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Funerals for your lifestyle

Friends and relatives want to mourn in a setting that reminds them of the dearly departed, so mortuaries are getting personal.

October 13, 2002|Roy Rivenburg | Times Staff Writer

Except for the coffin, it looks like an ordinary kitchen. A steaming kettle sits on the stove and the smell of brownies wafts through the air.

The scene is part of a St. Louis mortuary that is trying to reinvent modern funerals by replacing traditional chapel decor with themed sets reflecting the deceased's hobbies. Elsewhere on the premises, caskets have been parked next to a fake bowling alley, makeshift movie theater and a small pond brimming with catfish and a sign that says, "Gone fishing."

The idea is to create more meaningful send-offs for the dearly departed. "Instead of cookie-cutter funerals, this helps the family celebrate what the person was all about," says Aaron Grimes, Wade Funeral Home branch manager.

"People want something unique," agrees Michael Kubasak, a Burbank mortician who helped pioneer themed burials by installing a boxing ring in his chapel for the 1988 funeral of a fighter.

Coffin manufacturers are also getting in on the act. For instance, hunters can now be laid to rest in caskets lined with camouflage-colored fabric. And the Batesville Casket Co. of Indiana recently introduced a line of small sculptures that attach to the corners of coffins. The figurines include golf clubs, flowerpots, a big-mouthed bass and "the Angel of Color" (an African American version of the company's popular white-angel statuette).

Cremated ashes can spend eternity inside special birdbaths, wind chimes, duck decoys and maybe even Frisbees. Before his death in August, Ed Headrick, the man who invented Frisbee golf and added grooved ridges to Wham-O's famous disc, asked to have his ashes mixed into a new batch of Frisbees. His family plans to honor the request.

"He said he wanted to end up in a Frisbee that accidentally lands on someone's roof," his son told the San Francisco Chronicle.

The rise in personalized send-offs is fueled by baby boomers. The generation that dumped traditional wedding ceremonies in favor of nuptials at the beach or aboard hot-air balloons is now taking aim at funeral customs, Kubasak says. Joe Weigel, a spokesman for Batesville, agrees: "In the mid-1990s, we started hearing from a new type of consumer. They wanted something more individualized."

At a 1999 funeral directors convention, Batesville displayed coffins in elaborate dioramas themed for farmers, jazz musicians, gardeners and hunters. When Wade Funeral Home officials eyed the displays, they took the idea and ran with it.

In one case, for a barbecue-themed service, Wade staffers put a chunk of dry ice inside a Weber-style grill so smoke would billow out whenever someone lifted the lid. They also hid a microwave oven in the next room and periodically nuked a rib sandwich for authentic barbecue aroma. Lawn furniture and umbrellas completed the scene.

For a movie buff's visitation service, Wade rented a big-screen TV, draped black fabric around the sides to mimic theater curtains, microwaved some buttered popcorn and plopped down three rows of old wooden seats next to the coffin. A VCR played the deceased's favorite film, "The Color Purple."

"People were actually sitting in the chairs, eating the popcorn and watching the movie," says Grimes, whose imaginative props have earned him the nickname "Mr. Disney" at the funeral parlor. "That tells you how relaxed the sets make guests feel."

Nearly half of Wade's customers now opt for themed visitations or funerals, which are offered at no extra charge. The concept has been such a smash that Wade's parent company, Tucson-based Perpetua Inc., plans to go nationwide with it. "I want to change the face of funeral services," says Perpetua boss Slivy Edmonds Cotton, who previously owned an auto emission testing company. Over the next decade, she hopes to establish a chain of 50 funeral parlors modeled after Wade.

Mark Musgrove, an Oregon mortician who also serves as treasurer of the National Funeral Directors Assn., says the concept of personalized funerals is rapidly catching on. "We've had everything from canoes to bikes to Grandma's rocking chair at our services," he says. "One lady loved cows, so we had a tape player that mooed."

Perhaps the most legendary send-off took place at Burbank's Valley Funeral Home. To memorialize a former prizefighter, Kubasak rented a portable boxing ring, set it up in the chapel with a microphone and invited guests to step into the ring to deliver eulogies. At the end of the service, Kubasak clanged a bell 10 times.

It wasn't his first such effort. Kubasak had been dabbling in personalized funerals since the late 1970s. "I've been saying for years that the funeral home of the future isn't going to look anything like what we have today," he says.

If so, St. Louis' Wade Funeral Home could be a harbinger. The mortuary's first themed chapel, which debuted in mid-2001, was a Victorian-style parlor with flowered wallpaper and antique chairs. "It's a throwback to the days when visitations were held at the person's home," Cotton says.

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