Personalized Funerals Shake Stiff Traditions

How do you picture your final party?

"Amazing Grace" pumping from an organ, you lying buttoned up in a suit, surrounded by uncomfortable guests and flower arrangements fit for the neck of a racehorse?

If that's not your scene, you’re not alone. As the aging baby boomer generation tires of traditional send-offs, funerals are becoming increasingly more personalized, infused with party-planner panache.

“It’s a sign of the times that people are more open to celebrating someone’s life in a festive fashion,” said Richard Aaron, president of New York City party-planning company BizBash (search), who was hired by The National Funeral Directors Association (search) to teach event-planning to its members.

In the past, the eulogy may have been the main personal moment, but funerals are becoming “far more oriented to the individual,” said David Walkinshaw, a third generation funeral home director in Arlington, Mass.

Walkinshaw recently oversaw a sculptor’s funeral that became a tribute to his craft. “They literally turned it into a sculpture gallery,” he said of his funeral home. “They brought in tons of his works and played classical music he had liked.”

And while many families still decide to dress the deceased in their Sunday best, Walkinshaw said after-life fashion is becoming more creative. One man was dressed in his gardening clothes and people brought gardening props, including his rake, to the funeral.

“If he was in a suit it wouldn’t have been him,” Walkinshaw said. “Anyone that came in said, ‘That was Jack, that was really him.’”

The business has received a boost from a popular HBO drama Six Feet Under (search), which has helped put a face on the profession, Walkinshaw said.

“The show has been extremely positive for funeral directors. It has made us approachable and real. Numerous families have come in and said ‘I saw this on Six Feet Under. Can we really do things like that?”

Options are abundant, Aaron said. Funeral directors are working with prop companies, window display experts and audio-visual specialists to add splashes of personality to ceremonies.

Old photos are often made into a digital movie that plays (with music or narration) during the funeral. And caskets are no longer generic either. Whether it's engraved with an emblem such as a police badge or painted with a NASCAR theme, complete with a checkered flag lining, personalized final resting places have become popular.

Pre-planning has also become more common as the living crave more control over their last hurrah. “People are setting up menus and luncheons for their own funerals,” said Aaron. “Before it was pretty much limited to picking out your casket.”

And more festive music choices are being played over somber classics. “We hear everything now from rock 'n' roll to blue grass,” Walkinshaw said.

Spence said he hosted a ceremony in May that had a decidedly winter soundtrack. “He loved Christmas, so the family played 'Jingle Bells' and 'White Christmas.'"

But brighter caskets and modern music aren’t rocking the core of funerals.

“We’re not getting away from traditions," Spence said. "We’re reinforcing what it always was -- a gathering for families.”

And if a family member or friend can’t make the funeral, online companies make it possible to be there virtually. plays Web casts of funerals, memorials and graveside services. Memorials Online offers the bereaved a place to post obituary notices, tributes and to sign the visitation book.

“Sometimes people just cannot make a funeral and want to make the family know they are being thought about at the time of their loss,” said Memorials  founder Robert Hiscock. “You can actually sign the visitation book with your cell phone or PDA now.”

The site is especially good for children, he said. “It gives them an outlet to really say what they want to say. They have trouble expressing feelings of grief.”

The tributes stay online perpetually, which Hiscock said is important because people never forget. “People come back after years have passed and write comments.”

Whether creating virtual tributes or personalizing services, funeral directors are working to make the last hurrah a celebration instead of a somber ceremony of loss.

“People want their lives to be remembered in a happier way,” said Aaron. “Let’s show the wonderful things we’ve accomplished and find a way to present it.”