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Good mourning takes many different forms

Sam James: The grim reaper has a spring in his step

By Dave Yochum. None of us is going to get out of this alive, which means the funeral business looks good as Baby Boomers enter their, uh, prime consumer years. Nevertheless, the time-honored ritual is becoming more secular and casual as Americans change their notion of an appropriate good-bye.

“The times, they are a ‘changin,” says Sam James, owner of James Funeral Home in Huntersville.

Americans are changing the rules around embalming, cemetery plots and services. A cocktail party is a distinct possibility; likewise, beach clothing and shag music at the send-off.

John D. Kepner, co-president of Raymer-Kepner Funeral Home in Huntersville, said “happy send-offs” are a major trend. Some examples:


• Exiting the service with a favorite upbeat song enjoy by the deceased.

• Dove releases and balloon releases honoring the deceased and families.

  Live music from favorite instruments such as guitar, harp, and violin, as well as bagpipes.

“A tractor pulling a deceased farmer to the grave is always special,” the fourth-generation funeral director says.


Non-traditional death parties can leave a lasting impression.

One of James’ customers, a “self-proclaimed humanist,” asked for a Mexican luncheon and a mariachi band in the funeral home’s community room following his memorial.

The funeral industry, already marked by consolidation, is adapting to changing demands. James says services can be more life-centered, as opposed to church-centered. Baby Boomers have moved more frequently than their parents; many don’t have a home church, so a burial may seem like an unnecessary expense.

The price of funerals is easily in the $8,000 to  $10,000 range, a major investment with few prospects for a high rate of return.

Cremations can reduce the overall expenditure.

Right now more than half of all decedents plan cremations, compared to 28 percent only 15 years ago. A cremation may cost a third the price of a burial; meanwhile, the green movement suggests that a traditional in-ground burial with a casket and a vault is old-school, and environmentally unfriendly.

And with families scattered all over the world, the funeral industry has responded with tattoos and jewelry containing the ashes of a loved one.

The trend will only continue, James and Kepner say.


Within 10 years, people over 65 will outnumber children. About 3.6 million will die per year in 15 years, about 1 million more than in 2015.

James said the national cremation rate is just over 50 percent; by 2035 it is projected to exceed 75 percent.

Lake Norman and Charlotte are fairly similar to the national rate, which is not a surprise to James.

“This area seems to be a melting pot of our country. There are states like Hawaii that are almost entirely choosing options that are not traditional and there are areas like W.Va. and the deep south that are almost entirely burial,” James says.

Regardless of cost or the presence of a body, funerals and memorial services are meant to celebrate a life.

“I certainly see a trend in places that are more religious to lean towards traditional options. I, personally, as a Christian, find so much value in the traditional funeral…We follow 2000 years of Christian tradition into following those we love in and out of a church and laying their body to rest in a cemetery,” James says.

At the same time, there are those who do not hold those same convictions and choose a more thematic option.

“Or perhaps they have my same convictions but they want a funeral that is not centered around religious convictions but a theme,” James says.

Funeral directors, in keeping with the zest for life Baby Boomers have shown since the 1960s, are up to the task of planning zestful departures for the generation that grew up on the Rolling Stones, Pet Rocks and “The Rockford Files.”

Kepner handled the arrangements for the owner of a large garbage company.

“A very large processional to the cemetery included 15 of his spotless garbage trucks,” Kepner says.

Whatever the request, funeral directors should make sure the family walks away with a healing experience, James explains.

Kepner says the key to a “well-organized, happy sendoff” is focusing on the personality of the deceased and honoring his or her life with celebration that centers on their accomplishments and interests.

And perhaps tattoos for the whole family.


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