Commemorating a life

More Americans are choosing to customize memorial and funeral services.

Aeulogy on the first tee. A party on a chartered boat for a departed father. A 2 a.m. memorial service on the Internet.

How Americans honor those who have passed on is becoming increasingly creative and participatory.

Funeral directors and clergy report that traditional services are being eclipsed by highly customized ones. Families are carefully choreographing these occasions to reflect the individual's life, tossing aside rituals or symbols with little or no relevance. As a result, participants often leave with a feeling of having commemorated a life rather than mourned a death.

"It was more consistent with my dad's life and with what he would have wanted - a happy celebration rather than a dark ceremony," says Michael Chernoff, whose family held a memorial service aboard a catered cruise boat on the Allegheny River.

Flowers, music, and prayers are often still fixtures at services, but efforts to personalize have led to unusual choices -orchids instead of roses, the Beatles instead of Bach, and inspiring poems penned by friends instead of a traditional prayers.

Today's services also frequently give centerstage to memorabilia representing passions and pursuits of the deceased - from fishing rods to quilts to Harley Davidsons. They may incorporate favorite songs, quotes and anecdotes, which family and friends read themselves instead of deferring to clergy.

The location of services gets more consideration now, with a church or funeral home no longer a given. Outdoor sites are frequently preferred.

"People today don't want anything standard. They want to customize everything. It's the prevalent attitude in life, and funerals are no different," explains John Carmon, co-director of Carmon Funeral Homes in Connecticut. He recently hosted a service for an avid canoeist, where the man's boat and paddles were prominently displayed.

A monarch tribute

Ron Troyer, a colleague of Carmon's in St. Paul, Minn., has also organized nontraditional services. He recalls one of the most unusual: The family of a teenage girl who loved butterflies had 24 monarchs sent via express mail from California. During her service, each family member opened a packaged butterfly sending them fluttering around the sanctuary in the sunlight and eventually landing on the flowers.

To understand the movement toward personalization, one must look at changes in American culture, says Kelly Smith of the National Funeral Directors Association. "During the first half of this century, ours was a relatively sedentary society," he explains. "People were born, raised, and buried in the same community. In the last 40 to 50 years, we have become a more mobile, faster-paced, highly technical society .... Today it's not unusual for grandma to live in a retirement community in Florida, mom and dad to be divorced and on opposite coasts, and the kids attending college in the East. So, funerals have had to take on a different look and meaning."

Families have not only become more transient, he adds, but priests, ministers, and rabbis have too. It's more difficult to develop a relationship with clergy, so families often opt to do everything themselves.

Mr. Smith and his colleagues agree that it's no longer one type of person breaking from tradition. Alternative services used to be more common among baby boomers, those who lean to the left politically, or those with tenuous ties to religion. Now, they say, those of all types and faiths, and even the most devout, are rejecting the traditional format.

Some clergy members are leery of this trend. "The desire to make services more individual is not always a good thing," says the Rev.Scott R. Murray, senior pastor at the Memorial Lutheran Church in Houston. "Sometimes these services include a form of self-centeredness that leads a worshipping community away from God-centeredness, which is where you need to be when dealing with death and grieving."

His church checks on families' welfare within two months afterward and finds that those who fare best "focused on Christ" from the start. "For them, there is a sense of saying, 'The Lord is taking care of so-and-so ... it's still hard because I miss them, but I'm confident I'm going to meet them someday.' "

As long as services include a religious element, Dr. Murray isn't closed to customization. In fact, next month he will be teaching a course on planning one's own service. "I tell people if they do this, their families won't grope around in a fog after their death," he says. "People are comforted by the idea of taking the burden off their loved ones."

David Walkinshaw, a funeral director in Arlington, Mass., also encourages advance planning. "We have hundreds of people who sit down with us and discuss what they want," he says. "The biggest challenge is explaining that the service isn't just for them, but especially for their survivors."

The more personal the service, the more positive the response, says Mr. Walkinshaw. "As people leave, they often comment on the tone, that it wasn't at all morbid and that they learned so much about the person," he says. "Old-style funerals, with a wake and casket surrounded by flowers just didn't hit a nerve. For people who are uncomfortable around bodies, stories and memorabilia give them another focus."

When Jim Andrews's father passed on, he and his siblings gave careful consideration to what type of service - if any - would be appropriate. (Some families for religious or other reasons, choose not to hold a service.) John Andrews was a very public man, with strong ties to his college, his Colorado summer camp, his church, the Rotary Club, and other organizations. So his four children chose to host a gathering of his friends and acquaintances.

"So many people knew Dad," says Mr. Andrews. "We realized they would appreciate an occasion to remember him fondly, to share their thoughts, and have a sense of closure. We didn't want a heavy occasion, so we called it an 'appreciation.' "

They expected a crowd of 200, but 300 showed. After Jim and his siblings shared their own reminiscences, others were encouraged to do the same. "People kept popping up," recalls Andrews. Those who felt timid about speaking had an opportunity to jot down their thoughts. These written tributes were compiled into a "memory book," which now belongs to Andrews's stepmother.

The gathering also included piano playing, camp songs, and readings, especially from Psalms.

"People told us afterward that this was just the right way to say goodbye," Andrews says. Had his father been a more private person, he adds, a small, simple gathering would have been more fitting.

Families benefit greatly from their participation, says Walkinshaw, describing one family he met with recently: They had just spent two days collecting photos for three different picture boards. They bonded through tears and stories. "This would never have happened 20 years ago. Back then, everything was just handed over to the funeral director."

Walkinshaw's clients, a mix of working-class Bostonians and university intellectuals, started to break from tradition well before this trend entered the mainstream, he says. At one point, some of them even abandoned services altogether, usually after reading Jessica Mitford's 1963 book, "The American Way of Death," which exposed excesses of the funeral business. But some felt unfulfilled, he says, still needing to "acknowledge a human life."

With all the customizing going on, Walkinshaw says his job has become more demanding. He used to plan a service within an hour. Now, it can take three to four hours to plan with families and set up "memory boards" - bulletin boards with photos and text, or tables displaying memorabilia.

The virtual service

Another option that's becoming popular is the Internet memorial service. When a British man died recently, one of his friends coordinated an online service for 200 of his chat-room buddies from all over the world. A virtual service was scheduled for the same time as the actual one in London.

At 2 a.m. in Dallas, Judy Mistry logged on to pay respects to "Sirlove" - his screen name and the only name she ever knew. "I had gotten used to greeting him online every day. I called him 'to Sir with love,' and he always appreciated that. We would just chit-chat ... but still I could tell he was a very kind man."

Each person had a chance to write about "Sirlove." "This let us say things that might be too emotional to say face-to-face," says Ms. Mistry. "We worked through our grief together. It was beautiful."

Curtis Rostad, executive director of the Wyoming Funeral Directors Association, sees funerals by design as progress. "Funerals were never meant to be the same for everyone. They are meant to commemorate a life lived. They should be as individual as everyone of us."

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