Why Everything You Know About Funeral Personalization Is Wrong

Funeral Personalization

About 15 years ago, I had the privilege of being involved with a Batesville research project called the “Funeral of the Future.”

One of the most important findings that came out that project was that less than 5% of all funerals were personalized in any meaningful way. We reached that insight by asking funeral homes from around the country to come in and to share their experiences with personalized funerals.

When asked about personalized funerals, they indicated that a majority of their services were personalized – in fact, well over 50%.  We then asked them to describe a personalized funeral, and they typically identified some variation of the “motorcycle escort” theme.

When asked for a second example (something that should have been easy to do with a 50% rate) our participants would begin to stutter and stammer. Only one or two of them were able to come up with another example.

After asking a few more probing questions, we realized that the 5% of personalized services we found in our research was actually an extremely generous number.

We also found that of that 5%, the personalization did not originate with the funeral director. Instead, it came from the family.  The funeral director, more often than not, allowed the personalization to happen rather than creating or encouraging it.

My Non-Funeral Director Encounter with Personalization

Keeping this story in mind,  I want to share a recent experience I had supporting a friend and her family as they planned the funeral services for someone they lost.

During the arrangement meeting, the funeral director was very effective at taking down vital information.  She pulled data from a previous service and meticulously updated it.  She knew the details of the community and was completely familiar with the logistics necessary for the service.

Her contribution to personalization was putting together a tribute video with the pictures the family pulled from scrap books the night before. She also asked them to pick out a theme and verse for the memorial folders as well as the music to be played prior to the service.  I was truly interested in her recommendations on how the life of their loved one would be reflected in the service. She captured the ideas of the family for the obituary, but again, this was in a passive mode.

If left up to this logistically competent funeral director, this would have been a fairly vanilla funeral service and part of the 95%!

How the family saved the day

Not to worry. The family brought in Pittsburgh memorabilia that was placed in and around the casket.  They brought small plastic Steeler tokens that were placed in the flowers at the request of the family.  They brought in a couple of craft projects that were placed at the base of the casket bier, along with a recently purchased beta fish affectionately named “Finney.”

Awards and other larger photos were scattered throughout the facility.  And the service itself was rescued by an aunt who delivered a magnificent eulogy that perfectly captured the essence of the life lived.

Why aren’t we proactively personalizing?

My general point is that after 15 years of talking about Baby Boomers, their desire for personalized everything, and their impact on our industry, we, as an industry, are still doing an inadequate job in proactively reflecting the lives that were lived.

There are many reasons for this passive approach to personalization. Some funeral directors don’t want to introduce emotional elements, some don’t have enough time, and some are not trained to personalize.

Many funeral directors will claim that they meaningfully personalize through paper product themes or verses and this is a great start, but that’s just the first step in creating a ceremony that truly reflects the life lived.

We MUST play a proactive role in developing ceremonies that truly have meaning and help families reflect the life lived. Through our contribution to that life’s tribute, we can help our families begin their journey of grief.

How does your funeral home provide meaning in your services? Share the ways you do in the comments below!


Want to take the first step towards offering personalized services? Get a 30-day free trial of Life Tributes All-In-One Personalization Software by clicking here or calling 800-798-2575 ext. 5!

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  1. peggymlewis

    Right on! A truly personalized services captures the personality of the deceased–talents, gifts, foibles, habits that drove the family crazy–all of it. And this is done in the words of the service and the readings,, not just by a slide show or a photo board.
    In a truly personalized funeral, the guests will mourn, cry a little, and laugh a lot. They will celebrate the gifts that the person gave to the world.
    Life-Cycle Celebrants (this is a registered trademark designation) are trained by the Celebrant Institute (www.celebrantinstitute.org). They will spend as much time as necessary talking to as many family members as necessary (in their home, if they wish); and at least several hours writing an original ceremony.
    They will show the ceremony to the family before the funeral to make sure they have gotten it “right”.
    And they will give the family a keepsake copy of the entire ceremony after the event.
    Peggy M. Lewis

  2. JackM

    Great article and great thoughts. I see two causes for the lack of personalization efforts which center on both shortage of time caused by employer demands and personal time priorities, and the lack of sincerity in helping people. The first cause absorbs most of the blame although your software and that from others helps increase efficiency and provides more results in less time which in itself provides more in the way of services and customization for families. The remaining problem in today’s world comes at the directors in the way of responsibilities, financial demands, tee times, and lack of family opportunities which pull them away from providing all the needed time required to adequately provide sincerest empathy and compassion to the extent warranted by the particular depths of grief being experienced by individual families. I was fortunate in my former business by being fully staffed to a point where my directors could take as much time with particular families as they wanted and/or needed to go that extra mile in learning to know them and finding ways to make all that we did more meaningful.

  3. Lajos Szabo

    Thanks for the comments. To be sure employer demands and direction have a great deal of impact on the quality of the service. Here is the question I struggle with and have battled my entire career. If services that reflect the life lived are valued by our families, why aren’t more funeral homes more focused on creating those types of services which should drive market share and therefore employer profitability? Long cycle times, arranger training? motivation? Families don’t understand? Too much damage to funeral industry reputation?

  4. Lajos Szabo

    I have had a lot of great experiences with celebrants and the ceremonies they create. The time spent with the family is critical to celebrant success not to mention beneficial to the family. I also believe that the visitation/viewing and the rest of the service elements should also reflect that life which is in the purvey of the arranger. The presentation of a celebrant is also at the mercy of the arranger so I believe in celebrant value but the root cause of their lack of use is further upstream. Once we solve that problem, the value of celebrants will bubble to the surface.

  5. Bob Marlowe

    Let’s educate the general public in the concept of planning their own service. What would they like done as their from-the-other-side message to those attending? I like the idea of having everyone at my service getting a taste of my favorite food. Perhaps view a favorite scene from a movie or TV show I loved. I can make a video wherein I address the people at my service and express my feelings for what they have meant in my life. If I’m a fanatic about a specific sports team, professional or collegiate, that teams colors could be the theme in the room and those attending could be asked to wear those colors. If I have been a volunteer for a charitable/non-profit organization, those attending could be told why I believe their support for the organization is important. This is not the normal, “Support …… Cancer Society because he died of that disease”, but the actual causes in which I was involved.
    As a “Counselor” at Forest Lawn, I enjoyed the occasion of helping a wife and daughter write the inscription for a full-grave bronze marker. I said, “Tell me about him.” I took notes and then helped them write the inscription with the proper number of lines and letters per line to fill the marker completely. Within an hour, I felt like I had known this man for years.
    All it takes is some conversation, mixed with some creativity.

  6. JackM

    Focusing on the life lived and honoring the person who has died with all that was positive in his or her life often works for the many but not always the closest few. The goal is to address both. Yes, this was a great person and a life review attributes to that idea. Sometimes the more important need to be derived from the service should be an effort to comfort the few and build a path for them to follow into and through the beginning of their grief work. In an adage that been around for many decades, -the funeral is for the living. Tributes are nice, but connecting it all to enable everyone there to walk away feeling like they, personally/individually, have been helped by being there is more important.

  7. Gary Cumming

    I believe that we need to emphasize the Traditional Christian Funeral especially it the deceased and his family profess Christianity. We need to emphasize Church Funerals and the use of sacred music as oppose to secular music. Have we forgotten where we came from? Is our society becoming pagan? We need to conduct Funerals in a professional manner. Let us keep our profession respectable.

  8. Funeral Blog. The official blog for the funeral & cemetery professions. » Blog Archive The Ultimate Funeral Personalization Checklist

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  9. sybil sage

    I interviewed and taped my brother so he got to “speak” at his own funeral, ending with “Bye now,” which is how he’d ended every phone call

  10. Jevon Truesdale

    Looking for Lajos Szabo posts or blogs.

    – Jevon Truesdale
    [email protected]