When we buried my mother’s ashes, my sister and I tucked a pack of cigarettes into the urn vault. Mom literally had been a diehard smoker—she died of complications from COPD—and we figured she’d be hankering to light up once she got to her destination. We neglected to include a lighter, however—our final rebellion against her nasty habit.
Our small gesture was representative of a much larger trend when it comes to funerals today: personalization. We baby boomers have been a force for change in a lot of ways—think civil rights, reproductive freedom, and rock and roll, to name just a few. And now we’re kicking tradition to the curb when we kick the bucket.
How? Well, we weren’t labeled the “Me Generation” for nothing. Unlike our grandparents who pretty much left things up to their local funeral home, we boomers are taking charge and customizing our final sendoffs (and often those of our parents) to reflect our uniqueness. No stodgy cookie-cutter rituals for us.
- For a deceased Canada man who’d owned a racetrack and several race cars, the hearse took a ceremonial lap around the racetrack while family members drove the race cars; at the last turn, the cars slowed while the hearse pulled ahead and took the checkered flag
- An upstate New York funeral featured a jazz band playing on the porch of the funeral home during calling hours for a deceased music lover
- For a late artist’s visitation, the funeral home was turned into a sculpture gallery showcasing the deceased’s work
- A Rams football fan requested a Super Bowl-style service with yard line-marked artificial turf laid over the funeral home’s carpet; attendees entered on the 50-yard line while the casket was set in the end zone
- Gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson had his ashes fired from a cannon, accompanied by fireworks, to the tune of “Spirit in the Sky” and “Mr. Tambourine Man”
- Many of the environmentally conscious among us are opting for “green” burials, with interment done in a biodegradable casket, with no embalming fluid or concrete vaults, ensuring that the burial site remains as natural as possible
In an attempt to accommodate our desires for different, funeral homes are adopting a marketing mindset and, for better or worse, expanding their offerings to entice us with such innovations as:
- Themed viewing rooms, like an award-winning “Big Momma’s Kitchen” that features a Sunday dinner setting with fried chicken platters on the stove and loaves of Wonder Bread on top of the fridge, and a cowboy-themed room where your loved one can ride off into the sunset one last time (a covered wagon is used to transport the casket instead of a traditional hearse)
- Grief therapy dogs to help comfort mourners (because, says one proprietor, “The best medicine always wags its tail”)
- Drive-through viewing, so you can stay in your car, ride by the window and see the departed; the owner says he sees this as an option during inclement weather and for mourners with disabilities. Would you like fries with that?
- A food service to send grieving families a home-cooked, frozen sympathy meal in lieu of flowers
- An onsite Starbucks at a South Carolina funeral home, because nothing says “I’m sorry for your loss” like sipping a double-shot, non-fat, vanilla soy mocha latte while paying your respects
- A Florida funeral home with a full-service wine cellar; says the general manager, “[People] still want to celebrate and…mourn their loved ones…but they don’t want to do it over a person’s body.”
The drive for personalizing our passing also is spawning a rash of entrepreneurial ventures:
- Life Gem makes a diamond made from your loved one’s ashes as “a memorial to their unique and wonderful life”
- A number of companies will incorporate cremated remains into professional-grade fireworks displays, so you can really go out with a bang
- Celestis enables you to launch a symbolic portion of cremated remains into Earth orbit, onto the moon’s surface or into deep space
- Eternal Reefs will mix cremains with concrete and make a “reef ball,” an artificial reef that’s placed on the ocean floor—a new twist on swimming with the fishes
- ‘Til We Meet Again produces custom caskets and urns, such as caskets in the shape of vintage cars, urns that look like motorcycle gas tanks custom-painted to match the owners’ bikes, pool cue urns for the ashes of pool players, and hollowed-out golf balls, so each member of the family can share a portion of the deceased golfer’s ashes
- A Missouri artist creates one-of-a-kind paintings with cremated remains, mixing them with pigment to create a “lasting memory” composition you can hang on the wall
- A Dutch guy has created a “memory box” that includes a hand-blown glass dildo containing a small gold-plated urn to hold up to 21 grams of the dearly departed’s cremains, giving an entirely new meaning to the phrase “getting your ashes hauled”
And Michelle Cromer has even written the book on creative ways to make your leave-taking out of the ordinary; it’s entitled “Exit Strategy: Thinking Outside the Box.”
Now I don’t mean to be flip about death and dying. When the grief is fresh and raw, sometimes we default to ritual and tradition because it’s just too hard to do otherwise. That’s why my sister and I waited a year before holding a celebration of my mother’s life, so we could make choices about her service with clearer heads and stronger hearts.
But the reality is, none of us is getting out of here alive. If we can make conscious decisions—in advance—about the inevitable, including how we want to mark our passing, it makes it a whole lot easier on those who are left behind. It’s also a powerful reminder that life is short, and we should live our lives fully, here and now.
According to a survey by Batesville Casket Company, almost half of baby boomer respondents want to throw a big party when they die. I’m in that camp. Because I’d like my final sendoff to be a music- and laughter-filled celebration of the life I lived rather than a somber ritual of mourning the one I lost.
A funeral’s the
Shouldn’t it be fun?
What do you think? Have you thought about what kind of service or memorial you’d like to have when you die? Have you made your wishes known to your loved ones?