Offbeat funeral services specialize in celebrating the deceased
By Rossilynne Skena Culgan
Published: Sunday, Aug. 4, 2013, 11:21 p.m.
As the closing theme song from “The Lawrence Welk Show” played in the background, family and friends circled the casket at a funeral in Indiana County, puffing iridescent bubbles into the air.
The family of the late Georgine S. “Jean” Butekoff of Conemaugh Township, Indiana County, is one of a growing number who plan personalized “life tribute” services.
The themes for the services typically are inspired by the deceased's favorite things: motorcycles, hunting clothes, fishing gear, personalized crossword puzzles, Clark bars, Popsicles, even Genesee Light beer.
Usually headed by a celebrant such as the funeral director, offbeat services are gaining popularity in tandem with the growing number of people who don't identify with a specific religious denomination. One-fifth of Americans have no religious affiliation, and the number is growing “at a rapid pace,” Pew Research Center figures show.
The trend likely will continue because of the proliferation of memories shared on social media, the appeal to baby boomers and Generation Xers, and the growing choice of cremation.
In traditional Southwestern Pennsylvania, many people opt for a combination religious/tribute service, said Norman E. Connors, supervisor and celebrant with Curran Funeral Homes. He added that he's not trying to replace religious ceremonies.
For example, the service for Butekoff at Curran's Saltsburg location wove a priest's remarks and Christian music with the Lawrence Welk homage and a crossword puzzle of facts about the late wordsmith. Polkas and waltzes, Butekoff's favorites, were played instead of hymns during visitation.
“You could see people starting to laugh and smile, and it was just a really wonderful moment,” Beth Butekoff Primm said, remembering the moment when bubbles floated into the air as the music played at her mother's service earlier this year.
“I know that she was looking down, loving it,” Primm said. “She loved her Lawrence Welk. I know that she would have wanted us to celebrate all that she was, not just be sad.”
Connors hosts four to five celebrant services each month. He trained at the In-Sight Institute, an Oklahoma-based company that specializes in celebrant training and bills itself the only face-to-face training service. Several of its training sessions each year are sponsored by the International Cemetery, Cremation and Funeral Association, said Glenda Stansbury, co-trainer and dean of the institute.
Since 1999, the institute has tutored 2,100 celebrants across North America, teaching them to plan unique funeral proceedings for people who are unaffiliated with a church or don't want a religious service, Stansbury said.
“Our main audience are those people who identify as spiritual but not religious,” she said.
At the Pittsburgh Institute of Mortuary Science in Shadyside, teacher Barry Lease incorporates the celebrant concept.
Lease, director of instructional quality and a certified celebrant, noticed a demand for tribute services “even in a traditional region like Pittsburgh.” That sometimes includes pairing a celebrant service with a religious ceremony.
To Stansbury, a funeral service is essential to healthy grieving and healing — and it must suit the person being remembered.
“They're not remembering their loved one lying in a casket deceased as the focus,” said Art Kunkle, owner of Curran Funeral Homes, which has facilities in Saltsburg, Apollo, Vandergrift and Leechburg. “The focus is the fact that they lived their life, and we're celebrating the fact that their family's with them, and they're all together in celebrating that person's life.”
Though he admits to being skeptical at first, Kunkle wanted to be at the forefront of the trend. His son James Kunkle and Connors perform the specialized services.
Connors spends 12 to 14 hours meeting with the family and planning the service, making the details as personal as possible.
“We always try to do something different that we haven't done before that represents that person,” Connors said. “I always think of the old-school funeral directors, and I think in my head what they would say. And if they would say ‘no' or ‘that's the worst idea ever,' I know we're doing the right thing.”
Connors sometimes incorporates tangible reminders by passing out small trees to plant or fishing sinkers as reminders of the person who kept them grounded.
Families have praised the services, one writing on the funeral home's website: “You listened to our stories and made us laugh when we didn't think it was possible to ever laugh again.”
Rossilynne Skena is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- Greensburg bishop’s time at helm draws to a close
- Fuel spill discovered on Loyalhanna Creek
- Greensburg woman accused of assaulting nurse in Excela Health Westmoreland Hospital
- Unity woman loses appeal of DUI conviction
- Murrysville police will get raises in 5-year pact
- Jeannette to use grant to secure Monsour
- State marker in Latrobe to honor Mr. Rogers
- Tentative plea deal with Westmoreland drivers reached in turnpike toll fraud
- Pittsburgh man charged with threat to witness
- Judge to Cook Township drug suspect: Get new friends
- Westmoreland man’s walk in Niagara Falls State Park wasn’t allowed, police say