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New approaches to end-of-life planning

Imagine climbing the steps to the church, your heart heavy with sorrow as you prepare to attend the funeral of a loved one who has passed. As you open the door and enter, a friendly face asks, “Would you like a venti cappuccino?”

Likewise, imagine departing the church after attending a service for a friend who was an avid lifelong motorcyclist. As you pull into line for the procession to the cemetery, you see the hearse at the front, flanked by a pair of vintage bikes, ready to escort your loved one on his final ride.

Both of these happened at recent Western New York funeral services, as trends in traditional funerals go in a new direction. Gone (or at least going) are the somber, dressed in black, one-size-fits-all services. Instead, family and friends are turning to more personalized ways to send off their loved ones, honoring who they were in life as they mourn their death.

Steve Riordan is a funeral director with Lombardo Funeral Home. The coffee and motorcycle funerals are just two of the customized events he has been part of.

“The desire to personalize funeral services has been something I have seen throughout my career,” Riordan says. “The difference is today there are more and more options.”

Riordan says years ago a casket could be adorned with, say, a fish to honor a fisherman, or some other token. Today, the options for personalization and creating a non-traditional service are endless.

“For the Harley Davidson funeral, the family came in with a cast bronze Harley Davidson filled with the man’s ashes,” he recalls. “There are urns that look like the Yankees’ baseball stadium. It’s really remarkable what is out there.”

“There are different ways for people to preserve the memories of their loved ones,” said Anthony Amigone, president of Amigone Funeral Home. While many of the fundamentals remain, such as visitation and funeral services, more families are personalizing the experience - especially with technology. He cites a recent funeral service that featured a video with a message from the deceased, recorded prior to his death.

The personalization doesn’t end at the funeral home. Joseph Dispenza, the president of Forest Lawn Cemetery, has seen a shift to less traditional interment options. He says in Erie County, 50 to 60 percent of people are now choosing cremation over traditional casket burials.

“Thirty years ago, when I started, it was less than 10 percent,” said Dispenza.

He thinks the shift can be attributed, in part, to what he calls, “an attempt to find a balance between a cathartic experience and convenience.”

For instance, many families who choose cremation still want to have a celebration of life and a resting place to memorialize their loved one.

“What’s most important is the ultimate proof of existence,” he says.

Dispenza says he’s also seen a recent resurgence in families building mausoleums as a final resting place.

“Private mausoleums were very popular in the ‘20s and ‘30s then they kind of faded away,” he says. “Today they have come back stronger than ever, and some of them here at Forest Lawn are as grand and glorious as the ones built [back then].”

Walker Posey of the National Funeral Directors Association, a group that represents more than 10,000 funeral homes across the United States and around the world, said there’s been a similar shift in trends everywhere.

Posey says 2016 was the first year cremation outnumbered traditional casket burials nationally.

“That is the first time we’ve seen that happen, and as our social customs and religious traditions change over time, people are changing the actual event,” he says. “For many people, funerals are becoming more of a contemporary event, similar to a wedding.”

Posey says social media has also played a role in redefining the funeral experience.

“Social media has a huge impact on how people grieve,” he says. “By having online memorials and social media pages, we are creating a virtual community of healing and making the world a smaller place.”

Dispenza says he has seen that to be true at Forest Lawn, especially with millennials.

“They still want to pay tribute, but they want to do it when they want to, how they want to, and from the comfort of wherever they are,” he says. “We offer a virtual tour of Forest Lawn so people can visit and honor their loved one from anywhere in the world.”

Whether it involves vintage motorcyles, a private mausoleum, or an online memorial page, for families, it is about finding ways to grieve.

Mackenzie Halker is an Amherst-based licensed clinical social worker. She says as difficult as it is to say goodbye to a loved one, having a more personalized send-off can actually assist those left behind as they process their loss.

“Grieving is a process, and it can at times be a dark process,” she says. “Changing the memorial to focus more on celebrating one’s life can provide emotional support and aid family and friends.”

Amigone cautions that simply having a more upbeat service or celebration of life doesn’t change the profound reality of losing a loved one.

“There’s no getting around natural emotions of hurt of loss,” said Amigone.

That’s why Riordan says he encourages families to meet and talk over all of the options before coming together on a funeral and burial plan that best honors the memory of their beloved family member. What works for one person may be wrong for another.

“Our job is to do anything we can to make the service unique,” he says. “You only get one mom or dad, and [family and loved ones] are going to remember that service for the rest of their lives.”

Providing sustenance

With family and friends often traveling from out-of-town for services, feeding mourners is part of the process. Typically, following a service, people might gather at a home or restaurant. But a recent change in law that went into effect last January has opened the options to allow food to be served at funeral homes.

Food can be brought in by the family, provided by the funeral home, or catered by a third party, depending on the funeral home’s policy. Steve Riordan of Lombardo Funeral Home says he has seen many families take advantage of this new service.

“We saw the demand from our clients for this, and many of us [funeral directors] lobbied, through the New York State Funeral Directors Association, to get this change,” he said.

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