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Funerals — from the fast farewell to the long goodbye

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Living Urn

In a Living Urn, the deceased’s ashes are buried and a tree is planted over them. The family is sent information on the tree as it grows//Photo by Maria DeForrest.

By Kim Hoey
Special to Delaware Business Times

Karen Hill doesn’t dwell on the idea of her death, but she does know what her casket will look like, what Bible verses will be read, and what music will play at her funeral. She and her husband, Calvin, set up all of the particulars of their funerals and paid for them a couple of years ago.

“We didn’t want our family members to have this burden,” said Hill, 70, of Dover. “Now, no one has to guess what we want.”

Even 20 years ago, Hill would have been an oddity. People didn’t talk about their deaths and there weren’t that many planning for it. But Hill is part of the changing face of the funeral industry. These days funeral planning is practically just another part of estate planning. Some, like Hill, don’t want to burden their family. Others just know what they want.

“It’s become more about the deceased and making it a celebration of a life,” said Thomas E. Melvin, C.F.S.P. (Certified Funeral Services Practitioner) and owner of Melvin Funeral Home in Harrington, where Hill went to make her plans. Melvin started in the funeral business as an apprentice in the 1970s, and opened his own funeral home in 1990. “Years ago you wouldn’t think to even do a photo display, but now you want to make it personal.”

Melvin said he’s had services with a motorcycle next to the casket, the bicycle the man rode to town every day, even had the deceased sitting in a recliner.  In Hill’s case, she wants the song, “I Bowed on my Knees and Cried Holy,” to be playing.

“A funeral service is not for the deceased, it’s to give you a way to say goodbye, and give friends a way to support you,” said Melvin. It goes beyond the simple preparation and two-hour service. At Christmas Melvin’s company puts up a large tree that past clients decorate with ornaments to honor their loved ones.

Besides personalized services, another trend taking off in Delaware, and beyond, is the “green” funeral. Here, people look to have the least impact on the environment as possible. As such there are urns made of salt that biodegrade in the ocean, biodegradable caskets or simply burial shrouds, large fabric body covers that completely replace caskets. There is even one called a Living Urn where the deceased’s ashes are buried and a tree is planted over them. The family is sent information on the tree as it grows.

According to the National Funeral Directors Association, basic funerals in the south Atlantic region run anywhere from $6,000 to almost $9,000. That is a simple ceremony with a metal burial casket; the cost does not include burial. From that base average, the cost can go up based on service and family wishes. The sky is the limit; there are caskets that run as high as $175,000.

Today’s funeral director is very much an event coordinator. Besides the service, funeral directors and their staffs help families navigate the maze of death certificates, Social Security forms, will filings, and even insurance claims. It’s not uncommon for a funeral director to drive a client to an appointment with a lawyer, if need be.

The funeral director can even help with the payment. Many Delaware funeral directors offer payment plans for pre-planning, and also serve as insurance agents who can sell special funeral insurance policies. The money for the service, by Delaware law, is held by a third party trust, and is owned by the client, not the funeral home. If the client moves, or decides to use a different director, or the funeral home goes out of business, the money stays in the trust for the client, not tied to one funeral home.

Most funeral home directors advise people to make their plans ahead of time for both financial and familial reasons.

Hill had dreaded going, but actually it was a pleasant experience.  She said she felt like she was part of the family by the time she was done.

Getting a family feeling shouldn’t be surprising in Delaware. Virtually all of the funeral homes in Delaware are family owned and run. That is the case for Andrew Parsell, president of the Delaware State Funeral Directors Association. He is a second-generation funeral director at the Parsell Funeral Home in Lewes.

Parsell says there are two reasons for the family-owned businesses – one, it’s a calling, not a job. Funeral directors are on call every day of the year, 24 hours a day, having to deal calmly with people on one of the worst days of their lives.  The second reason for the family ties is Delaware law. Unlike many other states, in Delaware a funeral director is not allowed to own a cemetery. While that cuts down on the profit margin for funeral directors, it has also kept the large corporate funeral homes from taking an interest in the state, said Parsell.  He believes the local ties add to the quality of services offered in Delaware.

“It’s more what does the individual family want, not what has the sixth-generation of my family done before,” said Parsell. He’s helped coordinate jazz funerals, services on the beach, at local churches, even in bars and restaurants.

Part of the change in services has come with the diversity of the population, especially in Delaware where people often come to retire. Different religions and lifestyles converge here, said Parsell. There is no such thing as traditional anymore.

Take Hindu funerals, said Parsell, who has done two. It can be a four-hour service, with chairs removed from the room, he said. Members of the family stay to watch the cremation. The ashes are kept at the funeral home and family members come pray with them until they can take the ashes to the Ganges River to be spread.

When someone first came to Parsell to ask about such a service, his answer, as would be the answer from most funeral directors today, was, “Tell me what you need.”

“Our services are constantly expanding,” said Parsell. “If you can make the most unthinkable day memorable, it makes it all worth it.” 

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