More families celebrate life with personalized services


CO – Ruth Solazzi was born June 15, 1920. She was a dedicated teacher and opera singer who earned a master’s degree in music in the early 1940s, at a time when only about 6 percent of females pursued higher education. She raised four children, was grandmother to nine

and took pride in the lush garden she kept at her Colorado Springs home after the family moved from Montana in 1978.

“She was very much a perfectionist. When she felt her voice was not at peak, she wouldn’t sing, and she stopped performing very early in life,” said her daughter Ann Baldrica, who lives in the Springs. “She was very much involved with her family. She took a lot of pleasure watching people have a good time in her surroundings.”

Solazzi was – like all of us – much more than the sum of her accomplishments, the highlight reel traditionally covered in official eulogies and obituaries. When she died in July 2010, the family chose to celebrate her life in a way befitting her lifestyle.

“We didn’t want to have a ‘traditional’ funeral. My mother had been a choir director and sang in choirs, but that was not her wish to involve a church or religious ceremony,” Baldrica said.

Instead of a funeral home, Baldrica turned to Forte Events, an international event planning company with which she’d worked both professionally and personally. Founded by Tami Forero in 2006, the Springs-based company coordinates “Celebrations of Life” for families seeking an alternative to traditional farewells.

“We have the luxury of spending a little more time with the family to get to know their loved one. It’s not just what their hobbies were, though that’s part. It’s about the feeling they want the family to have before and after the celebration,” said Forero, whose offices are based in her Rockrimmon home. “When someone calls us, we say, ‘What are your needs? How can we help your heart?’ We don’t even call it a service.”

An evolving trend

An alternative memorial or funeral no longer means having your ashes shot into space – though that remains an option. From funeral planning to service to disposition and beyond, more Americans are quietly going off-book for their final send-offs, at least in part.

“People today, particularly the younger generations, most of them don’t really like a traditional type service,” said Paul Wood, co-owner of The Springs Funeral Service. “They want the flexibility to include things that are very personalized and meaningful.”

The gradual shift in thinking can be seen in the terms used to describe the gatherings themselves, from “funeral” through the mid-20th century to “memorial service” by the 1980s, and now “celebrations of life,” said Paul Anderson, a retired U.S. Air Force chaplain who works with Forero.

“The culture is becoming less attached to religious services, more diverse, more pluralistic. People don’t know where to go when they lose a loved one,” said Anderson, director of Celebrations of Life by Forte Events. “That same loss is there, but they don’t have that traditional path to take or place to go.”

Though about 40 percent of Americans say they regularly attend church, head counts show actual turnout is closer to 20 percent. Surveys by the Pew Research Center found that, as of 2012, close to 20 percent of U.S. adults are agnostic, atheist or unaffiliated with any particular faith.

“We’re a nonreligious organization that’s sensitive to their loss and that wants to help them create a unique event that can help them grieve,” said Anderson, alluding to headlines made this month by a Denver-area church. An ongoing memorial service at New Hope Ministries in Lakewood was canceled after church officials refused to allow a video that included images of the woman kissing her female partner.

“The irony is that most of us (at Forte) happen to be people of faith,” Anderson said, “but we understand that, for all human beings, that need for acceptance and hope after a loss is great regardless.”

Healthy grieving

Between 1960 and 2012, U.S. cremation rates rose from just less than 4 percent to 43 percent, based on statistics from the National Funeral Directors Association. Colorado, at 65.5 percent, has the eighth highest rate.

“That (cremation) I think makes it easier because you have time to think about what you may want to do and you’re not rushed to get something done within three days,” said Baldrica, whose mother chose to be cremated.

If speed is needed, Forte can tap its network of planners and vendors to usher a celebration from concept to reality “within 24 hours, anywhere in the country,” Forero said.

“Do you want it indoors or outdoors, in a certain state, on a boat or a hot air balloon or a classic car museum? We can create an atmosphere that’s going to feel like that person,” said Forero, who first identified a need through her work coordinating a Miracle Party, the annual Denver charity gala for children battling cancer.

“I had a front-row seat to this, families not expecting their children to die, who weren’t prepared mentally or financially, and they’re trying to put something together in the worst moments of their life and they’re doing it alone,” Forero said. “I thought, with the network we have we could sweep in and be doing this in a few hours.”

That timing is crucial, Baldrica said.

“At that time point, when people are stressed out, to be able to turn all that over to someone else who can handle the details and make the concepts happen, it’s a huge relief,” she said. “You still need a funeral home that has to deal with the things such as the death certificate and the preparation of the body, but the rest of the pieces of the celebration can be done by someone other than a funeral director.”

Not that a funeral home couldn’t handle an elaborate customization.

“We’ve done services with motorcycles, with over 100 Corvettes. We had services in an outdoor arena, where the urn was brought in in saddle bags on the deceased’s horse,” Wood said. “The primary difference is we are full service and can take care of everything from the time of death. They focus on the services.”

Ultimately, it comes down to a family’s preference.

“Our whole position is that we want to do whatever we can to encourage families to have those services that are meaningful for remembering the person who died,” Wood said. “That is the key to a good grief process.”

Celebrating life

Since the company began offering alternative memorials in 2010, Forero, Anderson and Forte’s team of contractors have coordinated events across the nation, for gatherings of less than a dozen and those of several hundred. They chartered a three-story yacht in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., so the members of a large, extended family could all be present for the spreading of a beloved relative’s ashes. Last year, they organized a hike for a family that wanted to celebrate Mom’s life in the mountains of Colorado, even though she’d lived in Florida.

“She was a hiker and photographer, and Colorado was their favorite place,” said Forero, who suggested family members each write something brief about their mom – a meaningful word, thought or memory – on a rock to be left at the peak. She later discovered the ritual was more fitting than she could have imagined.

“It turns out, their mom had traveled the world and at the top of every mountain she wrote her children’s names on a rock. Even the kids didn’t know about that,” Forero said.

For her mother’s celebration, Baldrica wanted a setting that didn’t obligate gloom – and could handle a modest crowd.

“Anytime you have a death in the family, it’s difficult. When you’re 90 years old, it’s sad but it’s something you want to celebrate, too,” she said.

She chose a spot that had positive vibes: her mom’s garden. The theme: things you didn’t know about Ruth Solazzi.

A DJ played six decades worth of Solazzi’s favorite tunes and caterers served Italian. Each guest received a flowerpot to take home, as well as a seed packet and encouragement to spread the blooms.

“That would really have been something my mother would have loved, and it’s something I never would have come up with,” Baldrica said.

Forero even arranged for digital copies to be made of the sole original recording of Solazzi’s master’s recital, captured on vinyl roughly 70 years earlier. Each guest got a CD.

“To take an old vinyl record and make it usable, it was quite the feat,” Baldrica said. “It was the first time that most of the family members had ever heard it. Some of the family and friends had never heard her sing at all.”

Photo: Tami Forero, left, meets in the basement office of her Rockrimmon home with members of her team to plan a Celebration of Life for a client. Photo by Mark Reis, The Gazette.

Originally published by The Gazette, author Stephanie Earls.