Feature Archive

Designer Funerals: The Final Getaway

Baby boomers face the inevitable -- with posh caskets and funky funeral services.

By Jeanie Lerche Davis
WebMD Feature

Reviewed By Michael Smith

It's grisly, it's ghoulish, this thought of impending death. The coffin, the cemetery, the very word putrification -- a perfectly natural process -- makes us shudder.

And funerals. Must they be somber notes at the end of a life well lived?

Heavens no, say baby boomers.

Today, people are adopting the spirit long-held by New Orleans jazz musicians and by the Irish: They celebrate death. They party. They go out in style.

They're putting the "fun" back into funeral services.

Check out the Internet -- infinite ideas for funky funeral service alternatives are out there. You can get mummified or freeze-dried (called cryonics). There are online pet funeral parlors, online memorials, do-it-yourself funerals, even funeral service caterers.

You can arrange a fireworks ceremony for your cremated remains. Even shoot your ashes into space.

Your favorite sports arenas -- where you rested your butt for endless games -- can even be your final resting place. Imagine it: your ashes scattered over that pricey Super Bowl seat.

And best of all, you can plan it all ahead of time. Make sure it's done your way. It's that final mail-order splurge, the best deal you can find on an Internet search. A final chance to max out that credit card -- for your final getaway package.

Caskets With Flair

Your love of art, football, even the hours spent perfecting that golf swing -- they can all be part of your good-bye.

Pat Fant runs a company that creates "art caskets."

"I was planning a service for an aunt, and it occurred to me that it was all very ordinary, what we were doing for her," he tells WebMD. "It seemed so inappropriate, because she was such a unique, special individual, yet the whole service looked so plain and ordinary. It got us on the subject of talking about ... what if the casket itself had personality?"

Art caskets are "not flashy," he tells WebMD. "They're different, and that's what they're meant to be." It's a photo-laminate process covering an 18-gauge steel casket, "priced right, very reasonably," and delivered overnight to the funeral home of your choice, when it's time for the funeral service.

Your casket is the centerpiece for your final party.

"It's about commemorating a life, not just mourning a death," says Fant. "Maybe the deceased was a veteran, or was very religious, or maybe they just loved the mountains or the ocean."

Humor is big, with tongue-in-cheek motifs such as the "Last Hole" casket for golf aficionados.

There's the "Return to Sender" casket. "People walk in and say, 'Well, that's Bob.'"

"This is the generation that permanently changed a lot of ways we do things. This generation put the father in the delivery room. That same influence over the way birth occurs -- that influence is being felt in the way death is being celebrated," says Fant. "They're saying, 'let's go out with some style. For heaven's sake, make a statement.'"

Going Out With a Bang

The funeral services themselves are causing quite a stir.

One guy had his urn wrapped in firecrackers -- someone struck the match as his favorite music played. Another was buried with his motorcycle. "They bought two plots, side by side," says John Butler, a funeral director with Altmeyer Funeral Home in Virginia Beach, Va.

"We're not going to say 'no' to anybody," Butler tells WebMD. "Anything within the confines of the law, we'll do."

Funeral services sans ministers are the rage these days, Butler says. "A lot of people are very un-church; they don't go to church, they don't have a church, so it makes them even sadder if they have a minister at the time of death."

"People just want to stand up and talk about the deceased ... positive and negative things," he says. "Our generation is more likely to say it the way it is. We don't beat around the bush.

"It sounds shocking at first, then they go into explaining why they said that, and it turns into a positive thing at the end. There's laughter. It's more up-lifting."

Then there's the music. A little AC/DC, ZZ Top, maybe "Butterfly Kisses" or "Wind Beneath My Wings." "They want to hear songs of today, not a hundred years ago," says Butler.

The ashes-to-ashes concept is big with baby boomers, says Butler. Cremation is not only cost-effective, it's a statement for conservation, for saving the earth. "In their minds, it's about saving ground, saving space."

Roddenberry's Final Voyage Can Be Yours, Too

But scattering ashes over the ocean -- that's been around forever. Too passe for some baby boomers.

Now there's a company that will shoot your ashes into space, Butler tells WebMD. "They take 'em up to the upper stratosphere and let 'em go."

Gene Roddenberry of Star Trek fame, '60s cult icon Timothy Leary -- both had their ashes shot out of a rocket, and so can you, says Chris Pancheri, with Celestis Services, based in Houston.

About 200 people have found a final resting place in space, Pancheri tells WebMD.

Your options: an "Earthview" launch, which sends a satellite -- containing labeled capsules with your cremated remains and others -- into Earth's orbit. A year and two days later, your container will naturally fall into the earth's atmosphere, and it burns up -- "like a shooting star," says Pancheri.

Why outer space? "It's the romance, the love of stars, love of space, the fact that they couldn't get to space when they were alive, so they can honor a loved one's dreams -- my final option."

Buried at Sea

Your ashes mixed with concrete -- it's the formula for an "eternal reef," the brainchild business of Don Brawley of Decatur, Ga.

An avid scuba diver, Brawley has come up with a "reef ball" that mimics a natural coral head, he tells WebMD. "It won't move in storms, it very quickly takes on the natural appearance of coral heads. They have the same sort of rounded structures and pitted exterior surface, so all the little buds of life can get a foothold in there, grow, not get sucked off by fish. We think of it as bedrock."

The remains of Brawley's father-in-law and about 30 others are forevermore part of the coral reef on Florida's Gulf coast. "He was making his final plans, said take my ashes, put them in one of those artificial reefs. I'd rather spend eternity down there with all that life and excitement going on than in a field with a bunch of old dead people."

"The person's remains are fully integrated into the concrete, and they become an active component of the reef," Brawley tells WebMD. "We put a bronze plaque on it, place them in environmentally needed areas, work with state and local agencies, record launch date, longitude/latitude readings, give that info on a memorial certificate to families."

Take your pick: the top-of-the-line "Atlantis" is 4' high by 6' wide and weighs in at nearly 4,000 pounds; the low-end model is a community reef, meaning that your ashes are mingled with many others. Some people don't have a problem at all with that, says Brawley.

Colder Than You-Know-What

"Frozen," says David Ettinger, spokesman for the Cryonics Institute, located in Clinton Township, Mich. "It's about that simple."

Yes, people are opting to have their bodies frozen -- dipped in liquid nitrogen at the moment of death, banking on the fact that modern science will some day find a cure for what caused their demise.

"In the future, there are going to be tremendous medical advances that people dying today can't take advantage of," Ettinger tells WebMD. "It's just like the many people who died decades ago of diseases that are now curable."

"We like to call it the "ambulance to the future."

So far, only a small number are opting for cryonics -- but the trend is upward. "It's become real obvious to people that there are going to be dramatic changes in science. Sometime pretty soon there will be real radical advances in aging, isolating the genes that let you live to 100."

"It's possible that a lot of people now living will be the last generation to die. We're going to die of natural causes ... and wouldn't that be ironic, a shame? We'd just missed that."

Though the cost of "perpetual maintenance" nears $30,000, it can be financed through life insurance, says Ettinger.

Published Oct. 29, 2003.


SOURCES: Pat Fant, "White Light" art caskets. John Butler, Altmeyer Funeral Home. Chris Pancheri, Celestis Services. Don Brawley, owner, Eternal Reef. David Ettinger, Cryonics Institute.

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Last Editorial Review: 1/31/2005 7:02:13 AM



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