Lifting Up A Legacy – Changing Trends in End-of-Life Decisions

Growing up in a strong Catholic home with a large, intricately connected faith community meant that my family had a front row seat to view all facets of life.  Births and deaths, marriages and divorces, great accomplishments and devastating setbacks.  It didn’t matter if the event was a high or low point, the community was there to celebrate and support in whatever fashion was needed.   The phrase used at my home was ‘lifting people up’.  And it was universally applied in great and not-so-great times.

When I think back on my personal experiences with death and related rituals, I was not short on experiences.  My family and I were very involved in nearly every aspect of church life – music ministry, social justice, youth ministry, and community development – which translated into a network of family and friends was deep and wide.  This meant the sheer number of funerals was many; they were a common occurrence.

But while my own personal story began and continues with the foundation of ‘lifting people up’, I struggle with the feeling that many rituals (regardless of one’s faith or end of life choice) have not caught up with that notion.  In recent readings, I’ve noticed others with similar concerns.  Are we missing an opportunity to truly honor and celebrate our loved one’s impact…their legacy?  Is today’s fast-paced, transaction-oriented society making it too convenient to avoid the human emotions tied to death and dying?  Are we using ‘tradition’ as a reason to hold to ‘the way it’s always been done’ rather than explore ways to enrich our connection to and impact on each other?

I’ve observed strides being made.  For example, the terms ‘funeral’ and ‘wake’ have largely been replaced with ‘memorial’ or even better ‘celebration of life’.  These are important and meaningful distinctions that should change the tenor of the events.  Memories.  Celebration.  Life.  As survivors, I believe this is the spirit we should embrace; it’s what we are called to do when we gather to honor one’s passing.

Another advancement is that increasing numbers of individuals either facing imminent death or proactively making their own end of life choices are being vocal about how they want their life memorialized.  This is certainly a cultural shift to recognize and support.  We want to feel that our lives have mattered and that we’ve made an impact.

The opportunity is here to move beyond intention to action: to move our rituals forward so they truly commemorate and celebrate.  For example,  if you’re considering a burial or cremation, seek ways to incorporate your family and community in that decision.  Embrace the support and power that comes with involving others on your journey.

Recent interactions with individuals and families at Foreverence confirm how each and every one of us is unique and amazing.  The poignant stories and vivid memories are what we seek to hold onto.  So, for me, the opportunity to encapsulate and celebrate that feeling, those memories, in a symbol that is very personal and reflective of their loved one’s legacy is invigorating.  That is ‘lifting people up’.

 

–Patty Saari
Partner & General Manager
Foreverence

The New Headstone

Our society and our communities are changing.  It wasn’t very long ago that people grew up in one community and then stayed in that community their entire lives. They worked there, they built a family there, they died there. They were frequently buried in a cemetery where their relatives from previous generations had been laid to rest. The cemetery was a central part of the village. It was a place for long-time residents could maintain a sort of residence. The living relatives of the deceased would visit the cemetery, tend the graves, plant flowers and remember the departed.

This is largely no longer the case. In our fast-paced era people are very mobile, often leaving the community they grew up in to go to college, or take a job and never returning to settle.  For many of us, the very idea of community has changed. Certainly, the idea of going to a cemetery to look at headstones as a way of remembering our loved ones is fading out.

Remembering the loved and lost is important. It connects us to people that we cared for, and that cared for us.  It connects us to our own mortality. If we’re not going to be a society that supports the idea of a central cemetery, what can replace the headstone as the artifact of remembrance? Something needs to fill that void. For some, geography works. I know of a family that scatters the ashes of every cremated family member on the same hill in rural Montana. That hill is their collective headstone. For others, it might be a 3D printed urn. My point is that it doesn’t really matter what the new headstone is, just that we realize that in our ever-increasing mobility we do not leave our dead behind. 

–Foreverence

Do Not Be Blockbuster.

In 2004, Blockbuster Video was at its apex. With a three-plus billion dollar market cap, 9,000 stores worldwide and clear market-leader momentum, they were seemingly positioned for continued dominance. When America wanted to watch a movie at home, they went to Blockbuster. Now, eleven years later, they don’t exist. They announced the close of their remaining stores back in 2013. So, what happened? How does a company like Blockbuster lose its market leadership position in less than a decade?

In short: they didn’t evolve. As high-speed internet usage surged, and more and more media was available through the web, Blockbuster’s core service became obsolete. Netflix launched their streaming service in 2007, websites like Hulu became popular, YouTube exploded and before long, Blockbuster was a giant dinosaur, looking wide-eyed at a meteor whose impact it couldn’t avoid.

Sound familiar, funeral home operators? The market landscape is changing. And just like there is no chance that movie-watchers will wake up tomorrow and decide that DVD rental was the way to go, families in need of funeral services or pre-need customers are not migrating back to expensive burials. Right or wrong, they’re just not. We are past the days of trying to analyze the reasons behind the shift. Your choice is to strategically adapt to a new way of operating or to disappear.

Netflix took a gamble in 2007. Though the infrastructure was not fully developed, they bet the future was in streaming content and a virtual (instead of brick and mortar) operation. Certainly the brass at Blockbuster saw the change too but their belief was they were big enough to drive market demand instead of adapt to it. Although the going was rough for Netflix, and they made critical mistakes along the way, their ability to read and react to how today’s customer wants to consume movies and television allowed them to not only survive but thrive.

So what’s the lesson for today’s Funeral Home owner or operator? If your answer to any business strategy question is; “because we’ve always done it that way”, it’s time for a change. Cremation customers are here to stay and many (most) of them are not choosing cremation because it’s cheaper. They’re choosing cremation because its what they believe in. They’re choosing cremation because it’s practical. Cremation customers are just as interested in personalized legacy as burial customers. The lesson here is that its better to be Netflix than Blockbuster. Avoid the meteor.

-Pete Saari
Founder, Foreverence

 

Welcome.

I can’t remember the first funeral I ever attended. Photographs taken at the coffee-and-cake reception in the church basement confirm my attendance. I don’t remember any of the music played by the organist or sung by the congregation. I don’t remember what holy words the pastor said. I can’t recall who gave the eulogy. But I can remember the attendant sadness of the whole affair.  I have a grainy image of my mother crying into Kleenex in a navy dress. I can see my father sitting stiffly in a pew. I remember my grandfather standing next to my great uncle, looking dour. I was not quite four years old, and I remember it being the day when I began to understand that older people could be sad and that sometimes people went away forever. The service was for an older relative who I did not know well, and did not see often, but who, after that day, I understood I would never see again.

When I was ten years old, my grandmother died the night before Valentine’s Day. She had battled Alzheimer’s for five long years, deteriorating in stages, descending into death piece by piece. I was due at school at eight the following morning, and had been assigned to bring cupcakes to share with the class. I remember a dear friend of my mother volunteering to handle the baked goods and my getting to school. That day, I learned something about how a community pulls together to combat grief’s rising tide. That emotional buoyancy is found in numbers, and that many small actions can make a big difference.

On Christmas Eve of 2008, my grandfather died aged ninety-two. He lived an almost impossibly healthy life, then suffered for a week after a debilitating stroke. He died in his own bed, with his eldest grandson (and my brother) sleeping by his side. I was devastated by his death. He had been my next-door neighbor, my mentor, my fishing partner, my raving fan and my dearest friend. In the months after his death I learned about the raw power of sadness. The tidal pull of grief. The late nights awake, the mistaken phone calls to a number that will now never be answered, the aching loneliness whenever I found myself in our common spaces. Before his death, I didn’t know what personal loss really meant.

Five months ago, Pete Saari gave me a call to tell me all about Foreverence. He said his idea was to make “individually designed, 3D-printed cremation urns.” He told me how he wanted this company to help change the perception of what an urn can be. He talked a lot about finding a way to capture a portion of a person’s legacy in the shape of their urn. He spoke about challenging funeral directors to elevate the conversations they were having with families to something beyond, “Here’s the catalog. Choose any urn you like.”  He talked some about the wizardry of 3D-printing. He talked about wanting to engage people in a discussion about death and dying that wasn’t intimidating. He invited me to join him at the National Funeral Directors Association show in Nashville. I listened and then told him I would think about it. When I hung up the phone the first three instances that came to mind were the stories I just shared above. I thought about my own personal experiences with death. I tried to think about what urn my grandfather would have liked if there’d been an option for him to have any-shaped urn. I thought a bit about what I would choose for myself, when the time comes. I began to see just how endless the possibilities could be. Twenty-four hours later I sent him an e-mail, telling him that I’d see him in Nashville.

Now, here we are five months later and I’m convinced we all approach a conversation about death in the same way I did when Pete called me. We personalize it. Since joining the Foreverence team in October, I’ve had a lot of wonderful, sad, joyful and inspiring conversations with families across the country.  Each one of those discussions has had a common theme: individuality deserves an individual remembrance.

In the coming months, Foreverence is going to use this blog to share our thoughts on the funeral industry in relation to that theme. Pete Saari, our Co-Founder and CEO, myself and others will regularly publish entries on a wide range of topics, with a wide range of opinions. We believe this is a space for a free-flowing, open discussion. This is a forum for our own continuing education. I want to personally welcome all of you to be a part of that conversation. Reach out to us through the comments section, or engage us on social media. We’re easily found on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. We know we don’t know everything, but we’re excited to continue learning. We hope you join us.

–Grant Dawson
Director of Communication