Fun Funerals

The Generation That Gave Us Fast Food and ATMs Now Rethinks Last Rites

By Buck Wolf

Jan. 18, 2001 — If a funeral had to be a sad affair, the word wouldn't begin with F-U-N. A growing number of graying baby boomers want to celebrate life when they say that final goodbye.

The generation that gave us fast food and ATMs now desires to put a personal touch on last rites. And if that means replacing "Amazing Grace" at the memorial service with "Stairway to Heaven," amen.

Going in Style

"The boomers are reinventing the funeral. They don't think a funeral has to be all sad to remember their loved ones with respect," says Joe Weigel, spokesman for Batesville Casket Co. in Indiana, the largest North American coffin maker.

The folks at Batesville have seen it all in the last few years. One family had exotic dancers at their loved one's funeral because the deceased was "that sort of guy." A golf lover was buried with his lucky Callaway Big Bertha driver.

And then there was the guy on the West Coast who had a "boxing-themed" memorial. The funeral parlor was decked out like a boxing ring, complete with a drop-down microphone. Mourners actually stepped between the ropes like prize fighters to deliver eulogies over the sound system.

Recently, the family of Paul Wellener of Mount Lebanon, Pa., bought a pair of plastic seats from the old Three Rivers Stadium, former home of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Wellener had season tickets for more than 40 years. The seats will now be mounted on stone, along with an inscription, to serve as a grave marker.

Batesville surveyed 500 baby boomers over the last few years. Asked about what should happen after they die, 14 percent said they wanted mourners to "visit their grave." In comparison, 41 percent said they wanted friends and relative to "throw a huge party."

"This is all a throwback. A hundred years ago, most funerals were in the home, so mourners immediately had the sense of the deceased when they arrived to mourn," Weigel says. "Now we want to give mourners that atmosphere when they go to the funeral parlor."

At funeral directors conventions, Batesville now helps undertakers create services with distinct themes. Batesville's "Cool Jazz" funeral calls for the casket to rest on two loudspeakers (presumably playing a meditative selection of Miles Davis) with a drum set nearby.