Personalization in funerals takes off


USA – Houston has a key role, with biggest company in the business in town. Tripp Carter meets with clients on West Alabama around a table in what looks like a formal dining room. The chairs are copies of those Napoleon had at Chateau de Malmaison, his palace outside Paris.

The building is filled with decor that Carter and his late partner, Ron Bradshaw, collected from all over the world: antler chandeliers from Christie’s in England, a 17th-century Madonna and Child from Istanbul, and Italian marble tables. A custom-painted Italian landscape adorned with a tiny longhorn fills the walls of a reception hall.

The business at hand: planning loved ones’ funerals at the Bradshaw-Carter funeral home.

Bradshaw believed, Carter said, “that beauty could help people at the end of their life.”

Carter even lets mourning family members sleep on the silk couches overnight next to their loved one’s casket leading up to the funeral.

The business of dying in America is changing in ways unimaginable a generation ago. More families are eschewing traditional ceremonies for personalized and celebratory memorials. And nearly half of people now choose cremation, a fringe practice in the U.S. half a century ago.

At a motorcyclist’s funeral, a Harley was draped in flowers inside a reception hall. Some football fans prefer tailgating-themed funerals, as family and friends remember loved ones with wings, beer and eulogies. One memorial company even blasts remains into deep space.

Demographics are driving the trend. Mortality rates have plummeted over the last several generations. And with people dying later in life, memorials are becoming celebrations that tell the story of the deceased.

Houston is at the epicenter of the shift, as home to both the National Museum of Funeral History and Service Corporation International, the nation’s largest funeral home conglomerate. In a survey by the company, 37 percent of respondents said they were leaning toward a “nontraditional” funeral. To over half of them, that meant including alcohol.

“I think personalizing one’s funeral helps with the grieving process,” said Genevieve Keeney, president of the National Museum of Funeral History.

Hallie Twomey has gotten creative in memorializing her son CJ by sending his ashes to places he couldn’t visit during his 20 years on Earth. In October she watched from Maine as his ashes blasted into space on a rocket.

After CJ killed himself four years ago, Twomey started asking friends on Facebook if they would take a sample of CJ’s ashes on trips, scattering them around the world.

“As opposed to sitting in an urn on our shelf, he’s resting on all seven continents. He’s even on Antarctica,” Twomey said.

Her effort, called Scattering CJ, has long since gone viral, and Twomey has sent over 800 samples of CJ’s ashes to travelers who have spread his remains in places like the Acropolis, Hawaii and Machu Picchu.

“I don’t want his suicide to ever define his life. He was so much more than that,” she said.

CJ joined the Air Force after high school. He loved flying and jumping out of planes. In October, he was one of 24 people taking a postmortem trip to space, organized by Celestis, a company owned by Space Services Holdings. It was the company’s 13th memorial spaceflight since 1997.

Celestis CEO Charlie Chafer saw a CNN segment about CJ and called Twomey to offer CJ a complimentary spot. The flight would typically cost $995, and Celestis offers services for up to $12,500 for lunar and deep space flights.

At a memorial service before the rocket launch, family members talked about their spouses, parents and children who had dreamed of going to space.

“Dad loved space,” Chuck Coshway’s son said at the service. “He didn’t believe in conventional religion. He didn’t believe in a specific sect or anything like that. But he believed in energy, he believed in physics, and he believed in space.”

Twomey, who couldn’t make it to the launch in New Mexico, said, “I have such huge guilt, and I don’t know if I’ll ever get over this, but I do know that the Scatter CJ journey has helped me feel less alone.”

More cremations

A growing number of Americans are choosing to cremate their remains, opening the door for companies like Celestis and others that pressurize ashes into diamonds or cement them into coral reefs for scuba divers and environmentalists. A rocket launch offers a different experience: “You don’t ever go to a funeral and see that much high-fiving and cheering,” Chafer said.

Cremation has become an appealing option for families who aren’t tied to one place the way they used to be.

“This notion of, bury me in the family plot by the church next to Grandma,” is going away, Chafer said.

“We’re very transient here in Houston,” said Clint Hebert, funeral director at SCI-owned Forest Park Westheimer Funeral Home. More people – 584,034 of them – moved to Texas last year than to any other state, according to the 2014 Texas Relocation Report, compiled by the Texas Association of Realtors. And Harris County was named the most mobile county in Texas, with more new residents in and localsout than any other. Cremation makes more sense for mobile families.

The baby boomers are leading the break from tradition, leaving their mark in death as they have in the many eras they’ve touched.

“The baby boomers took a president and ran him out of office. … They burned their bras and draft cards, and suddenly we expect them to die in the usual and customary ways?” said Dan Isard, president of Foresight Companies and a funeral home consultant. “They want to die on their own terms. They want to eulogize on their own terms.”

An effort to retool

SCI, which owns about 2,000 funeral homes in the U.S. and Canada and employs 25,000, has been tracking changes in the industry and redesigning its approach.

A study the company conducted 13 years ago found that people were spending sizable amounts on services outside of funeral homes. SCI could bring that money in by figuring out what clients wanted. Now they’ve expanded their services and are experimenting with themed funeral homes in the Southeast.

By setting up a bar and catering, and having a space for musicians, funeral homes can capture more of the market. But it also makes the modern funeral home a one-stop shop for grieving family members who would otherwise have more calls to make.

When a death occurs, “the last thing you want to do is to go make funeral arrangements,” Tripp Carter said.

Changes of decor

In order to host the nouveau funerals, SCI has been redecorating.

“It should be a brighter environment, not such a dark environment,” SCI managing director Lee Longino said. Round tables are replacing church pews, creating “a room full of robust dialogue” about the deceased, he said. “It really changes the whole atmosphere.”

At SCI’s Pat H. Foley & Co. funeral home in Garden Oaks, director Erik Hendrickson said he spent 17 months reimagining the space but opted to keep pews. The Garden Oaks community is religious and traditional, he said.

New ways of worshipping

He had another take on why funeral homes are playing a larger role in memorial ceremonies. More people are going to megachurches rather than the traditional community churches that might have hosted both service and reception in the past, he said.

“The way Americans are worshipping is changing, and along with worship, our traditions.”

When SCI funeral director Clint Hebert, who runs the Forest Park Westheimer Funeral Home, started in the business in 1998, “everything was very cookie-cutter,” he said.

Now, “there’s a lot more conversation when we sit down with the family,” Hebert said, “really concentrating on getting to know who’s in the room.”

Ways to be personal

One funeral procession included 150 motorcycles, and the Harley-Davidson draped with flowers was brought into the reception hall. Staff and mourners wore jeans, boots and Harley T-shirts.

Other families have printed a recipe their mom was known for on the service booklet, or baked her pies for the reception. One man always brought confetti to parties, so his family members filled the outer part of his casket with confetti.

For those who live and die by college football, SCI’s new themed funeral home in Alabama hosts honorary game-day parties. In Naples, Fla., clients can go out with a wine-tasting in SCI’s cellar room.

To ease the logistical burden on family, and ensure the send-off they envision, more people are pre-planning their funerals. SCI provides Imagine books to inspire future customers. On average, 35 percent of SCI services are pre-planned nationally.

The Internet makes pre-planning options accessible in a way it wasn’t before.

“Before you would have to actually walk into that funeral home to have that information, now you have it at your fingertips,” Keeney said.

Funeral directors say that pre-planning prevents emotional overspending and allows clients to save money because they’re locking in prices a decade or so early.

A flair for surprise

At 81, Muffie Bridge has been planning her own farewell. She’s always had a flair for surprise, and she plans on closing her funeral mass by addressing her family and friends with a recording of herself.

“Greetings from above,” she begins, and reads “Safely Home,” by an unknown author – a poem about going to heaven. After the service, there will be a reception at her house.

“I want the whole thing to be a happy occasion, a celebration of my life,” she said. She beams about the house she bought in 1971 when she was a 38-year-old flight attendant and single.

“I’ve always loved to entertain, I love to have people in my house,” she said.

With death in the news, on television and in movies, Keeney said, “the media’s desensitizing us in ways that we’re starting to look at death differently. We’re more open to the concept of what death could be like and what death could be like for ourselves.”

But Carter sees American families as far removed from the process of death, aging and burial.

“We don’t want to face the fact that we may die, because medicine has given us so many opportunities to live longer,” he said.

Fewer homes are multi-generational, so children don’t see their grandparents age the way that they do in other cultures. It makes death more of shock when it happens.

“The denial of death is very real in society,” he said. “You can understand people don’t want to confront it and deal with it, but is that the best thing for our society?”

Being involved

Carter has guided thousands of families through putting their loved ones to rest, and he said he believes there’s healing power in involvement. Personalizing a funeral allows mourners to reflect on the person who died. It might be more needed in a time when we don’t like to confront death until it’s right in front of us.

One family Carter organized a funeral with used shovels at the burial to put dirt in the grave.

“It was so genuine and so real. And they went back and got another shovel-full and another shovel-full, and it was like the death was real. They weren’t just bystanders. And they’ll remember that, all of them,” he said.

“Death is an individual thing. Each person has to walk that road and do what’s right for them,” Carter said. “I mean, what makes us human is that we can grieve and that we can care for our dead.”


Photo: Tripp Carter of Bradshaw-Carter shows an example of a room meant to have a homey feel. 

Originally published by the Houston Chronicle, author Sarah Scully.