Some Funeral Homes Choose Fun ‘Life Celebrations’ Over Traditional Funerals
Using props to highlight the departed’s interests and hobbies is key part of new approach.
Lives, whether brilliant or mundane, end the same way.
While death gets us all, some funeral homes are changing how we send our beloved to the beyond.
Williams Lombardo Funeral Home in Clifton Heights, Pa., and Daley Life Celebration Studio in Swedesboro, N.J., are giving the living many ways to remember and be remembered.
A catchphrase like “We Put the Fun in Funeral” is hard to live up to, but Williams Lombardo Funeral Home does so with verve and reverence, excited to throw someone the party of their afterlife — no matter the theme.
“The cremation part of the business has really taken off in the last three or four years,” says funeral director Joe Lombardo, “and I thought, ‘What can I do to make it more meaningful and more like a traditional funeral?’ and this is what we came up with … give people options and help them celebrate the person’s life in the manner that they lived in.”
And the themes can get wild.
One horseman was eulogized with his equine by his side, corralled by his casket. An avid gardener was laid to rest on a 5-by-10-foot tomato plot. A self-described couch potato had his urn placed on a hedge shaped into a recliner.
“We’re willing to go as far as they want to go,” says George Polgar, marketing representative of Williams Lombaro Funeral Home.
Think outside the box
Of course, tweaking any ritual comes with some criticism.
The Daleys heard from one local naysayer when they changed their business sign from “Daley Funeral Home” to “Daley Life Celebration Studio.”
“One woman in the neighborhood was furious when she saw the sign,” says Judy Daley, mother and fellow funeral director to Pat and Michael Daley. “… Then one of her friends died and she came to us. She was so excited about the way the person’s life was presented. She never said a negative thing. And then when she died we had a million and one things displayed at her life celebration.”
Grieving families bring in props that “are are reflective of how people lived their lives,” says Judy, adding that their colorful viewing room has hosted a motorcycle and a grill enclosed with a plastic lobster.
“It’s a different attitude,” she says.
Along with some convincing from her sons, Judy heard other families wanting the funeral home to liven up.
“People used to come through the viewings and they used to holler at me, that they didn’t like coming in, that they didn’t like to see their friend like that,” says Judy Daley, whose family’s Sweeney Funeral Home locations in Riverside and Beverly have adopted the same mind-set. “And now they’re smiling.”
Williams Lombardo Funeral Home has done its part in brightening the somber image of funeral homes, recently replacing “Addam’s Family” pipe organs with a 35,000-gallon fish tank, Polgar says.
“Funeral homes don’t have to be this horrible, scary place…,” Polgar says. “People live, people die. As long as you led a good life and did good things and you love people and people loved you back, it should be a celebration.”
Polgar’s tagline “We Put the Fun in Funeral” has gotten some good mileage, even traveling with him on a trip to San Francisco. During his flight, he had a conversation with an older couple who brought up the playful parlor.
“They said, ‘We love you,’ ” Polgar says. “It’s crazy. We’ve tapped into a culture, and we haven’t hit the grand slam of funerals yet.”
The Clifton Heights, Pa., funeral home is trying to arrange fantasy funerals at other venues, whether for a Phillies fan at Citizens Bank Park, a theater buff at the Kimmel Center, or a golfer on some 18th green.
“We’re shooting for the big game,” Polgar says. “We believe there are people out there who are willing to go out there.”
Vow this: ‘Til death do we party
While widely considered a passageway into the beyond by most cultures, death is perceived differently around the world, says Aziz Atweh, a psychology professor at Camden County College.
“Death in America seems to be rarely celebrated,” Atweh says by email. “We are typically uncomfortable with even the words ‘death,’ ‘died’ or ‘dying’ that we try to find alternatives that almost re-brand death.”
A solemn, sorrowful funeral is customary in America, but other cultures honor the dead differently.
For instance, it’s hard to rest in peace if you’re from Madagascar, where, as part of the ritual Famadihana, descendants exhume the dead every seven years for one last dance in the belief that they will absorb the spirit of their ancestors.
And mourners in the Tana Toraja region of Indonesia may need to strike paydirt before burying their beloved since a ceremony can be expensive, complete with music, dance and a large feast. If unable to afford the extravagant affair, relatives of the deceased can save and store, keeping the corpse in their homes.
And it’s never too late to marry in some circles of Atweh’s native Lebanon, where it is customary for a single young person to be honored in postmortem matrimony.
“In essence, the funeral is considered as the wedding that this individual never had,” says Atweh, who lived in Lebanon until August 2007. “White ribbon is hung around his/her neighborhood, rice is thrown on the casket and it can be violently shaken by others to symbolize a farewell dance.”
In America, New Orleans musicians have been known to send off some people through the somber-turned-upbeat jazz funeral, a cathartic cavalcade of jazz players to and from the cemetery. And even some domestic Irish wakes allow relatives to down a six pack of beer with the deceased before lowering the body six feet.
Flippant gestures for some, such practices don’t necessarily disrespect the deceased nor deny one the right to grieve. They could just transmute the pain.
“One could be sorrowful without having the outer signs of grief that come to our mind when thinking about this,” says Atweh, who provides grief counseling for students as a school psychologist in the area. “In other words, you could be grieving within yourself and feel uncomfortable sharing that with anyone else; that is not uncommon.
“… Some might believe that they are honoring the memory of one who has died by replacing tears of sadness with smiles, laughs and beers for all!”
Laugh after death
While laughing at a funeral may be considered inappropriate in America, some mourners just can’t help themselves, as documented in the May 8 issue of medical journal QJM.
“Can you imagine going to a viewing … when suddenly someone starts to laugh hysterically?” Atweh says. “You might think that’s really disrespectful or just outrageously rude — why would anyone do that, especially if this person is a close relative of the deceased? Believe it or not, that is not uncommon. Individuals who are overcome with grief might burst into laughter at funerals or viewings and not even know exactly why! As a culture, we look down on that, but it is a well-documented phenomenon.”
Polgar recalls a self-described jokester being buried in his favorite suit — a clown suit, complete with giant shoes, colorful wig and red foam nose. Loved ones paid their respects at the open casket ceremony, then honked the horn in his hand.
“He was in full clown gear,” Polgar says.
If not a last laugh, it’s natural for someone to want to leave on a high note, Atweh says.
“I’ve heard a lot of people say they want their funeral to be a party,” Atweh says. “And that’s kind of funny, but when you think about it, most of us don’t want weeping and gnashing of teeth and desperation and hair pulling when we pass. We want people to move on, right? Especially people we care about and love.”
For a mock funeral at Williams Lombardo Funeral Home in September, comedian Joe Conklin showed how one could roast someone already cremated.
“You don’t have to have it a certain way just because it’s always been done this way,” Lombardo says. “There’s always different ways to do things and different options.”
Make the most fun funeral you ever attend your own.
Entertaining beyond the grave can be arranged at a funeral home that allows for customization.
Only 13 percent of adults surveyed by the National Funeral Directors Association said they’d want a traditional funeral service. About 62 percent said they’d like to customize the event.
Every person is afforded these last rights.
“Even people in the funeral business fall for the thinking that they’re in the funeral business because people died and that’s not at all it,” Pat Daley says. “It’s because people lived. That’s the driving principle here.”
[Via: USA Today]