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  • Funerals Become More Personalized

    May 13, 2005 7:17 pm US/Central
    Scituate, R.I. (AP) Helen Busby has no plans to die anytime soon.

    But on a recent spring day, the 60-year-old Providence nurse was taking measurements for her coffin.

    It had to fit her petite 5-foot-4 frame, and leave a few inches to spare in case she gains weight. And it had to be sturdy enough to hold dozens of books because until she needs it, it'll sit in her living room as shelving.

    It also had to be painted with trees, clouds and maybe some birds -- because Busby's favorite thing to do is walk in the woods.

    "My kids think I'm crazy," she said. "First, I'm designing my coffin. Second, I plan to use it as furniture before I go."

    Americans, specifically baby boomers who have made it a habit to do things their own way, are thinking outside the box when it comes to bidding farewell to the dearly departed.

    "They want something different from what mom and dad and the grandparents had," said George Dickinson, a professor of sociology at The College of Charleston in Charleston, S.C.

    Custom-made caskets reflect a loved one's passions. Acoustic guitars and electronic keyboards replace hymnals to provide a personal soundtrack of a memorial service. Cremated remains are shot into space, fashioned into jewelry and turned into reefs to help restore underwater habitats.

    "These aren't cookie-cutter funerals anymore," said Maggie Wein, who works at Bradshaw Funeral Home in St. Paul, Minn.

    Wein said in her more than three years as an administrative assistant at the family-run chain of homes, she's arranged everything from the very simple to hours-long affairs. She helped plan a funeral for a movie lover that included screenings of favorite films and serving fresh-popped popcorn. She also arranged for a casket to be taken from the funeral home to a cemetery on a hay rack.

    "The man loved hay rides," Wein said. "We want to honor that."

    In the past decade, funeral professionals have become event planners, industry experts say. They design theme-based services, interview family members to learn personal details about the deceased and go to hospitality seminars.

    "You used to go to a funeral home expecting the grim reaper or Dracula to help you out," said Dickinson, who has written textbooks and teaches classes on death and dying.

    Now, he said, funeral homes host open houses that show off their services and the federal government mandates that they show price lists for comparison shopping.

    "Boomers want bang for their buck. Even in the afterlife," said Bill Burns, a funeral services analyst at the New Orleans-based brokerage firm Johnson Rice & Co.

    Burns said the $16 billion funeral services industry has to respond to boomers' desires if just to stay in business.

    "Baby boomers have changed every market because of their sheer size. They're driving this one too," Burns said.

    One growing trend is cremation. Ten years ago, 21 percent of Americans were cremated. Today, 28 percent are, according to the Cremation Association of North America. That figure is expected to rise to about 43 percent by 2025.

    "A lot of funeral homes are now offering cremation services," Burns said.

    At about $1,000, cremation is cheaper than traditional services which can cost around $10,000 between a coffin, service and burial, Burns said.

    Ashes can be melded into concrete "reef balls" by Eternal Reefs in Decatur, Ga., or launched into space by Houston-based Space Services Inc. LifeGem in Elk Grove Village, Ill., will turn ashes into diamonds.

    Bob Biggins, president-elect of the National Funeral Directors Association, said he's made changes at his funeral home in Rockland, Mass., to cater to consumers' needs.

    A few years ago, he would've never thought he'd have plasma screen televisions at his funeral home.

    "Now we have two," he said.

    Families have incorporated slideshows, home videos and biopics into services, Biggins said.

    Hollywood Forever Cemetery in Los Angeles produces short documentaries about the deceased. The funeral chapel also is equipped for live webcasts of funeral services.

    Experts said the personal touches help families cope with the loss.

    "It's therapeutic," Wein said. "They realize they're celebrating a life, not just mourning a death."

    Dickinson said boomers' interest in doing something unique also is forcing the generation that thought it would live forever to talk about death, and not be so afraid of it.

    "They feel better about the whole thing -- dying that is -- if they can at least feel like they planned for it and were a part of the process, if you will," he said.

    Some people are bucking the system all together, Dickinson added, and conducting funerals at home. Laws vary widely from state to state, but it's legal for families to handle a body on their own in most places.

    Denise Baxter, who owns Blue Light Coffin Co. in Scituate and is hand painting Busby's coffin, says the most important thing for people to realize is that there are options.

    "I am very aware that by no means is everyone going to want to buy their coffin in advance, design it and possibly use it as a hope chest or liquor cabinet," she said. "But it's good to know you have choices."



    ( 2005 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. )

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