Today when people go, almost anything goes



While he was sharing drinks and talking shop at a favorite watering hole, Kelly Smith and a co-worker were joined by a mechanic who told them of a funeral he'd recently attended. His friend, he said, had been buried with cartons of cigarettes, a Zippo lighter and an issue of Playboy magazine.

Smith wasn't surprised. As public relations manager for the National Funeral Directors Association, he had seen this phenomenon before -- laying loved ones to rest with their cherished possessions.

It's part of the growing trend of the personalization and individualization of funerals and memorial services, Smith says.

"[Once] there were clearly defined ethnic, religious and cultural customs that communities followed and that went into the funeral," Smith says. "When you walked into that funeral home, [the funeral directors] knew who you were and what the custom was for your family. In the last 40 years, that has all changed."

Traditional guidelines are being broken everywhere, including funerals, says Nicholas F. Cognetta Jr., who, with his father, owns Nicholas F. Cognetta Funeral Home in Stamford, Conn.

"Things you never would've done years ago, those taboos are being lifted. People feel that they can express themselves these days, and their social hub won't criticize their actions."

John Carmon, president of Carmon Community Funeral Homes in Windsor, Conn., says he's seen it all. He recalls closing caskets that have contained golf balls, cigars, bottles of liquor, beer steins, shot glasses, hammers, stuffed animals, musical instruments and even a loaded gun -- the family said that considering where the deceased was going, he might need it.

Alongside caskets during calling hours, Carmon says, he's placed Harley-Davidson motorcycles and even an 18-foot canoe. "What's silly to me is dear to you," says Cognetta.

According to Joseph Pagliaro, co-owner of F. Hoyt Funeral Home in New Canaan, Conn., people are sometimes buried with their pets' ashes. "The kinds of items chosen for inclusion in a casket seem to fall along gender lines. Men are more apt to have the fishing pole. If they have a hobby of sorts, they'll bring in a hard physical piece of that," says Cognetta. Women, he says, seem to be more picture-, keepsake- and memento-oriented.

But personal effects inside the casket aren't the only way to individualize a loved one's send-off. Pagliaro offers a service whereby the interior of the casket is embroidered with a symbol of something important in the deceased's life. A horse could be depicted in the casket of a polo player, while a travel agent might have an ocean liner.

And one Dallas-based company, White Light, is even offering customized caskets -- a luxury once only afforded to pharaohs.

Families now have the option of personalizing the exterior of the casket. For instance, if the deceased was a golfer, relatives can choose a casket sporting a photo-laminate mural of a golf course, "Fairway to Heaven." Among other options: a depiction of renaissance angels or the "Return to Sender" model, which is brown and has faux postage affixed to it.

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