TAMPA — The boxer stands in the corner of the ring, the robe’s hood shadowing his face. The Santa sits, his head bowed, surrounded by Christmas presents. The biker is on his beloved Harley, his hand twisting the throttle. The kayaker leans back, a wooden paddle in his hand, resting on the bow.
They all have something in common.
They’re all dead.
Welcome to the 21st-century funeral parlor, where the recently deceased no longer are forced to lie down in a satin-lined coffin so mourners can get one last look at what the departed looked like when asleep.
Now, the dead can be captured in moments that reflect their lives, or at least they can be celebrated at a service that is unique to them.
“What is a traditional funeral?” said Bob Biggins, past president of National Funeral Directors Association. “Yes, I think the cookie-cutter funerals of the 1950s,1960s and 1970s definitely are a thing of the past.”
Increasingly, funerals — like so much of modern life — are becoming customized.
Funeral directors, Biggins said, are embracing the change.
“They welcome and celebrate that,” said Biggins, a funeral director with the Magoun Biggins Funeral Home in Rockland, Massachusetts. “They are changing the way they do things as well as incorporating personal touches to what could be called traditional funerals.”
Services for the dead don’t all have to be somber events, he said. Services can be traditional and still be sprinkled with personal touches.
“Going nontraditional is not necessarily throwing the baby out with the bath water,” he said. Anything that celebrates a life of a loved one is the goal.
“Then there is the extreme; people who don’t cling to ceremony and ritual,” Biggins said, “people who create their own celebrations, their own types of gatherings and receptions. What’s important is that people come together to honor a life that lived. Key to funerals is people coming together. That all plays a vital part in the process of grieving and a vital part in the process of healing.”
Is there a line somewhere that divides quirky and bad taste?
“Absolutely,” he said. “That’s the challenge we professionals face; to keep things tasteful, dignified, but at the same time, make them personal.”
It’s a rarity anymore, Biggins said, for people to come and allow the funeral director to arrange everything.
Among the more unusual funerals, Biggins said, was one that went viral on the Internet recently. It was the funeral of a Pittsburgh Steelers fan, who, in death, was seated in a recliner at his viewing with a remote control in his hand while Steelers highlights played on the television in front of him.
Biggins said the family probably did find some comfort in that.
“If there was healing and recovering,” Biggins said, “that’s all that matters.”
Most others don’t want to be that dramatic, he said, but they do insist on personal touches.
One woman, known for her cooking, wanted everyone at her funeral to have copies of her cherished and secret recipes. The last wish of an avid fisherman was for everyone attending his funeral to take the afternoon off and go fishing.
Another man wanted his body standing up at his wake, so he was propped up, wearing a New York Yankees cap and sunglasses, in the corner, his empty casket in front of him.
Funeral directors trying to adapt to a new way of memorializing people can find themselves trying to fulfill some off-the-wall requests from the next of kin. A recent nationwide consumer survey said 37 percent said they would prefer to have a non-traditional funeral service.
Here are a few examples, listed on MyWonderfulLife.com, an online service that helps people personalize funerals:
A man in New Jersey was buried with his cellphone, and his widow had the number put on the headstone. She had said his phone always was ringing when he was alive and he loved to get calls.
A Kansas man vowed that mourners at his funeral would have fun, so he planned a carnival, complete with pony rides and bounce houses. On his casket, these words: “Return to Sender: Express Delivery.”
A man who, in life, was fixated on big, lumbering cranes was taken to his final resting place by one. His casket was strapped to a 90-ton crane that led a procession of motorcycles to the cemetery.
A Viking enthusiast wanted his friends to send him off in Norse style, so when he died his remains were put into a replica of a Viking longboat and then set ablaze before drifting out to sea.
“I guess what’s important is to tell the story of the person, whatever that is,” said Jay Hering, general manager of Serenity Funeral Home in Largo, which has altered the way it does business to cater to the nontraditional customer. “It takes some effort on the part of the family to gather personal memorabilia, to help tell the story.
“In traditional services, people are sitting in rows, facing forward. No one is interacting or talking. In non-traditional, typically they are seated at round tables, six or eight to a table, and on the tables are pictures of the individual. This starts conversation and reminiscing, and we even see some laughter. The whole concept really helps in the healing process.
“It’s important that we don’t want to appear or sound like we’re diminishing the loss, which is painful,” he said, “but if we focus more on an individual’s life and passions and celebrate that, it does help.”
Serenity began molding its service to nontraditional in the fall, when the funeral home underwent a renovation that included new rooms to host funerals that don’t look like your average funeral.
“Instead of tradition, customers want more of a celebration of life, to acknowledge a death but celebrate a life,” Hering said. “It’s much more meaningful for them, for friends and the family.”
He said about 40 percent of his customers request nontraditional funerals.
Recently, Serenity arranged the funeral for a woman who was an avid gardener. She had been recognized locally and nationally for her garden designs and expertise, but the fluke was that she didn’t particularly like flowers. She was more fond of vegetables and fruit.
“The family didn’t want a traditional service but rather a garden party,” Hering said. “Instead of traditional rows of chairs, we had round tables, and centerpieces of fruits and vegetables. Tokens for guests included packets of seeds, and on each was a quote from the woman written on them.”
One table was arranged with awards, family photos, herbs, plant labels and gardening tools the woman used.
In another service, he said, “the deceased was active in the motorcycle community, and we brought his Harley right up front. He also was a war-decorated veteran, so we incorporated that into the service as well.
“It was like a picnic. He wanted to have beer and hamburgers and hot dogs. There were over 500 bikers in the procession to the cemetery. It’s a very close-knit community. We were able to get a Harley hearse.”
He said customer feedback so far has been positive.
“It’s pretty amazing, what we’re witnessing here,” Hering said. “It’s certainly heightened our customer satisfaction.”
Offering nontraditional funerals also has altered the mood of the work place.
“Our staff and associates get so involved with families in creating something memorable, it’s changed our whole atmosphere here,” he said. “We’re not just producing that cookie-cutter funeral anymore.”
More funeral homes are beginning to adopt policies that include nontraditional funerals, he said.
“It’s a major focus for us,” he said. “But some of the older, family-owned locations might struggle with it a little bit. It does take a great deal of time and effort to have the resources to do this.”
The cost of a nontraditional funeral varies widely, he said. They can be expensive or inexpensive as a customer wants, he said.
Last year, Serenity Funeral Home put a personal spin in the arrangements for Nanlyn Pace Jones.
“I don’t see a traditional service as a negative,” said her daughter, Marilyn Gould, “but I wanted to add a little more. There were little things, like having a pianist play through the entire visitation and having her sewing machine there, with fabric draped over it.” Food was served out of a Betty Crocker cookbook, her mom’s favorite, which was on display.
Jewelry was made with Mrs. Jones’ thumb print and was presented to her two granddaughters at the service, making the pieces special, Gould said.
Her mother loved coffee, but it had to be hot, so before the service, hot coffee was served to the mourners.
“Everybody felt the reception was really special because it was so like her and you got the feeling like mom was going to walk in,” Gould said.
The funeral won the 2014 Most Personalized Service Award from the International Cemetery, Cremation & Funeral Association.
“People just walked around and talked about the happy times instead of asking how long was she ill or all those other things people get tired of reciting,” Gould said. “People walked into the service feeling upset and sad and left feeling, like, wow, we really gave Mom a great sendoff.
“We did the right things, the little things,” she said. “We all dressed in my mom’s favorite color, not in dark clothes. Pink jackets and butterflies, the little nuances. We felt like we were giving her a final gift.”