Burying Tradition, More People Opt For ‘Fun’ Funerals

For Some, New Rites of Passage
Include Parties, Boat Rides
And Psychedelic Caskets


by Carrie Dolan, Staff Reporter of The Wall Street Journal

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — In a hotel ballroom here, about 3,000
revelers float among bouquets of balloons and mingle around a trio
of bars. An ice sculpture drips over the buffet. A seven-piece band,
led by a vocalist in a black lace dress, blares out James Brown’s “I
Feel Good.” In the midst of the action is the party’s host — lying
in a flag-draped coffin.
He was B. T. Collins, a popular California state legislator, who
died of a heart attack in March at age 52. A former Green Beret who
lost an arm and a leg in the Vietnam War, he was fond of
unconventional tributes. He marked his 50th birthday with a
parachute jump and once donated a urinal to Santa Clara University’s
school of law, his alma mater. Known for his disdain for protocol
and his love of a good time, he had set aside funds to celebrate his
passing. As for his attendance at the festivities, Nora Romero, his
longtime administrative assistant, asks: “You don’t think B. T. would
miss his own party, do you?”
These days, a small but growing number of people are choosing to
be remembered in an upbeat — and sometimes bizarre — fashion. By
planning their own send-offs, these forward-looking folks ensure a
memorable goodbye to loved ones. “It’s a way of saying, `Hey world,
I may be dead, but I’m not gone,'” says Steve Skiles, who has been a
funeral director in Belmont, Calif., for three years.
A fun funeral is “a very healthy idea,” says Richard Steffen, a
friend who helped plan the final party for Mr. Collins, who had a
history of coronary trouble. “I was raised Polish Catholic and
services would always end with a blowout party with a polka band,
kielbasa and vodka …Everyone would cry in the morning, but by
midnight there was no pain.”
“There’s definitely a trend,” toward people planning creative
funerals, says Bill Vlcek of the California Funeral Directors
Association, which represents about 560 members. Many funerals
“still have a somewhat traditional format, but with a personalized
spin on it,” he says. About 40,000 people have prearranged and
prepaid for their services since California’s funeral homes began a
special program in 1985. Mr. Vlcek estimates that in the San
Francisco Bay and Los Angeles areas as many as 20% of funerals are
nontraditional. “Less than a half percent” of services are
unconventional elsewhere in the state, he says.
“Whatever has meaning to the family and friends is appropriate,
even if it may seem outrageous to others,” says a spokesman for the
Frank E. Campbell Funeral Chapel in New York, which has a “very
religious clientele.”
Nationally, too, there has been an increase in “preneed” funeral
planning, and in efforts to “put more of the personality of the
deceased into the funeral,” says a spokeswoman for the National
Funeral Directors Association in Milwaukee.
Some take a serious interest in their future funerals to leave
less work — and a message — for their survivors. Phillip
Quattrociocchi, who is dying of AIDS, has planned two services. One,
to be held in Sacramento, Calif., where he grew up, will be a
traditional, religious service. The other, in San Francisco, where
he now lives, will feature a video of himself urging others “to do
some volunteer work.”
He says he has “picked some excellent speakers” for the
obsequies, handled the catering arrangements and hired a graphic
artist to design the invitations. “I wanted to get on with living,
and not keep worrying about dying,” he says.
Jack Smith, 55, a popular San Francisco bar owner, planned a less
sober service. After learning that he had terminal cancer, he
planned a yacht cruise for 100 friends, set to sail the Saturday
after his death. Dave Rose, a friend, recalls that Mr. Smith “handed
me an invitation, and said, `I’m having a party. I just don’t have a
date on it yet.'”
The cruise featured a jazz band and a blues group, plenty of
refreshments and a scattering of the deceased’s ashes to the playing
of “I’ll Be Seeing You.” Friends have been talking about it ever
since.
When Connie Scramlin, 58, a fan of baseball’s Detroit Tigers,
learned she had cancer, she arranged to be buried in a club uniform,
in a coffin with the team’s colors of orange, navy blue and white.
“Take Me Out to the Ballgame” was played at her service last June.
“I knew that some people might think it was almost sacrilegious,”
says Mrs. Scramlin’s daughter Debbie Pillsbury, “but most guests
were really moved.”
Not everyone approves of excessive merrymaking. Deacon Bill
Mitchell, of the Catholic Archdiocese of San Francisco, says the
emphasis “should be on prayer for the dead, and on …consolation
for those going through the mourning process. I’m not sure if a
great big party does a lot to really help.”
Ron Roy, of Woods Glendale Mortuary in Glendale, Calif., with
more than 30 years in the funeral business, has met many creative
requests, including one from a woman who asked to be interred with a
portable TV tuned to her favorite soap operas. Friends of a Hell’s
Angel placed switchblade knives, brass knuckles and marijuana
cigarettes beside the biker’s body, which was to be cremated. One
couple brought in a parakeet for Mr. Roy to embalm, stipulating that
the bird be entombed with the spouse who died first. “That was about
12 years ago, and we’re still diligently holding on to Tweety Bird,”
he says.
Some requests require special effort. Last summer, Mr. Skiles,
the Belmont mortician, fulfilled a woman’s wish to be buried at sea
in a hand-carved canoe. Full-body burial isn’t legal off
California’s coast, so he and a colleague “put her in the back of a
U-Haul truck and drove to Oregon,” he says. They rented a fishing
boat, went 15 miles offshore, and pushed the canoe overboard.
The price? About $4,000. That can be considerably less than the
cost of a traditional funeral-parlor service and burial in certain
areas of the country.
Those with more conventional tastes for funerals can still
request a bit of flair. San Francisco’s Ghia Gallery, for instance,
has decorated caskets with graffiti and psychedelic art, and it is
developing a line of coffins, each carved from an individual tree.
Loretto Casket Co. in Tennessee sells coffins emblazoned with the
logos of major universities. At a columbarium in San Francisco,
people have found their final resting places in tobacco humidors,
cameras and cookie jars, while patrons of other vaults have asked to
be stored in a favorite hunting decoy or bowling pin. Hunters can
arrange to have Iowa-based Canuck’s Sportsman’s Memorials Inc. place
their ashes into shotgun shells and fire them into the woods.
A venture once proposed by a Florida group to launch cremated
remains into space never got off the ground, however.
And some wishes just can’t be honored. Kevin Minke, a counselor
at the Telophase Society, a San Diego cremation concern, says he has
had customers who “say they want their ashes thrown out with the
garbage or flushed down the toilet.” Both methods are illegal.
Still, those in the industry appreciate the importance of making
a special exit. Mr. Roy arranged to be buried off Canada’s coast in
fishing gear. “I love to fish and I want them to put me out there
with the fish,” he says. Mr. Skiles, a self-described “big-breakfast
man,” has planned a morning cruise for his friends with a menu of
pork chops and eggs to accompany a scattering of his ashes.
His wife wants her ashes tossed from a hot-air balloon. “She’s
always wanted to take one of those balloon trips,” he says, “but
she’s afraid of heights.”

[This article is made available here by Dow Jones Co. for the
personal and non-commercial use of callers to this bbs, in the
hope that it will be of some help to those who are suffering
from the HIV/AIDS disease and others who are seeking to help them.]

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