Fun" [?] Funerals


Modern Interment Decoration

You can have money piled to the ceiling but the size of your funeral is still going to depend on the weather.

- Chuck Tanner

by Tessa DeCarlo and Susan Subtle Dintenfass

San Francisco - Until recently, an "alternative" funeral usually meant a plain pine box or ashes discreetly dumped at sea.  Anyone who wanted a bit more pomp and circumstance had to contend with the encrusted traditions and high prices of conventional funeral parlours.  Now a San Francisco company is combining consumerist critiques of the funeral industry with death-theme art shows and an array of caskets and urns that a traditional funeral director wouldn't be caught dead in.

"You've been to one regular funeral, you've been to them all," said Alex Ghia, who with two partners founded the Ghia Gallery a year and a half ago.  "Maybe there's more flowers, or another limo, but basically they're all the same.  We're offering something more personal."

Among the gallery's unusual wares are a huge chrome rhino's head with a hollow horn for a loved one's cremated remains and an urn made out of an old liquor cabinet that, when opened, plays "How Dry I Am."  There's also funerary jewelry in silver, crystal and porcelain that allows survivors to wear a bit of the deceased around the neck or pinned to a blouse; a bronze reliquary cast from the fangs of prehistoric carnivores; lidded jars in raku and inlaid wood; a tall marble columbarium with room for a whole family's remains; and a blinking 3-foot-high robotic sculpture with a comically tiny light-bulb head whose beaded skirt conceals a container for ashes.

"No one's ever done this before," said Ghia, a former chef and movie stuntman.  "We're a celebration of death.  We're the last taboo."

The gallery has an unlikely location: a small shopping plaza in an unfashionable semi-industrial section of the city, next door to a tour company and a sandwich shop.  Inside, much of the space is devoted to art exhibits that change every few months.  A photographic exhibit titled "Sacred Sites" opens tomorrow.  "It concerns death all around the world, from the Philippines to Ireland," Ghia explained.  Coming up in the fall is a show of works inspired by the Mexican festival El Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead.

The gallery's income, however, derives mainly from selling things to put dead people in.  Urns, reliquaries and jewelry are displayed in the front.  Gaping coffins fill the back room, both conventional models and handmade ones by Bay Area artisans.  The mass-produced caskets come in the neutral colours of low-end menswear, while artist Lonnie Hanzon offers one coffin that's gold with a leopard-print interior, another in stained-glass tones of purple, green and red with silk tassels and giant plastic jewels hanging from the handles.

Prices range from $225 for a simple gray coffin to $3,950 for a handmade mahogany box with a lavishly embroidered and beaded lining decked with peacocks and flowers.  In the works are plans to offer caskets with high-gloss auto-body-style exteriors in colours like emerald green, fire-engine red and midnight black.  Once he can assure a steady supply, Ghia would also like to sell the gallery's wares nationwide through franchises and a mail-order catalog.

Ghia and his two partners, Karen Leonard and Ronda di Sautel, originally planned only to offer standard caskets and urns, but without the heavy markups and even heavier pressure tactics they claim most funeral directors apply.  For example, Ghia points to a standard coffin he calls "the wedding cake," with a white brocade exterior and white and pink ruffles and rushing inside.  The posted price is $795.  "A woman was in here the other day and said she paid $3,800 for the same casket at a mortuary," he said.

The gallery also provides free information about burial and cremation costs at major mortuaries in the area, explanations, of funeral-industry terminology and handouts warning about unnecessary embalming and other scams perpetrated by unscrupulous funeral directors.  And it sells T-shirts that read, "Ghia - Everything you wanted to know about funerals but were afraid to ask."

It was Ms Leonard, a former grief counsellor, who first got the idea for Ghia Gallery - after an elderly friend had to sell her home to pay the unfairly inflated cost of her husband's funeral.  "Very few businesses have real fans," she says.  "We do.  They come to us saying, 'We've been waiting forever for this.'"

Less enthusiastic, she says, were local funeral directors.  "When we first opened, the morticians used to come in packs to look us over and to try to intimidate us.  It's a very cut-throat business, very competitive.  And the profit is gargantuan.  I mean, they can exist on one client a week.  How many businesses can survive on one client a week?"

Ms Leonard says the mainstream funeral industry continues to pressure casket manufacturers not to supply Ghia: "And the nation's biggest urn company has turned us down, saying they will only sell to funeral directors."

According to the gallery partners, Americans' uneasiness about death and its details makes them particularly vulnerable to manipulation and deceit.  "When they get ripped off, if it's a car they'll go back and fight," said di Sautel.  "When it's involved with a death it's hard to go back.  They just want to get it over with."

"People don't like to talk about death, just like they didn't talk about homosexuality, or sex for that matter," added Ghia.  "This is the last thing to bring out of the closet.  What else is there?"

Ms DeCarlo and Ms Subtle Dintenfass are Bay Area free-lance journalists.

Source: The Wall Street Journal Monday 15 July 1991

Burying Tradition, More People Opt for "Fun" Funerals

by Carrie Dolan

For some, new rites of passage include parties, boat rides and psychedelic caskets

Sacramento, California - In a hotel ballroom here, about 3,000 revellers float among bouquets of balloons and mingle around a trio of bars.  An ice sculpture drips over the buffet.  A 7-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, California, for 3 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 personalised 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, California, 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 colours 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, California, 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-parlour 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 Company 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 favourite hunting decoy or bowling pin.  Hunters can arrange to have Iowa-based Canuck's Sportsman's Memorials Incorporated 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.  [Note: See Your Ashes in Orbit for on update on that venture.]

And some wishes just can't be honoured.  Kevin Minke, a counsellor 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."

Carrie Dolan is a staff reporter for The Wall Street Journal

Source: originally from The Wall Street Journal 20 May 1993 © Dow Jones & Company, Incorporated

Heaven on Earth

Frequently Asked Questions

bulletWhy did you open a shop combining life and death?

It has long been the situation that death & funerals have been pushed under the carpet and that people are mourned in a very restricted way.  I (Paula) was brought up as a Roman Catholic and lived my formative years against a background of death.  It seemed to me that unless I accepted death as part of life then I could not begin to appreciate life.  My partner, Simon and I agreed that a shop that concerned itself with life should also include death.  This has meant that the one has enriched the other.  Many of the artefacts that we sell in our shop can be used in a dual way.  Cushions are often purchased to put in the coffin.  Gold and silver letters often decorate the coffin.  Throws are used to cover an environmentally-friendly cardboard coffin, which might upset certain members of a family who are a little more traditional - satisfying all parties.  Lacquered photograph albums are perfect in which to collect memento mori; as are handmade paper notebooks for guests to write in so that a record can be kept of all those who attended the funeral.

bulletWhat is alternative about "Heaven on Earth"?

We prefer the word "bespoke" to describe our funerals rather than "alternative" because each one of our funerals differs in the same way that people do.  Although we carry out "traditional" funerals and do use a hearse and limousines when asked, many of our customers want something different: they do not want black, so we use a silver estate car; they like the idea of a coffin that is environmentally friendly, that reflects their concerns about the wastefulness of resources; they like the idea of returning to nature and sometimes becoming a tree and they want an individual, personal memorial service or celebration.  They also say that being involved in the funeral, decorating the coffin themselves, supplying family bearers, lowering the coffin & helping to fill in the grave for instance, gives them a feeling of empowerment and helps them in the grieving process.

bulletWhat are the most unusual coffins that you have supplied?

One of the most unusual coffins that we have supplied is the Red Arrows jet coffin for a customer who is passionate about them.  We were on television with one of the Ghanaian Fantasy Coffins, a Mercedes Benz - (in Ghana you are usually buried in a coffin which denotes your trade: a boat for a fisherman, an eagle for a chief et cetera) - and we were perceived as having made it ourselves.  Consequently we received an order for a Jet ... of course, this coffin is only suitable for a burial!  In this case we had to design it so that the nose and wings were detachable in order for it to fit into the grave!  We have also made a coffin with a ship's wheel on top for a sailor.  Coffins decorated with football colours are also popular.  Families who have lost children welcome the idea of all the friends decorating the coffin with their favourite poems, paintings and logos.  A horse-lover was buried with their saddle and bridle, with a large picture of the horse on the coffin lid ... and many, many more.

bulletWhat is the most unusual funeral you have organised?

We have arranged so many funerals that it is hard to say which is the most unusual.  We have buried wizards with their wands, spells and all; cremated Buddhists with chanting, incense and a strewing of flowers (with subsequent hoovering of the crematorium floor!).  On one occasion the committal was timed to coincide with an explosion of kazoos, whistles and party poppers and the releasing of hundreds of balloons; on another the coffin disappeared to Welsh miners singing The Red Flag.  We believe that carrying out such requests, as long as they are within legal bounds and are included within the dignified structure of the funeral, have been uplifting to the bereaved, because these happenings have been at the bequest of the deceased whose wishes had been recorded before they died.  When a personal approach has been planned in this way, people say that the deceased would love to have been at his/her own funeral.

Heaven on Earth
18 Upper Maudlin St
Bristol BS2 8DJ
tel / fax +44 (0)117 926 4999


Man Holds Funeral Service for His Amputated Left Foot

An Italian man who had his left foot amputated gave it a funeral service before burying it in a coffin.  Antonio Magistro, 56, of Giojosa Marea, Sicily, asked for the foot to be buried in his future grave at the city's cemetery.  He persuaded the surgeon to give him his foot back after the operation and then negotiated a deal with a local funeral director.

Mr Magistro, along with his relatives, attended the short religious service which included a fanfare by the city's band.  The foot was then buried in a small coffin and the man's name and date of birth embossed on the tombstone.  Mr Magistro said he hopes to join the foot in the grave "as late as I possibly can," Tgcom website reports.

He had his foot amputated because of cancer.

Source: Monday 9 December 2002

A Better Eulogy

bulletWrite everything down so you don't ramble, and try to keep the eulogy under 10 minutes.
bulletStay away from potentially embarrassing material (that is anything involving sex, drugs or troublesome in-Iaws).
bulletShare upbeat recollections; don't exacerbate the sorrow and weeping.
bulletDon't just talk about your relationship with the deceased; mention other friends and relatives.
bulletGive a copy of the eulogy to someone else, who can take over if you break down.

Sources: e-book A Eulogy to Remember by Ira Kaufman Chapel, Southfield, Michigan

See also:

bulletOn the Death of a Colleague (in the Intellectual and Entertaining section) - Stephen Dunn's unusual poem for another example... Broadcasts Funeral Services Online

Now people who can't attend funeral services can easily view the service live in the comfort of their homes...

Solvang, California - EulogyCast (, a division of Trivision Solutions, Incorporated (TSI) (, recently announced the deployment of its live private broadcasting services for funeral and memorial services.  TSI is the first American company that offers these services professionally to funeral homes, religious organisations, and the public, nationwide.  Geographical, financial, bad weather and physical limitations are among many reasons why people cannot attend funeral services.  EulogyCast now brings family and friends from around the world together to experience funeral or memorial services live via the Internet.

"Today, millions of people across the globe are using the Internet, families and friends are widely dispersed allover the world, and arranging for unexpected travel is extremely hard and expensive.  The ability to view a loved one's memorial services live and share one's feelings with family via the Internet is convenient and extremely cost effective," said Vince Imani, president and CEO of TSI.

EulogyCast services provide a central place to communicate the essential information about the service, convey personal thoughts, display memories and photos of the deceased, and allow invited friends and family to experience the moment globally.

"Privacy and security are taken seriously with EulogyCast services," said Mark Tabesh, Chief Technology Officer of TSI.  "Only invited guests can view the actual live broadcast," continues Mark Tabesh.  "For funeral homes, EulogyCast also provides a great relief.  Essentially, EulogyCast will take full responsibility for all aspects of online services and leave funeral home personnel free to focus on tending to their customers' needs."

TSI provides all necessary hardware, software, installation, operations, support and training for the funeral homes, enabling funeral homes to offer a full spectrum of online services to their customers through EulogyCast.  "We are pleased to have the ability to provide EulogyCast services.  TSI's team delivered smooth installation and provided excellent training to our staff," said William Bowers, Area Manager for Dilday Brothers Funeral Directors.  "Families work hard to make the funeral unique, respectful and an event that reflects their loved one's life.  EulogyCast will help us to include the friends and family members that are unable to physically take part in this precious time."

Source: WebGuide August 2001

Ouch.  Less hype would help.

Cruising with the Dead - the Other Side of Travel

New York, New York - Not many passengers want to talk about death during a cruise vacation.  Even fewer might want to converse with someone who has died.  But today, communing with the "other side" has not only become a trendy cultural phenomenon, but also an important part of some people's spiritual lives.

A company called Intuitive Vision Network responded to the life-beyond-death obsession by hosting a series of Psychic & Spiritual Healing Cruises that they believe will give travellers a profound, soul-searching experience, and will take theme cruises to "out-of-this-world" heights.

One can learn just how dead-on Intuitive Vision might be by boarding Royal Caribbean's Nordic Empress on 7 October from New York to Bermuda.  The theme cruise is geared to a "niche" cruise audience (the bereaved), and will provide opportunities for those who suffer the loss of a loved one to connect with their friends and relatives in the afterlife with the help of reputable mediums and psychics.

"Grief is a process, not an event," says Andrea Cinque, founder of Intuitive Vision Network, a special events firm that specialises in metaphysical events.  "Within each of us is the natural ability to heal from our losses if given a safe, supportive environment.  This cruise concept does just that.  Cinque says some have mocked her concept, calling it a "ship of fools," or a "poltergeist party at sea."  "But let's face it," she says, "the afterlife business is booming, and blockbuster movies, TV shows, and books that address the afterlife have proliferated."

Cinque adds that spirits are a comforting notion that can offer hope, peace of mind or closure for people who have questions about life and mortality.  The cruise features well known and experienced mediums supported by Intuitives and spiritual counsellors that encourage passengers to explore their personal histories and gain insights and inner peace through what she believes is "an unconventional healing process" that is truly multidimensional.

The Psychic & Spiritual Healing concept gives a whole new meaning to theme travel cruises, which have traditionally advertised singles, western and 50's cruises.  Americans are saying they want more than this.  They want to have fun and sip tropical coolers in the hot sun, but they also want to speak to their relatives in the afterlife to make sure they're okay.

"Call it the 21st century interpretation of the classic novel, Death Takes a Holiday, or call it whatever you want," Cinque concludes.  "The fact remains that we're offering cruisers' an opportunity to "heal" at sea onboard a luxury vessel with a little help from the paranormal arena.  No one has ever done that before."

Source: Web Guide August 2001 from Internet Wire

How does a medium or a psychic get to be "reputable"?  Among whom?  For what?

For the connection between email and the dead, see also:

bulletEmail from the Grave (in the section on Information and Technology) - you can lodge emails to be sent to specific people in the event of your death...
bulletUS Website Allows Messages to Be Passed to Afterlife (also in he section on Information and Technology) - a message is given to a terminally ill person who memorises it to take it with them into the afterlife...

For articles related to ageing, including feats that can be accomplished, and a non-spiritual look at what happens after death - funerals, jerky, popsicles, fertiliser, ashes, orbit or dust - click the "Up" button below to take you to the Index page for this Older and Under section.

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