By David M. Fitzpatrick
Of The Weekly Staff
When Gary Smith, owner of Brookings-Smith Funeral Home, entered the funeral business in the late 1950s, things were very different. But one thing hasn’t changed.
“Whether it was 50 years ago or whether it’s today, in my opinion, death is a very sacred and awesome event,” he said. “It’s just a matter of how people respond to that.”
In 1950s, planning ahead was rarely considered. If a loved one died, the family visited the funeral director to choose a casket from a fairly limited selection, and then to a monument company to pick a headstone, also from a fairly limited selection. The funeral happened quickly.
“It was pretty automatic: Who are we going to have for a clergy person, and what about the traditions and the values of the family?” Smith recalled.
That was already a dramatic change from 55 years before that. At the turn of the 20th century, everything happened at home, including caring for sick or elderly loved ones. When someone died, the undertakers came to the home with their equipment, set up portable tables in the bedroom, and did the embalming right there. Funeral services were at home, either in the bedroom or, for those houses so equipped, in the parlor. When it was over, the undertaker placed the body in a casket, loaded it onto a horse-drawn hearse, and conveyed it to the cemetery for burial.
By the 1950s, only about half of funerals were done that way; the rest were at funeral homes. Today, funerals rarely happen at home, and embalming never does. Part of this is logistical: Many people live in rental properties, and houses rarely have parlors. Another part is cultural: People just don’t want their loved ones embalmed and displayed at home.
The prevalence of cremations has changed dramatically. When Smith started in the 1950s, he handled just one or two cremations per year. But in 2012, 64 percent of Brookings-Smith funerals were cremations. According to the Cremation Association of North America, this is up from a national average of just 15 percent in 1985, and should hit 75 percent before leveling off.
Despite the functional changes over the years, Smith said that one thing has remained consistent: the way funeral homes deal with the living, whether with grieving families or with those planning their own funerals.
“We really have an awesome responsibility to meet these needs, and we have one time to do it — we’ve got to do it right the first time,” he said. “The idea is to be able to try to put something together that’s meaningful to everybody.”
Compared to when Smith started in the business 55 years ago, preparing for a funeral today is full of far more options. There are many more casket, monument, and urn options, and there are many varied ways loved ones can memorialize the departed — everything from photos laser-engraved on stones to jewelry containing bits of cremated remains to part of your loved one being made into a diamond. Yet while all these options are great, it can make for an overwhelming array of choices for a grieving family in just a few days.
Meanwhile, family and friends frequently have to come in from out of town. A lot has to happen quickly, and the funeral home has to support the family to make it happen — and happen on everyone’s busy schedules. It’s the difference, Smith says, in our modern world of convenience: We have a lot going on, and although we must grieve the loss of a loved one, life for us must still continue.
“For many years… the services were traditional, based on traditions in the family or in the church — and when a death occurred, their world stopped,” Smith said. “That’s no longer the case.”
That’s not a bad thing, he says; it’s just the time we live in. Families are more dispersed, with children living all over the country and beyond. That three-day period from death until burial has become a fleeting window at a time when grieving families least need to be rushed.
Pre-planning is the way alleviate these troubles. You can pick your own casket, urn, monument, or other amenities, and even plan your service. You’ll have things how you want them, and you can involve your loved ones at an easier time. But regardless of advanced planning, these days the family is going to likely handle your funeral very differently than a few decades ago.
“Family involvement is necessary; I think it’s therapeutic,” Smith said. “What they seem to want to make it today is an expression of the life of that person — more personalized than it used to be.”
Everyone views a departed loved one differently, and it’s important that everyone can help celebrate the life of that loved one. Families typically display photos today, something that wasn’t common even 30 years ago. Today, it’s usual to see screens displaying photos and videos, and everyone participates in the celebration of life. From the happy moments in life to the more mundane events, people want to share the moments that mattered to them.
“When you can see that expressed at a service, it’s really meaningful,” Smith said. “What Dad meant to us or to the grandchildren [are] important times, and they’re things that we take so much for granted. Going to the dump, to the grocery store — nothing really substantive, but it’s just those little things that happen in the life of a family that’s so important, and they want to share that when a death occurs.”
Smith said there are always new things coming about, and funeral homes have to embrace them all in order to properly serve the customer — even if it’s something his funeral home doesn’t offer.
“I see nothing wrong with that if that’s what meets their need,” he said. “I mean that from the bottom of my heart. If that’s what’s important and meaningful to them, that’s the way to do it.”
What hasn’t changed is how funeral homes handle things.
“Compassion. Consideration,” Smith said. “Customer comes first.”
And when Smith says “Customer comes first,” he doesn’t sound like a big-box store parroting something out of its handbook. He says it with the deepest sincerity, and with a look in his eyes that tells you that he’s talking about an absolutely sacred duty. That’s how any funeral home should be treating the people they serve, Smith says — and that’s been a constant for as long as he can remember.
“It’s no different today than it was then; it’s just a different way of working with them,” he said. “I feel we’ve got far more responsibility today than we ever did.”