Personalizing death: Funerals made-to-order

Originally published on Page A1 of the York Daily Record/Sunday News on Sunday, May 29, 2011. 

Daily Record/Sunday News

York, PA — A man’s corpse enclosed in glass trails a three-wheeled Harley-Davidson along a bumpy, two lane street.

As it rounds the corner, the mechanical pall bearer’s engine revs and groans, as though to mourn the dearly departed.

For a die-hard Hog fan, it’s never too late to burn rubber.

Dressed in riding boots, black jeans, a white French cuffed tuxedo shirt and bolo tie, the jockey of this steel horse foregoes the helmet.

“If the deceased didn’t wear one, we won’t wear one,” said Jim Salinger, president of the Unique Limousine, a Harrisburg-based company with a division for funeral transportation. “When something like this becomes available, a biker will say, ‘That’s how I want to go out.'”

It’s death. And it’s made-to-order for a convention-rejecting generation that came of age in the era of free love, tie-dye, Woodstock and Vietnam War protests.

They don’t just rest in peace. They make a statement — one that’s changing the way the funeral industry operates.

“The baby boomers want what they want,” said Joseph Keffer, funeral director at Keffer Funeral Home & Crematory in York County. “They don’t expect to go along with the status quo.”

Last ride

A 2007 survey by the National Funeral Directors Association showed 23 percent of respondents nationwide desiring a “very personalized” memorial service, a contributor to rising funeral costs.

It’s the age of post-mortem decorum, where funerary frills fuel niche industries catering to an increase in cremation and a demand for custom-made caskets, artisan tombstones, and themed interments.

Salinger, a motorcycle enthusiast, rides the trend. About five years ago, he purchased the Harley hearse, crafted by the Tombstone Hearse Company in Bedford.

Between 12 to 15 times each year, the vehicle leads processions at a cost of $750 plus mileage. About 35 percent of these funerals are in York County, Salinger said.

At the cemetery, the driver, sometimes Salinger himself, removes a spur from his right boot and presents it to the deceased’s family — a twist on a medieval custom.

“It memorializes that person’s last ride, as with a fallen knight in battle,” said Salinger, 68, who promotes his hearse at bike shows and events.

“It’s an awareness program. We aren’t trying to make reservations,” he said. “I guess we can’t really make reservations.”

‘Que sera, sera’

Packed into pews, a crowd draped in black grasps lyrics sheets and breaks out into song, much as Ralph Barker Jr., 75, did in the last months of his life:

“Que sera, sera. Whatever will be, will be. The future’s not ours to see. …”

The tune, popularized by the 1956 film, “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” was a favorite pick-me-up for the retired Berks County Elementary Enrichment Program teacher and artist. He died May 1.

His memorial service, held at Heffner Funeral Chapel & Crematory, doubled as a solemn farewell tour for his cartoon drawings, including a hand-crafted lesson plan about heroes. The same gallery, fastened to funeral home walls, once decorated his classroom.

“My dad lived a great life,” said Tim Barker, a York County assistant district attorney. “We’re celebrating the life of somebody we loved. It was critical for us to bring to life what my dad meant — what his life was all about.”

Other personal relics — hay bales, horse saddles, parachutes and trophy animal heads — have appeared at past services in the West Manchester Township funeral home, said John Katora, funeral director.

During Barker Jr.’s tribute, the business’ three flat screen TVs flipped through family photographs of the man, father and husband. Televised photo tributes have grown more popular recently, Katora said.

“It helps for people who want to go to a funeral and remember the person the way they were,” he added.

Other area funeral parlors also take death digital.

Two years ago, Keffer Funeral Home & Crematory mounted five flat screens at its Spring Garden Township facility. Two 52-inch TVs — jokingly called the “jumbotrons” — hang on the walls the business’ branch in West Manchester Township.

“It stops people in their tracks,” Keffer said.

A life in stone

At Baughman Memorial Works in Dover, Lisa Fisher’s diamond-tipped Dremel tool pulsates softly, capturing memories in a slab of black granite:

A well-digging truck reading, “John H. Thran Rotary Well Drilling.”

The childish drawings of a dying 8-year-old girl.

Dressed in Navy uniform, a man walking hand-in-hand with his wife toward a church — their church, replicated from a photograph. “I’ll be with you in apple blossom time,” reads the accompanying engraving, perhaps only fully understood by a soul six feet beneath.

“People want to tell their life’s history,” said Beverly Baughman, secretary/treasurer of Baughman Memorial Works, a 136-year-old family business. “They want to tell what they’re all about.”

Fisher, of New Holland, Lancaster County, travels between six mid-state memorial services, producing up to 50 tombstone etchings per year.

An engraved farm scene on her late father-in-law’s headstone inspired her business, Etchings by Lisa.

“Someone else etched it,” said Fisher, a lifelong artist. “I thought, well, I could do that.”

First, she submits a paper sketch to a family for approval. Her works of art typically go unsigned.

“Sometimes I sign it,” she said. “The ones I really love, I just kind of sneak it in there.”

The etching, Baughman said, cost between $400 and $650, beyond the price of the stone itself.

“We do very few standard monuments,” Baughman said. “They all have a little flower or saying or something that meant something to someone.”

On occasion, Baughman faces copyright hurdles to engrave company logos. In York County, Harley-Davidson’s orange and black seal, which takes up to three months for approval, is popular, she said.

And, of course, the odd requests stick in Baughman’s mind. There’s the man who requested a sewage truck etching. Another requested the epitaph, “Dead men pay no taxes.”

A few years ago, personalization got too personal. One client insisted his own death date be prematurely engraved onto his memorial, Baughman said.

“I told him that we could put that on at the time of need,” she added. “But he still wanted me to put it on there.”

So she did.

“I couldn’t talk him out of it,” Baughman said. “They say the customer is always right.”

Here’s the accompanying breakout box:

Taken to the grave

The ancient Egyptians entombed their dead with food, jewelry, furniture and other items deemed necessary in the afterlife.

And while York County isn’t exactly the Valley of the Kings, funeral directors cite more items — golf clubs, alcohol and munchies — being tucked into caskets.

“Sometimes folks do it because they were meaning to get with that person to have a drink or a cigar,” said Joseph Keffer, funeral director at Keffer Funeral Home & Crematory. “If it never happened, you send it with them.”

Henry A. Boulding II has seen whiskey bottles and cigarettes at his York city business, Boulding Mortuary. One funeral guest once placed soda and a bag of fresh doughnuts in a coffin. Boulding didn’t stop him.

“The services are for the living,” he said, “and you never want to devalue what’s important to someone.”


One response to “Personalizing death: Funerals made-to-order

  1. Good story.

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