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Ask The Undertaker: A chat With The Man Responsible for TLC’s ‘Best Funeral Ever’

December 8, 2013

Ryan Thogmartin is the CEO of DISRUPT Media | Follower of Christ | Husband | Father | Entrepreneur | Host of #DISRUPTu! and #FUNERALnationtv | Lover of Skittles DISRUPT Media is a social media content agency that focuses on storytelling for funeral companies. We use real stories to build creative strategies that achieve actual business goals.

Ask The Undertaker: A chat With The Man Responsible for TLC’s ‘Best Funeral Ever’

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Only a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of the funerals held at the Golden Gate Funeral Home on S. R.L. Thornton Freeway could be classified as opulent, extravagant, strange, silly, bizarre — or merelyspecial, to quote the boss. John Beckwith Jr., owner and CEO of the massive complex just south of downtown Dallas, figures Golden Gate does maybe 100 of these “special homegoings” a year — 100 out of more than 3,000 mostly somber, tear-stained farewells.

“A small percentage,” says Beckwith. “Small.”

But, of course, those homegoings are the funerals that get the attention. Those are the ones during which mourners dress as life-sized servings of eggs and bacon to lay to rest a three-times-a-day breakfast-eater. Those are the ones during which the deceased is rolled down a bowling lane for one last strike (just in case they don’t have decent alleys in heaven, perhaps). Those are the ones during which cremated couples are “re-married” during surreal ceremonies involving the commingling of the “cremains.”

And those are the ones featured on Best Funeral Everwhich finally premieres with back-to-back episodes beginning tonight at 9 p.m. It’s the culmination of Beckwith’s dream to turn the family business into a national phenomenon — the big-time rebranding of a business that till now has been best known locally for its early-Sunday TV show Ask the Undertaker.

This is how Judy Sunday’s family said goodbye to the bowler during her “homegoing.”(TLC)

“I always imagined we would take it to the next level,” he says. “Every family’s experience is different. I am amazed when some people say what they want to do. I am still amazed. But I am not shocked. It’s more personalization now. People aren’t as traditional now as they used to be. And trends change.”

Beckwith knows you’re snickering at him; he’s read the online comments. He knows there are people out there who think shot-putting a loved one into heaven isn’t exactly the most … somber way of saying goodbye, let’s say. And he’s just fine with it. Because, look, it’s not your funeral. Says Beckwith, this is how these folks and their families wanted to part ways — with something a bit more elaborate than hole in the ground.

“My father said the families that celebrated their loved ones’ lives accepted it better,” Beckwith says. “It wasn’t as sad as those who had more traditional services. They’re more reserved; they grieve inward. But those who are celebrating mourn outward. They laugh if they need to and cry if they want to.”

Which is what makes Best Funeral Ever such a surreal experience: Audiences might want to do both. At the same time.

John Beckwith Jr.

Beckwith says TLC approached him based on his reputation — and, more than likely, from a few YouTube videos, including one from Al Sharpton’s mother’s funeral in Alabama, which was a Golden Gate production. He insists he was initially skeptical about doing a show, which began with a one-hour special that aired earlier this year. But TLC “got it,” he says — and he got what he always wanted, a national platform for his booming business.

“A long time ago, in the mid-1980s, we decided to do pre-arranged services and let families pay for them ahead of time,” Beckwith says. “The families that did that, their families had more peace and comfort. It wasn’t as emotional when they were making funeral arrangements. But the families that didn’t had to guess what their loved ones wanted. The ones who pre-made them got more out of the experience. And I’ve been asked if there’s something I wouldn’t do. I have never been in that position so far.”

He also insists the cameras didn’t change what they were already doing at Golden Gate. He insistsBest Funeral Ever is that rare reality program where what you see is what the cameras got — no more, no less.

“These are grieving families,” he says. “They can’t fake crying and laughing.”