At end of life, new ways to offer a personal touch

More funeral homes create custom send-offs

Terry Probst, funeral director at Devanny Condron funeral home in Pittsfield, stands in the sales area of the funeral home on Thursday, March 11, 2010. Probst is trying some unconventional marketing techniques to generate business for the funeral home. Terry Probst, funeral director at Devanny Condron funeral home in Pittsfield, stands in the sales area of the funeral home on Thursday, March 11, 2010. Probst is trying some unconventional marketing techniques to generate business for the funeral home. (Matthew Cavanaugh for The Boston Globe)
By Brian MacQuarrie
Globe Staff / March 15, 2010

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PITTSFIELD — Above a flower-framed urn holding the ashes of Paul Winters, a super-sized tapestry of rock legend Frank Zappa greeted mourners at the Devanny-Condron Funeral Home. A gauzy print of John Lennon also faced the gathering, as did iconic pictures of Marilyn Monroe and Jimi Hendrix.

The friends of the deceased, eyes trained on the urn, sat quietly in neat rows of folding chairs as the driving chords of “Help!’’ and other Beatles songs provided background music. A video tribute to Winters, smiling and happy in life, played on a large screen.

Welcome to a growing trend in the long-sedate world of funeral directors, where hushed tones, heavy drapes, and calculated ritual are giving way to a customized send-off that is more party than predictable.

“My rule is this: I’ll do anything as long as it’s legal,’’ said Terry Probst, who manages the Devanny-Condron home with the passion of a promoter. Since he arrived in Pittsfield in September after a stint with the Navy, Probst has sponsored a chili cook-off, delivered birthday cakes to senior centers, offered free limousine rides to couples married 50 years or more, and scheduled a funeral home appearance by the Easter Bunny for an all-comers photo op.

“I want to set us apart from everyone around us,’’ Probst said.

Probst’s approach seems to be catching. Emilee High, spokeswoman for the National Funeral Directors Association, said personalized services are becoming increasingly popular as a new generation passes on.

“Baby boomers have had an impact on every aspect of society — and funeral service is no exception,’’ High said. “Families are seeking experiences that are different from those they perceive as part of a traditional funeral or memorial service.’’

A 2007 national survey commissioned by the association found that 23 percent of respondents wanted a “very personalized funeral.’’ And that figure, High said, appears to be rising at a time when the US death rate is static and per-funeral profits have plummeted since the 1980s.

Marc Gaudreau, an owner of the Beers & Story funeral homes in central Massachusetts, said the business must evolve. His services take shape during what he calls a “life interview’’ with the family of the deceased that usually lasts at least three hours.

The result can be a video of family photographs, watched in a separate room from the remains of the deceased. Other options are graveside music, burial with biodegradable urns, and funeral home displays of the favorite furniture of the deceased.

“I like to say there’s really no tradition anymore,’’ Gaudreau said. “You’ve always got to think about how you can get better.’’

Ellen McBrayer, a third-generation funeral director at the Jones-Wynn Funeral Home outside Atlanta, has seen the trend advance and evolve. In the 1950s, she said, all funerals seemed to be the same. But since the introduction of memorial DVDs at the beginning of this decade, she said, the move toward personal remembrances has taken hold and accelerated.

Her funeral home has distributed guitar picks to friends and family of a musician and provided butterscotch ice cream at the grave of a man who craved the sweet.

For the family of Paul Winters, who died at age 58, the upbeat service in Pittsfield hit all the right notes.

“He wasn’t a cookie-cutter kind of person, and he didn’t want to have a cookie-cutter kind of funeral,’’ Carri Winters said of her father.

Probst, a former Navy mortician, had never been to Massachusetts before he noticed an ad last year to manage the corporate-owned business. Now, he lives with his wife and three children in the funeral home that he wants to make synonymous with community service.

Veterans ride in his limousines in Memorial Day and Fourth of July parades; he works with the city’s veterans agent to welcome returning troops; and senior center birthday cakes are not offered solely to attract future customers, Probst said.

“I’ve been brought up that you should be giving back to the community,’’ said Probst, a native of Oregon. “With the Easter Bunny, for example, I don’t think we’ll have many seniors sitting on his lap.’’

Probst has also redecorated the funeral home, which opened for business in 1915, to lighten the ambience. Ponderous drapes have been replaced by shear material, dated wallpaper has given way to light-tan paint, and natural light is the preference.

Probst also has ordered a 75-gallon fish tank, which he believes will help mourners relax.

Although society is constantly changing, Probst said, “what is not changing is people’s fear of funeral homes and their fear of dying. Why can’t we lower that fear and lower that anxiety?’’

To Debbie Schilling, that approach helped make the December funeral for her 98-year-old uncle memorable. Bill Mahon, a Pittsfield native and lifelong baseball fan who attended the 1918 World Series in Boston, was buried in a casket adorned with the Red Sox logo. A 2004 World Series cap was on his head, and a bottle of his favorite Samuel Adams beer lay beside him.

“You couldn’t have celebrated his life any better, because that’s who my Uncle Bill was,’’ Schilling said. “I couldn’t have asked for a service or a send-off to be as magical or wonderful as that was.’’

Probst said he is conscious of what is appropriate and what is disrespectful.

So although he is considering sponsoring a murder-mystery dinner, Probst said, he will hold the event at another location.

“You’ll never see me do a haunted house or a circus here,’’ he said.