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Life of the Deceased Takes Center Stage

Themed funerals offering sets that include props, photos and special effects gain in popularity -- especially among baby boomers.

October 27, 2002|Tiffany Kjos | Arizona Daily Star

TUCSON — The meat is on the grill, the sodas are on ice, and family and friends are swapping memories about their favorite barbecue chef.

In the hub of it all lies Uncle Harry -- in his coffin.

Themed bereavement services, where the life of the deceased -- not ceremony -- takes center stage, could be the future of the funeral industry. And a Tucson company is leading the way.

Perpetua Inc., a Tucson-based owner of funeral homes, hopes to eventually go nationwide with its near-theater-quality sets complete with props, photos and special effects that depict people's lives and interests, from sports to cooking to movies.

The personalized visitation and funeral services appeal to modern consumers, who are used to getting what they want -- not being told what they're going to get.

Slivy Edmonds Cotton, Perpetua's chairman and chief executive, first learned of the fledgling concept through an industry association. She knew immediately that she'd found a new direction for her company, which owns four Midwest and East Coast funeral homes.

"I thought, 'OK, this is my calling -- to change the face of funeral services in the United States,' " she said. "That's a pretty grand statement, but really, that's what we feel we're doing."

The concept is taking off fast. One Perpetua funeral home in St. Louis started offering themed funerals a year ago. Already, they are the choice of nearly half of the clientele.

Themed services provide not only a more comfortable, homelike environment, but something for visitors to talk about in a usually tongue-tied situation, Edmonds Cotton said.

"When they come into these sets, they immediately have something to say to the family. They say, 'Oh my goodness, this is just like him,' " she said.

The sets also bring out fond recollections.

"I started having real good memories, and it wasn't just like boo-hooing and crying," said Angela Clay Harris of St. Louis, who chose the "Big Momma's Kitchen" set for visitation services for her mother.

Family and friends, surrounded by familiar appliances, even played cards at the kitchen table during the visitation.

Consumers, particularly baby boomers, are driving this new demand for more personalized funeral services, said Joseph Budzinski, internal chief operating officer for the International Cemetery and Funeral Assn.

"In years past, there was a more rigid selection of choices," Budzinski said. "Today, people want to play more of a role."

Themed funerals are steering people back toward longer, more elaborate, more meaningful ceremonies that do what funerals are designed to do: start the grieving process and memorialize someone.

Susan Bring, president of Bring Funeral Home Inc. in Tucson, said the trend toward more personal funerals is happening even without detailed sets. Services at Bring regularly include photographs and mementos of the person being remembered, and have featured golf clubs, motorcycles, old cars in the parking lot and even a service at someone's home where the casket was placed on hay bales.

Funeral homes' ability to do more, including themed funerals, depends on many things, including space, time and resources. If two families are using the funeral home on the same day, their services could clash: Not everyone is going to like the idea of barbecue permeating the air.

When her husband died June 1, Margaret Cosey of St. Peters, Mo., opted for a backyard barbecue scene for his visitation.

"His mother is from down South, so I was worried about how she would react to it," said Cosey, who was married to Lourenzy Cosey for 39 years.

She needn't have worried.

"She told me it was beautiful," Cosey said. "All the elderly people told me it was beautiful. It relaxed them."

Wade Funeral Home branch manager Aaron Grimes, known among staffers as "Mr. Disney" for his knack with theatrical devices, used dry ice to mimic barbecue smoke, and cooked food in a microwave throughout the service to keep the barbecue aroma fresh.

Many people use one of the three stock vignettes that Wade Funeral Home has on hand -- Big Momma's Kitchen, a sports set or a Victorian parlor -- but Grimes also designs entirely new sets for services. Often, employees bring in items from their own homes to lend to the sets.

"Most of the time, the family doesn't know what we're going to come up with," he said. "I got a tremendous imagination. I just come up with all kinds of things."

Perpetua doesn't charge extra for themed services, but it does get "repeat business" from people who attend and ask for the same kind of services for themselves, or for someone they know who has died.

About 40% of Wade Funeral Homes' clients choose the vignettes, which the company premiered in June 2001.

Funeral homes that want to keep afloat will follow suit, said Joe Weigel, spokesman for Batesville Casket Co. of Batesville, Ind.

Phyllis Kettler of Tucson, who owns a small business and works for a local small-business advocacy group, said she likes the idea of practically anything other than a traditional funeral, with dim lights, somber music and weeping mourners.

"For me, the theme would be barefoot, sand, saxophone player, sunshine, umbrellas to sit underneath for people who don't like the sun," said Kettler, 49. "I want the celebration of my life to be a celebration of my life, not the sadness of my passing, because passing is a part of life."

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