Not Your Typical Funeral: Death Takes a Personalized Makeover

August 27, 2010

When Danny Daniels of Oskaloosa learned he would die from cancer, he told his wife, Cathy, exactly what his grand farewell should look like.

“He didn’t want to be dressed up in a suit. Said he was a jeans and T-shirt kind of guy,” she says. “He wanted to have an open bar in the back room at the visitation, so people could have a beer and visit and talk about all the good times. He said, ‘Don’t cry. Don’t make this sad. I had a good life.'”


But, it was the final request of the 54-year-old man that has remained with family and friends ever since Danny’s unorthodox memorial.

“He was an old-fashioned, rock ‘n’ roll kind of guy, and a farmer,” Cathy says, “and he wanted ‘Free Bird’ by Lynyrd Skynryd played at his funeral.”

“People are telling me now, five years later, that was one of the most memorable funerals they’ve ever been to. Everybody just grinned when ‘Free Bird’ came on, and you could hear a chuckle all through the church. And this was the 8-minute version! He wanted the long version, not the 4-minute one.”

Progressive community

Funerals have changed dramatically in the past decade, with people shunning old, one-size-fits-all traditions for more customized and meaningful experiences.

“The thing I attribute it to, the baby boomers are making the decisions now,” says Larry McElwain, director of Warren-McElwain Mortuary and Cremation Services, 120 W. 13th St. “They’re more interested in personalization and less about ritual than the generations ahead of them.”

Modern memorial services often feature popular music, video tributes, collages and the creative use of memorabilia during the ceremony.

“We had a person who did crochet and knitting. And the family used afghans and lap robes that she’d made, then laid on the casket pieces of yarn from her collection,” McElwain says.

“Even the Catholic Church is changing their ways to accommodate people,” says Bart Yost of Rumsey-Yost Funeral Home, 601 Ind.

“You used to go to a Catholic funeral, and if you didn’t know who the person was, you wouldn’t know who the funeral was for. It was the structured funeral Mass. Times have changed, and the priests that we have now are absolutely fantastic. They are wanting to do a lot more what the family wants.”

Local funeral directors point out that Lawrence has always been a more progressive community than most. Cremation rates here are higher than anywhere else in the state and increasing due to the weak economy and the relatively higher costs of burial.

“The trend seems to be, ‘Let’s get Mom and Dad cremated. We’re not going to spend a lot of money, that’s not what they wanted,'” says Jake Barnett of Lawrence Chapel Oaks Cremation and Funeral Service, 3821 W. Sixth St. “Then, they’ll often turn around and spend that money on a reception or a party, to celebrate the life.”

Disposing or storing of the ashes, called cremains, has become a more creative exercise as well.

“There are lots of different types of urns. The old moonshine jugs; I’ve used a couple of those,” Barnett says. “We had a Catholic service in Tonganoxie where some of the cremains were in a beer stein at the front of the chapel. With the hard economic times these days, if somebody goes to Hobby Lobby and buys a container that they like, we’ll use that.”

Yost remembers a service a few years back for a young boy whose family decided to send his ashes home with family and friends.

“They had about 250 very small vials, and we put the cremains in those vials,” he says. “They wanted everybody at the service to take one of those and do with them what they wanted. Whether they wanted to go scatter them in the Colorado mountains or California, or keep them, or whatever.”

Even when people decide to go the more traditional route of burial, they come up with inventive ways to individualize the ceremony.

“We had a gentleman that died about four years ago, and his big request was he wanted six women to carry him to his grave,” Yost says. “So, he had six women be his casket bearers.”

Motorcycle enthusiasts might opt to have the Harley Hearse transport the casket to the cemetery. And a multitude of customizable laser-etched headstone designs are available, just for the asking.

“They can even do burial vaults that are purple for hardcore K-State people, or John Deere green, or Harley-Davidson colors. It’s all about customization,” Barnett says.

Private honor

When Shelly Nichols’ son, Phil Lister Jr., succumbed to lymphoma and leukemia at age 21, she wanted to do something personal to honor his memory, while keeping him close to home in Lecompton.

“None of my family had passed, and Phil was my oldest boy,” Nichols says. “I didn’t really want him to just be at a cemetery around people we didn?t know.”

So with permission from city and county officials, and a lot of help from her friends, Shelly created a private cemetery on the family farm, complete with wrought iron fence, personalized headstone and extensive landscaping.

“Phil loved the farm,” she says. “He fished and loved shooting guns and riding his dirt bike. So I put in flowers and grasses. There’s a nice bench up there for people who come up to visit. And they will, once in a while. It’s really nice that I have control and can put whatever I want up there.”


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