Theme funerals new way to head for the hereafter

Friday, November 1, 2002

ST. LOUIS -- Equally gifted with a spatula and game of spades, Vallonia Smith wasn't dealt out of a fitting send-off cooked up after the homemaker died of heart disease at 59.

In a Wade Funeral Home room dubbed Big Mama's Kitchen, loved ones played cards barely an arm's length from Smith's body in an open casket. The name of the game: celebrating without necessarily sobbing for someone headed for the hereafter.

With the feel of a Sunday family dinner, guests sipped iced tea and Kool-Aid, not far from the stove with a platter of real fried chicken and a couple of fake pies. Dry ice in a pot of water gave the look of something simmering. A Wonder Bread loaf sat atop the refrigerator. Dishes were in a drainer near the sink.

"For those two hours, everybody was saying, 'Oooooh, this reminds me of Val,"' her daughter, Angela Harris, recalls of the March wake. "No one said anything bad to me about it. Everyone said this is a nice idea, it's different. It had fond memories, and there wasn't a lot of crying."

Making vignettes

To the folks behind Wade's themed bereavement services, the theater-quality sets they call "vignettes" help take the grim out of reaper. It's a kind of thinking outside the box in an industry that does more than $20 billion in business each year.

"We're convinced this is the wave of the future," says Slivy Edmonds Cotton, chairman and chief executive of Arizona-based Perpetua Inc., owner of Wade and four other funeral homes in Chicago, Indianapolis and Brooklyn, N.Y., as well as two Chicago-area cemeteries.

Wade's menu of vignettes includes a sports one for die-hard fans who can rest in peace below a basketball goal or near a small fish-stocked, willow-circled pond, where a sign notes "Fishing Season is Closed." There's even a recliner, remote control and TV.

"What we found is the new consumer is really looking for a difference, and they didn't like the way funeral directors were telling them how it should be done," Cotton says. "The sets create fond memories about the person and begin the healing process in a way a traditional funeral doesn't."

Since Wade rolled out the concept less than two years ago, "the thing we've found is that most people who go to funeral homes view the body and come out. Now they come in, stay and socialize," said Aaron Grimes, Wade's branch manager.

Available at no extra charge, the vignettes have been chosen by roughly half of Wade's clients. Often, Grimes says, he's witnessed people drifting from the funeral home's only regular parlor to check out the sets, then return to ask others in their own visitation room, "Why didn't you get that?"

Still, sendoffs with such self-expression have their skeptics.

In his book "Balsamic Dreams: A Short But Self-Important History of the Baby Boomer Generation," Joe Queenan denounces how that generation has "transformed the traditional funeral service into a ludicrous stage show."

"Funerals are no longer somber rituals where we pay our respects to the dead. They are cabaret. They are parties, fun-fests, or what used to be known as happenings," he writes.

So what's next for the folks behind Big Mama's Kitchen? With a laugh, Cotton envisions perhaps something for the person who shops 'til she drops.

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