Here's a toast to a long life

  • Article by: KEVYN BURGER , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 30, 2012 - 2:40 PM

There's a marked trend away from solemn funerals to more party-like celebrations to pay tribute to a person's life.

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Photo: Eddie Thomas , Star Tribune

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For a dozen years, Florian Cairns held court behind her counter at Flip's Bar in Ridgeway, Minn. Tagged by a customer with the nickname Flip for her trademark hairdo, the self-described mixologist was known for her lipstick kisses and passionate support of the softball teams she sponsored.

When Flip died suddenly this fall at age 77, her daughter, Terrie Parpart, wanted a service that honored Flip's friendly, fun-loving spirit.

"Mom was Christian, but she didn't belong to a church or have a minister," she said. "She wrote down what she wanted a few years ago. Cremation, and she said, 'Keep the service casual, then go have a couple of beers.'"

Like Parpart, more survivors are opting out of tear-filled, solemn ceremonies. Instead, they are choosing to honor their relatives with a celebration of life ceremony that follows -- or replaces -- a traditional church funeral with a live jazz combo, a slide show or a champagne toast.

"We say funerals are the new weddings," said John Waterston, funeral director at the Cremation Society of Minnesota. "It's a social event. We put name tags out to help everyone connect," he said. "People are surprised to discover that they actually enjoyed the experience, and it gets them thinking about what they want."

Of course, any memorial is all about context. When the end comes tragically or involves a child, a traditional funeral may be more fitting. But when someone who has lived a long, rich life dies, families and friends may be ready for a celebration.

"We are seeing a much larger number of families who've been through hospice," said Jason Bradshaw, CEO of Bradshaw Funeral and Cremation Services. "That strips away the illusion; death cannot be ignored. Families have time to have frank discussions about what they all want and need. It's healthy."

In addition, there is a growing number of nonbelievers and people who consider themselves spiritual, but don't belong to a church.

"A generation ago, the first, and often the only question would be, 'What church do you belong to?'" said Michael LuBrant, director of the program of mortuary science at the University of Minnesota. "That dictated the service, and the rest of the details would fall into line."

And then there are the baby boomers, who've long been characterized as wanting to do things their way -- even unto death.

"The baby boomer's fingerprints are all over this," said Mary Meehan, founder of Minneapolis-based Panoramix Global, a consumer research firm. "We are such a big generation that we altered every life stage we've gone through. This is the pig in the python moving all the way through."

According to the National Association of Funeral Directors, 71 percent of boomers say they don't want a traditional funeral.

What do they want?

Cremation, for starters.

For the first time in 2011, the number of cremations in Minnesota exceeded the number of burials. According to the Minnesota Department of Health, which compiles the statistics, just 15 percent chose cremation in 1990. Funeral industry experts say cremation lets families plan, prepare and schedule the service without any deadlines. Cremations also can change the tone of a memorial.

"When a casket and a body are there, it's more solemn," said Jennifer Harding, catering manager for Lunds and Byerlys. She has supervised food service at scores of memorials. "With cremation, there can be more time between the death and the gathering. The family has had time to rest. It's more about the fond memories than the sorrow."

Help for mourners

But the Rev. Martha Postlethwaite wonders if redefined rituals leave some mourners wanting.

"We have to watch out for the denial of death," said the associate professor of spiritual formation at United Theological Seminary. An ordained Methodist minister, Postlethwaite has worked as a hospice chaplain. "It's a time to name and recognize the grief. Without that, people can be left with an unfinished feeling, an emptiness."

To be satisfying, what a service needs is a compelling narrative, according to the university's LuBrant. Whether secular or sacred, it needs to seek meaning.

"A good funeral tells a story that touches the heart and leaves people with a sense of comfort," he said. "The service is for the living, but it has to honor and respect the dead."

Tim Hoff, whose family owns five funeral businesses in southeastern Minnesota, agrees.

"Some families think they can do this on their own. They just put on a party. But we need to acknowledge the loss," he said. "Within a faith tradition, there are known rituals to fall back on. People who don't have that can feel lost. They need guidance to establish new rituals to honor the person."

That guidance could come from inside or outside the funeral industry.

"Today's funeral directors often create hybrid services that are meaningful. Many people with no religious affiliation still request the 23rd Psalm and want to sing 'Amazing Grace,'" said LuBrant. "They find comfort in what's familiar."

One Twin Cities-based website helps people plan their last party from beyond the grave. Mywonderfullife.com was started in 2008 by friends Sue Kruskopf and Nancy Bush as a free, one-stop spot for people who want to personalize their services.

The site guides users to note preferences for everything from song selection to menu to who will deliver their eulogy. It also allows them to designate "angels" to whom they can delegate chores.

"It's one more thing to cross off the to-do list," said Kruskopf, 55, who owns an ad agency. "We want to be to funerals what the Knot [a comprehensive bridal planning site] is to weddings."

A 'fabulous funeral'

Even though she knew her mother's wishes, Terrie Parpart didn't plan Flip's funeral by herself.

She and her sister came to Hoff, who brought in his wife, Jenny, a certified funeral celebrant. In several hours with the family, she collected details and lore from Flip's life and crafted a one-of-a-kind eulogy. She organized and then presided at the service at the Hoff Winona funeral chapel. When the crowd settled in the pews, many wearing vintage Flip's Bar softball jerseys, they watched a video tribute and heard the Lord's Prayer recited by a cousin in Norwegian.

At the end of Flip's service, most of the attendees trooped to a nearby tavern to continue the storytelling and lift a few mugs.

"Can you call a funeral fabulous?" Parpart said. "We laughed and we cried. I told my daughter, 'This is exactly what I want' -- someday."

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