahead of time. “The best time to plan a funeral is before you need it,’’ she says. People can often save money if they are not making the decisions in the throes of grief. “You don’t have to spend a lot of money to have a meaningful funeral,’’ she says.

Another of the “wise guys,” Social Media Editor Jenny Mertes, of FuneralWise, tells visitors to the website that she completed a burial plan after her husband died unexpectedly on his way home from work years ago. “Encouraging others to do the same is one of our aims at Funeralwise,” she says. “Have you? If not, do it today.”

Another online funeral planning service company, which was featured on “Shark Tank,” is mywonderfullife.com. It offers to help write your obituary and share stories and wishes with loved ones upon your death. The business was started by Sue Kruskopf and Nancy Bush after Nancy’s husband died of cancer at age 52. “Although he was sick for almost a year, it was hard for him to let his family know what he wanted, because he felt by ‘going there’ he would be giving up,” reads the website.

Nontraditional funeral services are on the uptick, though not new. In her book, “Funerals to Die For”, Kathy Benjamin recounts some interesting traditions and options that have been used over time throughout the world. She recounts the practice by some in the late 1800s in New England of drinking a “cocktail of water and their family member’s ashes in order to keep them from returning as vampires.” She also notes the desire by some today to be launched into space.

The website for Celestis memorial spaceflights offers packages, costing $1,895, to have remains sent into space and returned, and the Voyager option, which for $12,500 carries cremated remains or DNA on a permanent celestial journey into deep space.

Whatever the preferences, funeral experts urge people to make their wishes known. Gail Rubin, the “Doyenne or Death,” acknowledges on her “A Good Goodbye” website that “Funerals are the parties no one wants to plan,” but she says doing so can relieve stress, reduce costs and lead to a memorable goodbye. And as she likes to say, talking about funerals won’t kill you.


About the Writer

Jean Lang is a freelance writer and real estate agent in the Boston area. Her work has appeared in The Boston Globe, AARP Bulletin, and other publications. She is a former Associated Press reporter.


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