“We could upgrade her casket”

“We could upgrade her casket,” the funeral home owner said with a big grin on his face. I had to take a moment before responding.

It was the summer of 2009, and my 88-year-old Mother was close to death. Cancer and congestive heart failure had taken their toll, and the doctors said she would pass within days.

She had prearranged with a local funeral home across the street from the church she had attended her whole life. My siblings asked me to stop by the funeral home and find out what she had prearranged, so we knew what to expect. 

When I went to the funeral home, the owner had just returned from a graveside service but was glad to spend a few minutes with me. 

I described our situation and asked about my Mother’s prearrangements. He retrieved her file and opened it up for us to review. Here’s how the conversation went…

Owner – “This looks complete to me. We have a visitation at 2 pm and 6 pm, a mass at St. Mary’s the next morning, a graveside service at the cemetery, and a luncheon in the church hall. Pretty standard stuff.”

Me – “What could we do to make this special?”

Owner – “What do you mean?”

Me – “She’s special to us, and we want to make her funeral special. What can you do?”

Owner – He glanced at the file and said, “We could upgrade her casket!” (with a big grin on his face)

Me – I suppressed an urge to wipe the smile off his face and replied, “how about if I give you a list of things to do to make it special?”

Owner – He shrugged and said, “I guess we can try. What do you have in mind?”

With that exchange, I knew the owner was stuck in the past. He was used to doing a cookie-cutter Catholic funeral and wasn’t interested in putting in any extra effort.

From his general appearance, I would guess the owner was in his late 30s or early 40s. He should have been the type of funeral director who would embrace personalization and the changing preferences of families. He wasn’t.

Fortunately, I have had the pleasure of working with some very creative funeral home owners and have heard many of their stories about how they make a service special for a family. Using just a handful of these stories, I quickly created a list of things I wanted done to make my Mother’s service special.

I’ll share some of the things at the bottom of this newsletter. But the important thing I’d like you to consider this week is how you would respond to the same question.

“How can we make my mother/father/sister/son/daughter/etc. ’s service special?” 

Most families will never ask the question because they don’t know that a funeral home can do anything special for them. But they all think they would like the service to be special because the person was special to them.

If they don’t ask, you should ask them, “Would you like us to make this special for them?” The answer will almost always be a resounding “Yes!”

So how can you make it special? 

One approach is to focus on the five senses; sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch. When you personalize a service, the more senses you can engage, the more “special” it will be for the family.

One of my clients recently had a farewell toast for a family who wanted a special way to say goodbye to their father.

  • Sight: everyone raising a glass of their father’s favorite Scotch.
  • Sound: the son leading the toast and everyone clinking their glasses.
  • Smell: the son asked everyone to smell the Scotch and think of his father.
  • Taste: the Scotch.
  • Touch: the commemorative glass in their hand and the hugs they exchanged afterward.

You can’t always hit all five senses. However, remember that the more senses you engage, the more memorable, meaningful, and special the moment.

And if you want to make it extra special, have multiple creative elements that engage as many senses as possible scattered throughout the services.

Here’s what I asked the funeral home owner to do to make my Mother’s funeral special for our family.

My Mother wanted to pass at home surrounded by her family. I provided the owner with a family quilt and asked for her body to be draped with it when they did the removal. I also requested they make her bed and place a live rose on the pillow.

I asked for a video tribute for the visitation, but they didn’t know how to create one (in 2009!!). So instead, I made one for her, which turned out to be a very therapeutic activity.

My Mother played the piano professionally for years, and we had lots of old video clips. I edited them into a 20-minute video and had the funeral home set up a separate room with a big-screen TV where she could perform one last concert. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.

The Catholic Mass was pretty standard because they didn’t allow us to personalize anything.

At the graveside service, we had roses for her children and grandchildren to place on the casket. Then we did a dove release, and everyone applauded as the dove flew away.

We changed the standard church hall menu for the reception because if there was one thing my Mother hated, it was egg salad sandwiches.

Sight – check, sound – check, smell – check, taste – check, touch – check.

The service was special because she was special to us.

After the funeral, the funeral home owner complimented us on creating such a beautiful tribute. I asked him if he’d repeat any of the special touches for other families he served. He shook his head and said, “No…it seemed like a lot of work”. He’s no longer in business.

Every person you care for is special to someone. If you create service elements that engage the five senses, their service will be special too.

Until next time


PS: Creating a better funeral experience, as described in this newsletter, is tip #1 in the 10-step Checklist for Growing Your Funeral Home. Click here to learn the rest of the tips.

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