Stu Bykofsky: Putting the fun in funeral

One of Williams Lombardo Funeral Home's recent "themed funerals" included a flower-encrusted recliner that held the urn of a lifelong couch potato.
One of Williams Lombardo Funeral Home's recent "themed funerals" included a flower-encrusted recliner that held the urn of a lifelong couch potato.
Posted: November 20, 2012

SOLEMNLY THE LINE of mourners approached the casket, one by one, tears in their eyes. The deceased was only in his 50s, his fun-filled life cut short by cancer.

One by one, they leaned forward, reached into the casket and ... honked the horn in the hand of the deceased, who was dressed in a clown suit, complete with giant shoes, a multicolored wig and a red foam nose that was sitting like a cherry atop the vanilla of a face grease-painted white.

Mourners shedding tears - of laughter - tickled funeral director Joe Lombardo, who had filled the request of the deceased, a self-described "jokester" who wanted to give his loved ones a last laugh, a pratfall of finality.

As owner of the 85-year-old Williams Lombardo Funeral Home, Joe directs about 150 funerals a year and has staged two dozen "themed funerals" since September, when he adopted the slogan, "We Put the Fun in Funeral." The notion of a "fun" funeral is alien, a contradiction, and that's what appealed to Joe, who calls himself a "chance-taker."

"When you first hear it - 'We Put the Fun in Funeral' - it's kind of weird," Joe admits, telling me it was the "daring" idea of marketing guy George Polgar. Giving it the green light was daring on Joe's part, especially when commercials started running on WIP, using the voice of local funnyman Joe Conklin. Is nothing sacred?

Seated in a paneled office in the three-story, 12-room funeral home on Baltimore Avenue in Clifton Heights, Joe lays it out for me, no pun intended. A funeral director for 23 of his 46 years, he's creative, but also a businessman looking for an edge. More people are planning destination-based and themed weddings, so why not give funerals the same treatment? Why not say, "We Put the Fun in Funeral"?

Making light of a grave subject can be off-putting to some people, but Joe says he's heard no complaints, not even from his tradition-minded competitors.

He was pushed toward chance-taking by sobering projections from his trade association. Only 13 percent of Americans now want a traditional funeral. Cremation, which costs a lot less than a funeral with a casket and a grave, is on the rise. By 2015, it's expected to be the final choice of 50 percent of Americans.

It turns out, Joe says, that the belief that funeral homes are recession-proof is not true. Some are closing because, while people continue to die, their financially struggling families can't afford a costly, traditional send-off.

His themed funerals cost less, which is important in his blue-collar community. They also help people remember the good times and deflect the burden of sadness that comes with the loss of a loved one.

When he gets the call that someone has passed away, Joe has a small window of time to prepare everything and to do it precisely as the family directs. For a themed funeral, he often has to scramble to round up appropriate props. His is a deadline job, no pun intended, that goes from "sitting around to running around," Joe says.

He has done military themes and sports themes. He's built a garden and a beach scene complete with sand, palm trees and a boat. He's open to just about any idea that a family throws at him. "Whatever we can do to personalize it and make it right," he says.

A few weeks back, Joe directed a funeral for a guy who was a couch potato. The man was cremated, so there was no body, but there was an urn, which Joe placed in a recliner decorated with flowers.

The mourners loved it. I couldn't reach the couch potato for comment.

And at Joe's next daring reach, look for cocktails and butlered hors d'oeuvres at the viewing.

Email: stubyko@phillynews.com

Phone: 215-854-5977

" @StuBykofsky

Columns: philly.com/Byko

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