Funerals getting custom touch

`Now our focus is on people that call,' funeral director says

September 23, 2001|By Sara Isadora Mancuso | Sara Isadora Mancuso,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

SWEDESBORO, N.J. - For an old salt, there's the casket buoyed by a wooden rowboat with slick blue trim and silver moorings.

For the veteran, a 36-foot-long painting chronicling the end of World War II, from Iwo Jima to Times Square, adorns the wall behind the dearly departed.

At the Daley Funeral Home in Swedesboro - now known as the Daley Funeral Home Life Celebration Studio - families can now choose personalized send-offs for the new millennium.

Since Judith Daley's two sons, both in their 20s, joined the business, the funeral home has taken an unusual approach to the traditional ceremony.

Beginning in January, it has been offering custom packages that it can create with at least 10 days' notice.

Funeral directors across the region, in fact, are responding to a growing desire to personalize and add meaning to a loved one's last service.

Among recent requests from the bereaved in the region: A Harley-Davidson sidecar carrying a casket. The placement of a dog's ashes on the soft, satin interior next to its late master. A singing electronic monkey, dressed in Penn State football regalia, shaking the hands of arriving mourners from his perch atop the casket. A tractor pulling a wooden flatbed carrying a former farmer.

"At one time, the focus was on dead bodies and caskets. Now our focus is on the people that call," funeral director Patrick Daley said.

So far, the undertaker has not had any takers for his elaborate tableaux. The Daleys charge about $5,000, the national average, for traditional or special funerals.

The value of ritual

Deborah Tolboom, who teaches embalming and funeral counseling at Mercer County Community College, near Trenton, N.J., said the Daleys had the right idea.

In the past, immigrants reflected their cultures in burial ceremonies, Tolboom said.

"Over the generations, we've done away with traditions in an effort to Americanize ourselves. ... We have lost the value of ritual in our society because we have become so blended," she said.

But increasingly, families are trying to emotionally connect with the viewing, funeral service and burial through more personalized rituals.

Vicki Junk of Gloucester County, N.J., said she used to think funerals were "really barbaric."

"Then, when you have someone die, you realize how important it is," she said.

When her father, Bob Urion, died of cancer last year, the Daley Funeral Home focused on an intense rivalry involving his favorite college football team. On the interior of the casket lid was a drawing of a player in Penn State blue and white tackling a player in Syracuse orange.

New breed of mourners

Surfing a funeral home's Web site, mourners can peek at prices of cement burial vaults and steel caskets with names such as Onyx and Primrose.

Some casket dealers offer camouflauge interiors for hunters. And handmade quilts to cover the pillowy padding inside.

"I'm waiting for the next thing to be online viewings," said Jim Tomasello, who is president of the New Jersey State Funeral Directors Association. "I don't know if it would ever come to that. It would be so cold and callous."

But the funeral industry - which takes in $350 million annually in New Jersey and $575 million in Pennsylvania - is girding itself for a new breed of mourners.

"I think baby boomers aren't willing to buy cookie-cutter stuff that yesterday's funeral directors were shoving down their throats," said Ernie Heffner, a funeral director at Heffner Funeral Homes & Crematory in York, Pa.

It's not that boomers are willing to plunk down more for a funeral, but that they expect their money's worth: decoration to the hilt, creativity and ceremony, Heffner said.

As Tolboom counsels clients: "As long as we're not breaking any laws, `Go for it!'"

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