A friend of mine works in the funeral business. When I suggested that his job must be grim, he replied, “Not at all.” Then he told me about some of the recent funerals that he’s worked on. One was for a pilot. To commemorate his love of flying, the family hired a pilot to fly over the burial ceremony and dip its wings in salute. Then there was the guy with a fondness for the ponies. He asked that his ashes be scattered across his favorite racetrack.
If you’re an old school mourner, you might regard such gestures as being in questionable taste. But they appear to be early indicators of a genuinely different approach to saying goodbye to loved ones. While Canadians are still spending much the same amount on funerals as we always have — $5,000 to $15,000 is typical — we’re no longer devoting so much of that cash to buying a top-end casket. “We’re spending more on the event itself,” says Robin Heppell, a funeral consultant in Victoria. Funerals have become “more about celebrating a person’s life,” says Tim Thompson at Mount Royal Cemetery in Montreal. Among Thompson’s favorite farewells was one for a woman known for baking delicious blueberry muffins. As each person left her funeral they were handed a fresh blueberry muffin. Then there was a service for an elderly man with a crooked pinkie finger who used to tell his grandchildren how, years ago, an elephant had stepped on it and broken it. The story wasn’t true but became so well known that when the man died, the family brought an elephant to his funeral in Montreal from an Ontario zoo 500 km away.
A growing trend is the video tribute — basically a photo collage of the dead person’s life, accompanied by his or her favorite songs. It’s usually played during the visitation and costs around $300 to $400.
Another option is to hire a celebrant — a professional funeral organizer who specializes in personalizing funeral services held outside a church. Most celebrants charge around $300. “I’ve had people come up to me and say ‘I hate to say this, but that was a really good funeral,’” says Sandra Bell-Buttars, a celebrant in Cobourg, Ont. A few years ago she organized a funeral for a woman whose family worked in the trucking industry. She loved trucks, so her cremated remains were placed in an urn and driven off in the front seat of a big rig after the service.
Yet another trend is the “green burial.” No embalming fluid, no concrete vault, no manicured lawns. Instead of a headstone, mourners plant a tree or shrub over your grave, which eventually reverts to a forest. The first green cemetery in Canada opened inside Royal Oak Burial Park in Victoria last fall. Already, five people have been buried there and six more have reserved space, says a cemetery executive. Proving that even if you’re dead, it’s never too late to make the world a better place.