Funeral services have long been seen as traditional and standardized. However, in recent years, personalization is becoming increasingly important for many people. This trend highlights the desire for a more intimate and meaningful farewell, one that captures the essence of the person and celebrates the person’s life.
The trend is driven, in part, by the Boomer generation, which is known for putting its inimitable stamp on everything, and funerals are no exception. Boomers want their final goodbye to better reflect who they were as individuals, embracing personalized elements and unique touches.
As a funeral director, I am witnessing the positive impact of personalizing funerals. The approach allows for a deeper understanding of the unique life story of the deceased, leaving funeral-goers with a greater sense of connection.
In 2015, the death of a funeral director, who had been an executive for a large funeral service corporation, sparked a wave of creativity from his family and colleagues. At the funeral home visitation, a table was set up with some of his prized possessions. Among them was his collection of Yankee memorabilia, which included his collection of signed baseballs.
There were also metal skeleton keys ornamented with a few of his motivational catchphrases, small bottles of Patron, his drink of choice, and a soft-covered booklet which contained an array of photos taken throughout his life.
Following the funeral Mass, a luncheon at New York City’s venerable Athletic Club, of which he had been a member, brought everyone together to share memories. Video screens strategically positioned around the large reception room, displayed clips from his life, and from his favorite movies, including the closing scene from The Sound of Music in which the Von Trapp family triumphantly reached the top of the mountain. It symbolized his own triumphant path through life. At the movie’s conclusion, guests were invited outside onto the terrace to smoke cigars banded with his initials and years of birth and death.
Recently, funeral director Tom Will had the opportunity to handle a funeral that exemplified the power of personalization. Mary, the deceased, had been a vivacious woman who lived life to the fullest, and her three children wanted to give her a sendoff that reflected that.
At the arrangement conference, they showed Will a photo of singer Aretha Franklin, who died in 2021, reposing in a casket with her ankles crossed. They requested he do the same for their mother.
For the visitation, Mary was dressed in a long white gown, a big picture hat, and high-heeled shoes, with her ankles gracefully crossed just as the family had requested.
A statue of Louie Armstrong, on a table-top at the head of the casket, watched over her. The spacious reposing room was filled with large festive silver and gold balloons, and in a nod to the deceased’s love of hats — her children said she never went out of the house without one — approximately 100 of hers were displayed around the room.
What’s more, as a tribute, many of the female visitors arrived donning their own hats. A huge photo of a smiling Mary wearing one of her signature hats and holding a champagne glass in a toast, graced a corner of the room. Personalized programs included Mary’s biography, several photos, some prized quotes, and the complete lyrics to the Paul Anka composition, My Way, made famous by Frank Sinatra.
Every detail was carefully chosen to capture her vibrant personality.
Mary’s two sons were involved in the music world, so music played an important part in the family’s life. At the evening visitation, The Dixie Rascals, a jazz band, filled the reposing room with soft music. “The songs they played were memorable ones that many of us grew up with it, and they spanned generations,” said Will.
And the band was back again on the morning of the funeral, positioned in front of the church. As mourners exited the church, after the funeral Mass, they were greeted by more familiar tunes.
Will has long encouraged families to bring in a cherished item of the deceased – be it a baseball, football, a set of golf clubs, or even a wooden cooking spoon – to display or place in the casket. But he said that the level of personalization for Mary’s funeral was a first for him. In fact, he noted that while the initial planning had been a bit of a challenge, it was an excellent learning experience.
“By doing this, it would be second nature to me the next time someone says they want the funeral to be a celebration of his or her life,” Will remarked.
After the burial, family and friends gathered at Mary’s favorite restaurant, a converted farmhouse dating from Colonial times on Long Island. When dinner was over, one of Mary’s sons took a seat at the restaurant’s baby grand piano to play a couple of his mother’s best-loved songs, as a flaming baked Alaska, her go-to dessert, was wheeled into the room and served to guests.
“This was a funeral I will never forget,” said Will, a funeral director for 55 years.
While Mary’s family pulled out all the stops, anyone can incorporate personal touches tailored to the life being honored.
Do you think a funeral should be generic or personalized? What does a personalized funeral look like in your mind?
Tags End of Life Planning