Sunday, January 20, 2008

Funerals Becoming Less Formal

Here is an interesting article I stumbled across from a Lynchburg, VA. Newspaper. I think most readers will find it both informative, interesting and thought provoking. As a quick overview it speaks about the changing trends in funeral and cremation services as well as how we as families (the consumer) don’t really like buying off the menu, we want everything customized. We want it our way, and we also want it different!

Good Reading,


Funerals Becoming Less Formal

By Casey Gillis
January 19, 2008

In the late 19th and early 20th century, it wasn’t uncommon for mourners to take a lock of a deceased loved one’s hair and put it in a piece of jewelry, like a locket or a brooch.

“Having a lock of hair meant (the loved ones) were still around,” says Ted Delaney, archivist and curator at Old City Cemetery. “It showed you were mourning and that you cared about the person.

“It’s a way to save a little bit of (that person).”

Today, a lock of hair would probably be a rare keepsake, but there are other personal ways in which people remember their loved ones. One example is fingerprint jewelry, in which the person’s fingerprint is cast in solid metal and can be attached as a charm to necklaces and bracelets or made into rings and earrings.

“It’s a very modern adaptation of that concept of honoring the individual in a very personal way,” says Jon Austin, executive director of the Museum of Funeral Customs in Illinois.

“You can manage to preserve and keep with you a portion of a loved one that wouldn’t be possible a decade or more ago.”

The same goes for the funeral services, which Austin says have become much more personalized within the last five to seven years.

“Families are definitely looking for a much less somber and depressing (event),” he says. “They’re looking more for a recognition of good times and happy memories … (that allows them to) honor the life of a loved one at the time of death.”

Not very long ago, a formal portrait of the person was all you’d see on display at funerals, Austin says.

But now family members and friends are using magnetic photo boards to hang up candid pictures, and most funeral homes these days offer some kind of video collage option, too.

All of these things “provide a deeper and broader reflection of who the individual was,” Austin says.

The options for personalization are vast. Caskets can be engraved, and urns are coming in all different shapes and sizes -even as jewelry.

Chris Tharp, owner of Tharp Funeral Home & Crematory in Lynchburg, says the untraditional has now become the traditional when it comes to services.

“People are doing it all on their own terms,” he says.

For one recent service at Tharp, the deceased’s family held a party with an open bar in lieu of a more formal visitation.

At other services, people “play songs the person liked, so that means rock music - The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, whoever,” he says.

Dan Mason, general manager of Diuguid Funeral Service in Lynchburg, says it isn’t uncommon for families to display items - like golf clubs, tennis rackets and even motorcycles - that were important to the person.

“We see it as an added way the person can reflect the life (of their loved one).”

There have also been group hikes to scatter ashes, as well as balloon releases in funeral home parking lots.

Austin says he heard of one family whose teen daughter died, and they bought a plain, wooden casket and asked her friends to sign it at the funeral.

“(They were honoring her) in a very personal way and a very visual way and a very permanent way,” he says. “Prior to 20 or 30 years ago, we never would have thought of that because it (would be) outside what we think of as appropriate for a funeral service.”

Paul Whitten, owner of Whitten Funeral Home in Lynchburg, says it all comes down to what each family feels it needs for closure.

“Families now are displaying more comfort in doing different things,” Whitten says. “Some families are very traditional, and some families are looking to new and innovative ways to celebrate the individual’s life through receptions and other things of that nature.

“Years ago that was just unheard of. People are becoming more comfortable with expressing themselves in different ways.”

Mason, Whitten and Tharp say families are also taking a more active role in planning and executing the services.

Before, “the families would sit there, be quiet and listen to the minister,” Tharp says. “Now children are getting up and speaking. Grandchildren are speaking.

“Close friends and family are participating in the service in some way, whether it’s scattering the cremated remains together or getting up and talking. Little things mean a lot in a time like this.”

Family involvement is something of a throwback to the way things used to be, before funeral homes were commonly used.

In the mid-19th century, the family oversaw the funeral preparations in the home, which, before embalming, included washing and preparing the body.

The practice of embalming didn’t really become acceptableuntil the Civil War era, as it became more important for bodies to be preserved as they were transported back home from distant battlefields, Delaney says.

The procedure became even more widely known after Abraham Lincoln’s death in 1865, when his body was transported across the country for public viewing.

“His preservation contributed to the awareness of the effectiveness of the procedure,” Austin says.

Once embalming did become more common, the mortician would typically perform the procedure in the person’s home with an embalming kit.

“There was … an element of turning the duty over to someone else so the family could focus on their grief,” Austin says.

The actual service would be held in the home or at church, and would end with a procession of mourners marching to the cemetery. Sometimes the cemetery was at home, as rural families often buried their dead in a cemetery on the family farm.

As customs and the way people lived changed, families’ needs changed.

In urban areas, people lived in apartments and didn’t have the space to accommodate large numbers of people for the wake and funeral, so they began utilizing funeral home chapels.

Still, in small, rural communities, home preparation continued well into the 20th century. But by the time World War I ended, multiple generations of families stopped living together in one large house and encountered the same problems those in urban areas earlier faced.

The end of World War I also signaled the end of some mourning customs, like the walking processions. (Today you still see some vestiges of that custom with driving processions).

“People wanted to move away from what was seen as out-of-date and old-fashioned,” says Austin. “Women stopped wearing mourning clothing for long periods of time. In a modern society and a modern world, you could still show respect by wearing black to a funeral, but wearing black for a whole year … wasn’t necessary.”

By the 1920s, funeral homes became even more necessary as more deaths occurred outside of the home, often in a hospital or nursing home.

“Because the death had occurred elsewhere, people were comfortable taking the body to this less personalized environment,” Austin says.

Plus, it made funeral directors’ jobs easier because “it was a single site where they could prepare the remains and have a stock of caskets … and even hold funeral ceremonies there.”

Whitten says that in the 1950s and 1960s, more people attended funeral services, which is why many older funeral homes are equipped with large chapels and small visitation areas.

But more modern funeral homes usually have small chapels and large visitation areas because people are more apt to attend the visitation than the actual funeral. One reason is that visitations are typically held at night, which is more convenient for those who work.

Another service funeral homes eventually began offering was cremation. It was a common practice among Ancient Romans, who believed the act of burning the body lifted the spirit up to Heaven, according to Austin.

In modern times, cremation didn’t really take hold until the 1970s or 1980s.

“The rise in cremations we’ve seen (now) … is definitely a reflection of more modern thinking in terms of the disposal of the remains, (and) the fact that the body is simply a vessel, if you will, for the soul,” Austin says.

Tharp says Lynchburg’s cremation rate last year was 33 percent - which is expected to rise to 50 percent over the next 10 years.

He says cremation allows for more flexibility because it takes the body out of the equation. Memorial services can then be held days, weeks or months later, which could give distant relatives more time to get there.

But, Mason says, “It doesn’t just mean the person is cremated and that’s the end of it. We still hold a memorial service in the chapel. We do memorialize and celebrate the life.”

Perhaps the biggest way in which funerals are coming full circle is the trend of green funerals, in which the person isn’t embalmed and is buried in a biodegradable casket.

“That would really bring it back to what happened in the 1700s,” Delaney says. “People just don’t feel they have to fight (death) anymore.”

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