An exclusive look at TLC’s “Best Funeral Ever” Reality Special speaking with John Beckwith Jr

Funeral Industry News January 4, 2013

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An exclusive look at TLC’s “Best Funeral Ever” Reality Special speaking with John Beckwith Jr

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 TLC Airs “Best Funeral Ever” Reality Special

TLC’s “Best Funeral Ever” airs on January 6, 2013 and features the Golden Gate Funeral Home in Dallas. Photo supplied by Golden Gate Funeral Home.

Best Funeral Ever will be the first unscripted hour-long reality television special for TLC, which will bring viewers behind the scenes of the funerary process, showcasing Dallas-based Golden Gate Funeral Home’s tailored home-going ceremonies airing Sunday, January 6, 2013 at 10/9c.

It was back in 2001 when something happened on television. For years, the funeral industry was a mysterious world scarcely spoken of until HBO released the five season, 63 episode hit series Six Feet Under, which chronicled the lives of the fictional Fisher and Sons Funeral Home. Following the success of the show, A&E released Family Plots, an American documentary series, which lasted four seasons beginning in 2004, depicting the ongoing events and lives of its employees at the family-owned Poway Bernardo Mortuary.

Years later, rumors surfaced in 2009 of Montreal entrepreneur, Gerald Dominique’s plans of starting an all-obituary channel in Quebec after the success of the German death-themed television channel EtosTV in 2008. If there was any kind of trend surrounding death, it’s that in spite of all the negative connotations, it is the one phenomenon which continues to fascinate and intimidate nearly everyone.

While death has long been viewed with stern disapproval by many, funerals have long served as an outlet for channeling and healing the loss that death brings with it. To that extent, for John Beckwith Jr., Chief Executive Officer of Golden Gate Funeral Home and his staff, they have one philosophy, whatever the family wants, they will do, and that is precisely what Best Funeral Ever is all about.

Since 1985, after John Beckwith Sr. founded Golden Gate Funeral Home, the business has operated using a very simple, yet effective business model. Regardless of income, social standing or public reputation, Golden Gate serves everyone in its community and treats them with respect – a method Beckwith Sr. developed after the poor treatment his family received when his mother passed away years ago.

While the funeral home handled fewer than 200 cases during its first year of business, flash forward to 2013, and Golden Gate Funeral Home has garnered an impressive roster of achievements. With a team of over 65 employees, expanded locations that serve more than 2500 cases a year, and a fleet of 33 white limousines, stretch Cadillacs, Chryslers, Lincolns, Mercedes, Bentleys, and coming soon, an order for the nation’s first Hummer-hearse, has made the Beckwith family business the biggest funeral home in Dallas.

But what makes Golden Gate Funeral Home one of the busiest funeral homes in the Southwestern United States is their conviction in serving their community. For Beckwith, there isn’t a family request that is too eccentric, which is what Best Funeral Ever is about.

“What we want to do is allow families an opportunity to say goodbye to their loved ones in a different way,” Beckwith said. “We don’t want them to come in and just mourn that their loved one has just passed away, we want to celebrate the idea that their loved one had lived.”

This is where Golden Gate Funeral Home’s home-going ceremonies play a significant role.

Over the years, personalized funerals have been steamrolling their way into every funeral home and not without rationale. With roughly 70 million baby boomers approaching 65 years of age – an age when it’s prudent to plan funerals for loved ones, as well as themselves – their expectations have changed since the times of their youth. Boomers are not settling with just any ordinary, cookie-cutter funeral, and with this inclination, they’re looking beyond what has been considered the traditional ceremony and toward what a sendoff ceremony means to them and their loved ones.

As Beckwith points out, “Because everyone is different, a lot of times we find ourselves as funeral directors pushing what we think tradition is. But what we have to do is open up the door and allow the family to tell us what theirtradition is.”

To do this, Beckwith explains that it’s important to get to know the family and to familiarize themselves with the life the deceased had lived. “What we find with these kinds of celebrations is we are able to tell you who this person is – we are able to show you who they were.”

And a celebration of life is what Golden Gate makes it. While the hour long program will highlight three of Golden Gate’s home-going ceremonies, creating over-the-top event themed sendoffs which reflect the deceased’s hobbies, profession and personal passions, it is important to note that these type of ceremonies only account for 100 of their 2500 annual funeral services.

Willie “Wolf” McCoy, the bass voice of the baby back rib jingle had an oversized grill-shaped casket which was carried by pallbearers wearing crisp white aprons and chef’s hats. Live pigs ran amok during the service and a tabletop fountain spit out a geyser of barbecue sauce for dipping ceremonial, freshly cooked ribs. Jerry Bagley, whose spina bifida prevented him from riding the rides at amusement parks,  had his ashes taken on a Ferris wheel and bumper cars. It’s through these and other home-going ceremonies that reinforce what a funeral truly is – a gathering of family and friends, congregating together to honor the memory and reflect upon the life of a loved one.

Though some critics may see TLC’s special as quirky or even morbid considering the subject matter, and even fellow funeral professionals may view it as inappropriate – some even going so far as to say the industry is ripe with negative media attention – the truth is what Best Funeral Ever actually does is showcase the extent funeral directors will go to serve their community and those mourning the loss of loved ones. It’s a way of informing the public what a funeral director does and further it’s an attempt to sway the negative criticism the industry has attracted over the years.

“We’re hoping that people now will open their minds to funeral services not as a means of disposing their loved one, but rather a way of celebrating their loved ones and the life they lived,” says Beckwith.

But even if reception is unfavorable to the idea of a funeral in the guise of a celebration, Beckwith believes in the importance and the true meaning of the show.

“Our job is to educate the public,” Beckwith said. “When they see these types of celebrations, I hope they start telling their family and friends, ‘When I pass away, I want a celebration like that’ or ‘I don’t want one like that’. Either way, they are planning for their services ahead of time. We want people talking and discussing with their families what they want done. We don’t want their families to have to make such a decision (of whether the loved one had wanted something or not) at a such an emotional time.

“I’m hoping this will open up that conversation about death. I believe people will either love these kinds of celebrations or they won’t, but either way, they will still be able to tell their families what it is they want at the time of their death so they won’t have to make the decision for you.”

At this time Best Funeral Ever is airing as a special on TLC, as well as a backdoor pilot which, if successful with audiences, could mean the network may consider it for a regular series. Currently, Beckwith also hosts a local radio and television show called Ask the Undertaker, which focuses on educating the public on the services the funeral industry offers, as well as the importance of ensuring wills, funerary arrangements and power-of-attorneys are taken care of in advance.

TLC’s trailer of Best Funeral Ever which airs Sunday, January 6, 2013 at 10/9c.