As in Death, So in Life

February 11, 2015

An innovation in the funeral business lends pause, its stylization around death missing something profound.

Recently, I came across a website that appeared to be in the honeymoon business. A smiling couple in their 60s was sitting on the deck of a cruise ship, gazing rapturously at each other as the wind whipped through their hair. The next photo showed a group of attractive young adults laughing over martinis. A pair of women chatting over fancy hors d’oeuvres scrolled underneath.

But then these words popped to the foreground and reset the glow in a surprise frame: “Distinctive Life: Cremations & Funerals.”

I blinked. A funeral home defined by smiles and sunny images? Was this modern marketing having the final say or was something deeper playing between the lines?

I decided to visit Distinctive Life to learn more. Two polished women greeted me chirpily, the foyer exuding a hybrid of chic hair salon and art exhibit. On the walls hung candid blow-ups of people laughing large, the colors vibrant. Chests of diamond rings and blown glass lined the hallway – gifts for the bereaved, the reps explained, created out of human ashes.

“You know, we get so caught up in the rituals of tradition,” said Distinctive Life’s founder Jeff Friedman as we toured the space. “We think we need to do this, this and this – the cookie cutter – that the funeral business has never done anything personal. When in reality, there’s a memory, there’s a life that’s been lived. We’ve got to celebrate that, not the doom and gloom of the death.”

Intuitive enough and the market agrees. Business has ballooned since its beginnings in 2012, and the requests get creative. One minister recorded himself on a video to officiate his own funeral. Another was a softball player and asked for her memorial service to be held in the field with the guests signing a ball. A firefighter’s family put his ashes in an urn that was the shape of a fireman’s helmet.

“I think the more distinctive the idea, the more awesome it is,” Friedman said. “It’s really important that when you pick an urn, that that piece tells a story. What we’re doing is listening and giving people permission to celebrate what made them unique.”

Friedman is a successful player in an industry that is the latest to skim the wave of entrepreneurs looking to innovate in untapped fields.

According to CNBC, death care in this country now rakes in $17 billion per year. What’s new is the social acceptance to treat it as a competitive market.

“I don’t think we would have been popular 10 years ago, let alone 20-50,” Friedman says. “Before you always went to the funeral home in your town where your grandma and uncles were buried. Nobody questioned it. But now people live everywhere. And the Internet brought shopping. Choice.”

His enterprising, can-do spirit stands out in a sphere historically shrouded by hush and tears. In a society that flees death with distinction, a business devoted to innovating on its occasion is attracting the masses. I wasn’t sure whether to applaud his genius or recoil.

On the one hand I totally get the need to recreate in a space that’s suffocated by traditionalism sans heart. A truly human life needs a certain level of personalized space, and personalized honoring. Planting a garden for a funeral to be hosted there is a beautiful thing to do for someone who loved roses.

But honoring a person and frosting their end are two distinct things. And it seems we’ve lost a taste for the former as our options for decorating have proliferated. One Distinctive Life rep waxed enthusiastic about serving chocolate-covered strawberries at a reception. “You may never have known that your grandma loved chocolate-covered strawberries!” the rep said.

Another described her own plans for a “destination funeral”: “I’ll be cremated,” she said, “and then I want a certain amount of people to go to Mexico to this particular beach and have my favorite margarita served on the rocks with no salt. So that everyone there will know that my favorite place to be was on that beach.”

I couldn’t help but wonder whether people who loved her would really care what her favorite beach was. It seemed a superficial misfire to send friends and family to one’s preferred vacation spot, or to put so much hope in the ability of chocolate-covered strawberries to convey the arc of a life.

It felt like Facebook was having the last word, our attraction to curating one’s image based on consumer identity ruling the roost. Can we no longer agree on communal practices that more deeply acknowledge a person’s inner life and contributions?

Today we have a zillion tools at our disposal to shape the image of someone or something, and there is a tacit pressure to put a smiling patina on most things, almost regardless of their character.

To the degree that “the doom and gloom” of traditional services robs communities of a fuller commemoration of life in all its ebbs, I understand the impulse behind Distinctive Life’s sunnier imagination.

The only puncture I’d lend is a reminder that happy doesn’t equal beauty. The greatest love stories, the most enduring pieces of art and the most admirable biographies all contain a mixture of pain, glory and lots of meanders in between.

Life’s bookends – birth and death – offer a rare glimpse of the vulnerability that lies at the core of each one of us. Honesty before this meaningful human fact can be comforted by chocolate, but probably shouldn’t be covered by it.

This column was originally featured in The Orange Country Register.

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