Themed funerals reflect boomer generation

Jack Feather, owner of a Bedford, Pa., hearse company, re-created an old-time hearse, without the horse. WESLEY BROOKS
Jack Feather, owner of a Bedford, Pa., hearse company, re-created an old-time hearse, without the horse. WESLEY BROOKS
Posted: June 28, 2012

When Bob Hanks died unexpectedly in August 2009 at 56, his wife, Rita, wanted to celebrate his life.

He had lived fully, and loved to have a good time, said Rita of her husband, who suffered organ failure after getting dehydrated.

What else could she do to honor this free spirit than give him a Jimmy Buffett-themed funeral?

So the Willingboro man's obituary invited guests to, as Buffett might say, "Come as you are."

"People came in Hawaiian shirts and one girl even came in a bikini," recalled Rita. Dressed in a Hawaiian shirt himself, Bob also wore a hat, while a pair of sunglasses and toy parrots lay by his side in his casket — a silver-bullet style to invoke his love of Coors Light. And the Mass card included the lyrics to Buffett's "Party at the End of the World." (He wasn't a very religious man, his wife said.)

"The things in there were him," Rita said. "It was an incredible reflection of his life."

Chalk up another personalization trend to the boomer crew. As a generation, baby boomers have been known for rejecting traditions, insisting that their cars, their clothes, and their music reflect their individual style. It appears that death won't be any different: Demand for themed funerals is on the upswing. "As the baby boomers start to die, the personalization market need increases," said Caleb Wilde, funeral director of Wilde Funeral Home in Parkesburg, Chester County, of the generation born between 1946 and 1964. Wilde is best known for his blog "Confessions of a Funeral Director," which chronicles his work. "More families are going to want that themed funeral that represents the deceased and not a 300-year-old tradition."

Of course, it's not just the boomers; the move away from traditional funeral services illustrates a greater social trend, according to Angus Kress Gillespie, professor of American studies at Rutgers University.

Themed funerals are about the rise of individualism, "the celebration of the self as opposed to respect for tradition and service to society, and the decline in belief of organized religion," said Gillespie, who worries that a heavily themed funeral risks trivializing the solemnity of death.

But our easy access to technology has also played a key role. "The computer makes it so much easier to do whatever you want," suggested David Lambie, funeral director at Lambie Funeral Home in the Holmesburg section of Philadelphia. About 90 percent of funerals there have some element of personalization; a decade ago, it was more like one in 10.

"The days of cookie-cutter funerals are over."

His funeral home offers to embroider and engrave all caskets and personalize prayer cards, memorial folders, and DVDs.

At a recent funeral, the casket lid for the deceased — an avid fisherman — had an engraved fishing scene, the embroidered panel design featured a fish, and the man's fishing rod was placed inside the lid. The prayer cards depicted a fisherman and the words to the Angler's Prayer: I thank thee, Lord, for these hands of mine?/?that can lift a rod and reel … .

"The funeral is as much for the living as it is for the deceased, and there's a growing acceptance in society that the funeral is the place to show your support for the family and friends of the loved one, through showing what that person is all about," said Thomas Parmalee, executive director of Kates-Boylston Publications, a central New Jersey provider of publications and products for the funeral and cemetery industry.

At Gardner Funeral Home in Runnemede — where customers can arrange to have butterfly or dove releases — more people are having caskets and urns custom-engraved with pictures and poems.

"We even had a family bring a boat on a trailer that followed the deceased [another fisherman] to the church and then the cemetery," said Kelly Cronin, a secretary at Gardner.

The average U.S. price of a funeral ranges from $5,000 to $10,000, and many of the personalized touches — prayer cards, engraving, and embroidering — don't cost anything more, said Lambie.

Of course, the possibilities — and therefore the expense — are limitless. J&D's Foods — a company whose tagline is "Everything should taste like bacon" — in March launched a bacon coffin (that's a coffin with a bacon illustration) for about $3,000 and so far has cooked up one sale and lots of publicity. Another casket features a panel in which pictures and memorabilia can be inserted, and costs nearly $2,000.

The demand for unique flower arrangements also has increased over the last five years, according to Alan Cohen of Mr. Alan's Original Florist in Brick, N.J. That means ones shaped like McDonald's french fries, fire engines, motorcycles, NASCAR race cars, and slot machines. Cohen even created a giant egg in a frying pan for a man who, in life, loved fried eggs. The 3- to 5-foot-long arrangements cost between $250 and $750 and can take an entire day to create. Sports logos, playing cards, and the names of the deceased (Dad, Grandma, etc.) are the most popular.

"We made a John Deere lawn mower because the man that passed away was emphatically in love with his lawn mower and cutting grass was his big thing," said Cohen.

Even hearse companies are offering themed options. Jack Feather, owner of Tombstone Hearse in Bedford, created a hearse resembling a 19th-century horse drawn-hearse — except this comes with a motorcycle trike instead of a horse. He's sold about 50 of them in the last 10 years — four of them this year — mostly to funeral homes, at $80,000 a pop.

"Our tagline is, ‘It's not your destination, it's how you arrive,'?" said Feather. "It's more of a marketing tool than anything else because it's unique. When word gets out that there will be one in a procession, everyone comes with a camera."

Not everyone is a fan of these kinds of funerals. Pat Daley, manager of the Sweeney Funeral Home in Riverside, believes highlighting one facet of someone's personality doesn't accurately reflect an entire life. Besides, he said, the theme of every funeral has already been determined: It's about the man or woman who died.

"Every person has lots of different layers," he insisted. "That's a lot different than … a baseball theme."

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