This season on Vanderpump Rules, a Bravo network reality television show, socialite Stassi Schroeder was featured describing her future funeral plans while ironically, planning her 29th birthday.
“At my wake I am going to have a glass of wine in my hand and people can come in a photo booth and take photos of me,” said Schroeder candidly.
In a later interview clip her friend Katie Maloney responded saying, “I hope I outlive her, just so I can go to her funeral.”
Naturally, working in the funeral industry this sparked my attention and got me thinking, what would I want at my funeral and would it be something my friends would want to outlive me for?
Personalization is for funerals as wheels are for cars, they are essential. The future generations coming into your funeral home will be expecting personalization on another level. Not the kind of personalization where a favorite bible verse is stitched into the casket panel or catering Chick- fil-A after the services because Aunt Sue loved chicken nuggets. We are talking a unique, one-of-a kind, truly personal, experience. From a compelling life-story obituary all the way down to funeral guest “swag bags.”
This January Terry Ward’s obituary went viral. Why? Because his daughter Jean wrote an obituary that made readers miss a man they never even knew. The obituary was full of humor and whit but was also authentic and genuine and it captivated readers everywhere.
“He enjoyed many, many things. Among those things were hunting, fishing, golfing, snorkeling, ABBA, hiking Turkey Run, chopping wood, shooting guns, Bed Bath & Beyond, starlight mints, cold beer, free beer, The History Channel, CCR, war movies, discussing who makes the best pizza, The Chicago White Sox, old Buicks, and above all, his family.”
These were just a few of the personal touches Ward’s daughter wrote in his obituary. In an interview with the Chicago Tribune Jean mentioned she was happy the humor resonated with readers, and working in the funeral industry herself, has seen “when families can come together, celebrate a life and truly laugh, it helps them heal.” After all, is this not what a funeral is for, a way to heal?
Dictionary.com defines “funeral” as; the ceremonies honoring a dead person. There is no right or wrong way to honor a loved one but if you can create a service that helps families heal even more, wouldn’t you want to?
Earlier I mentioned TV personality, Stassi Schroeder describing her funeral, and how she wants to have a photo booth at her wake, for her guests to take pictures with her in. While this may not be a typical request, Schroeder was not so far off the grid, as post-mortem photography was extremely common in Great Britain’s, Victorian Era. Having several epidemics, the Victorian era was plagued with death. During this time, post-mortem photography became a way of commemorating loved ones and healing grief. After researching I found several images from this era, including pictures of young children posing with their dead mother, siblings posing with their dead sister even an entire family with their pet cat surrounding their dead child.
Photography studios would take pictures and print them on cards to be delivered to friends and relatizves as mementos. Additionally, lockets and rings were often distributed with locks of hair cut from the dead. While some of the images are unsettling and the concept is taboo, this was just another way for families to morn their loved ones.
Memorialization and personalization has come in all forms from different cultures for decades. In Ghana, people want to be buried in coffins that represent something they loved or which represents their life’s work and passions. BUZZFEED highlighted this in a “29 Insanely Elaborate Custom Coffins From Ghana,” feature which showcased a Mercedes Benz coffin, several animal inspired coffins, an airplane, cinema projector, an ear of corn coffin and many more. This definitely moves personalization up another level.
Ever heard of a Balinese cremation? In Balinese tradition, cremation is a sacred tradition and is believed to release the soul to inhabit a new body. The island’s cremation ceremonies are nothing short of extravagant.
In 2008 the island performed its most lavish cremation for a royal family member and 68 commoners. Thousands carried a giant bamboo platform, wooden bull and dragon in an all-day procession and then placed the royal family member in the bull and burned it as the wooden dragon “stood witness.”
Of course, with each religion and culture come different personalization methods and ways to memorialize. Here in America as religious preferences change, ways to honor loved ones must evolve. Families are requesting unique funerals and pushing the boundaries on the “typical service,” and some funeral homes are adapting. Some have invested in catering and event spaces so funerals or “life celebrations” can include live music or dance performances. One funeral home even transformed their service and space into a complete custom Star Wars theme, including Storm Trooper pallbearers and Jedi word-shaped flower arrangements. With a new shift in demand for one-of-a kind personalization, a new event planning window has opened. Harper’s BAZAAR recently featured a funeral event planning company, Going Out In Style, which is comprised of women with backgrounds in wedding planning, editorial stylists, event designs, florists and art directors from top publications and designers. These women plan every detail from parting gift bags, gold wrapped fast food and monogrammed napkins down to a hair and make-up tutorial with a mortuary cosmetologist.
The new generations coming to your funeral home want an EXPERIENCE, one that helps them heal. However, this new trend offers some challenges to funeral professionals.
Challenge 1: Creativity. Some funeral professionals simply do not have a creative bone in their body.
Solution: Have trouble thinking outside of the box? The internet can help with that. GOOGLE, “unique funerals,” you will be surprised what comes up. Additionally, consider hiring a new team member that has event-planning experience or send one of your best to an outside-industry event planning seminar!
Challenge 2: Space and money. Most funeral homes are stretched for space, so where are you supposed to host large events?
Solution: Community or recreation centers, local schools, churches, or possibly a friend with a large event space? Network, you are already a pillar of your community so reach out to other leaders and friends and see what spaces you can use for free or rent! You could negotiate a win-win option to rent the space for free, if their event planning or catering services are used by your family. The funeral industry is full of comradery. Is there a funeral home in a nearby town that would partner on an event center with you? Want to add on to your existing building but do not have the money? There are several respected funeral industry leaders specializing in financing and loans for funeral homes to contact.
Challenge 3: Payment. You are probably thinking these ideas sound great, but the reality is, families are struggling to pay for basic services or cutting service options to save money.
Solution: Outsource to an insurance assignment funding company. For starters three in five people walking into your funeral home will have some form of life insurance. Additionally, did you know families will pay 31% more for a service if they have a life insurance policy? It is money they already have and if you work with a funding company that can get you accurate information and fund the money within 24 hours, why not? Most funding companies can advance policy funds beyond funeral costs within a day as well. So, you are covered for the deposit you need to put down immediately for the Cirque du Soleil performer the family wants. The best part, funding companies are no cost to funeral professionals and there is no out-of-pocket expense to the family.
Memorialization does not have to stop after the funeral service is over. As we saw after this year’s Super Bowl, parade attendees brought their loved one’s ashes with them to events and some even scattered remains. When families leave your funeral home, they do not stop thinking about their loved one. What if you could play a part in this remembrance, to continually aid in the healing process? Chances are you have celebrated a five, ten or 20-year high school reunion. What are you celebrating? The memories of high school and how you have grown as individuals. Well, what if you did the same thing for your families and offered an option for them to come back and continually celebrate, such as an annual remembrance service?
Families come back to your funeral home when you have created a positive experience during their difficult time. Research new ideas, talk with your staff about what they have seen, read and heard, have brainstorming sessions and strategize plans to continually evolve the services you offer so you can meet the demands of the families of the future.
After researching ways to personalize funerals, while I do not have a complete plan for my funeral, I do have some ideas I think would make my friends want to outlive me for.