Offbeat funeral services specialize in celebrating the deceased
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.