From casino nights to 'destination wakes,' a modern take on memorials

'It’s up to us to create an experience, not just provide a funeral'

Maureen Lomasney / Funeria

The stage was set for what promised to be a spectacular event. About 200 guests mingled inside an airplane hangar in Delta, B.C., sipping on cocktails served by a bartender dressed as a flight attendant. The elaborately decorated backdrop included aviation-themed floral arrangements and fishing rods. At last, the guest of honour made an appearance—a grand entrance via helicopter. He arrived in an urn. The man, a lifelong pilot, had died weeks earlier. Instead of a funeral, his family opted for a customized event to honour his passions for flying and fishing.

As more and more Canadians choose cremation—rates have increased more than tenfold over the past few decades, from just five per cent in the 1970s to around 59 per cent currently—memorial services are taking a turn for the modern. Free of the time and location constraints that come with burial, some are a far cry from their former religion-centric incarnations.

“We are very in tune with being able to be in several places at one time, and cremation affects that, as well,” says Jason Engler, a funeral director and historian for the Cremation Association of North America. The changing customs, he says, are a reflection of an increasingly virtual society. “We couldn’t take a body and hearse to our favourite beach destination or our favourite restaurant.”

Funeral homes have adapted, too, and some are catering to clients who want something extraordinary. “It’s up to us to create an experience, not just provide a funeral,” says Jeffrey Young, a funeral director at B.C.’s Alternatives Funeral and Cremation Services, who organized the pilot’s grand goodbye. “Everyone is an individual and the service needs to reflect that individualism.”

Young, who has been working in the industry for 11 years, says he noticed that families often didn’t appear to be connecting with a traditional funeral. To fill the niche, Alternatives has for the past two years been organizing events that, in their planning, cost and celebratory nature, seem almost parallel to weddings—with some obvious differences. At the pilot’s service, attendees took turns flying remote-control led helicopters in exchange for charitable donations. A flyby of a restored Second World War aircraft was also arranged.

For a gambler who passed away, the company created a casino night, renting out a pub the man frequented and setting up poker and blackjack tables. Photos of the deceased’s face were adhered to the poker chips and bottles of his favourite beer.

The price of a direct cremation, with no memorial service, ranges from $1,500 to $3,000, while interring a loved one’s ashes in a cemetery or garden is about double that. (A basic burial and funeral costs $6,000 to $8,000.) Families who opt for an Alternatives event pay a fee of $3,100, which includes cremation and the planning and execution of a custom memorial. The cost of catering, entertaining and renting the venue can tack on thousands of dollars, though there is room to accommodate a range of budgets, says Young.

Eighty per cent of British Columbians opt for cremation, and North Vancouver’s First Memorial Funeral Services touts itself as one of the region’s largest cremation cemeteries. Set at the foot of Mount Seymour, the 3.5-acre property bears closer resemblance to a nature park than a graveyard. There are no mowed lawns, no headstones. But plots for urns, floating pillars in a pond and boulders with name plaques set along a forested path are just some of the features that allow families to pay tribute to their loved ones.

The Cremation Association of North America says a desire for value is driving the demand for cremation. Geography is another factor. With relatives more spread out than ever before, cremated remains can be easily transported, or placed in urns or keepsake jewellery and divided among loved ones. Some families are even opting for a “destination wake,” whereby a date and location is chosen well after the death to commemorate the deceased.

In February, Pam Barrett, 67, of Edmonton, travelled to Hot Springs Village, Ark., for the passing of her 92-year-old father, McKinley Standridge, who lived in a retirement home there. He was cremated, and his ashes buried in a cemetery in Arkansas, together with his wife’s. Only Barrett, her husband and some residents from the home were in attendance. The entire family, scattered around Wisconsin, Minnesota, British Columbia and Alberta, held a celebration on July 4 at a cabin in Bear Lake, Wis. There was music, a barbecue and fireworks. “It’s perfect,” says Barrett. “My father was a lot of fun and he would appreciate a fun experience.”

And for those who would prefer to keep things low-key, Engler believes cremation is still the ideal choice. “Non-tradition is the new tradition,” he says. “That is what is getting people together and making them realize, ‘Hey, this is my event. This is just as important to me as my marriage. I’m going to make it mine.’ ”

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