Idaho funeral homes are becoming more like event centers
By HEATHER KENNISON
Feb. 18, 2018
TWIN FALLS, Idaho (AP) — Funeral homes are trying to shed their reputations as dark and somber places of the dead — by building party rooms where mourners can raise a glass, and their spirits, to celebrate the life of a loved one.
Cremations, which are also on the rise, are less expensive, giving families flexibility in planning a memorial. And even in Idaho, it all adds up to the decline of the traditional, dressed-in-black funeral.
"Ten thousand-dollar funerals — nobody wants that anymore," said Heidi Heil, mortician and owner of Serenity Funeral Chapel in Twin Falls.
For many of her clients, an expensive service just isn't feasible. And many younger people don't want to take part or be "held captive" in a religious service. So they host more casual tributes or open houses to honor the deceased.
In response to these changing times, funeral homes such as Heil's are getting more flexible with what they offer.
"We are becoming more and more event planners," Heil said. "Venues and event planners."
But even Serenity Funeral Chapel, with its outdoor patio and indoor kitchen, can't offer the same thing an event center can. It's part of why Heil put her business on the waiting list for a liquor license in 2013.
"People want to have alcohol at the events. A lot of people do," she said. "I have families that will do something here and then they go to the Turf Club."
Heil considers herself something of a visionary. She saw the writing on the wall and knew that in time, more people would turn to cremation, and the traditional church service or graveside funeral would be at thing of the past. Celebrations of life, tributes and open houses are becoming the norm for memorials.
"Nobody's doing the traditional funeral," she said. "It needs to be something that's going to draw meaning for people."
So she got her name on Twin Falls' waiting list early. In Idaho, liquor licenses are awarded based on population estimates — one license for every 1,500 in population. Cities with less than 1,500 people get two licenses. When all licenses are taken, you can either rent or buy a license — or get on the waiting list.
It could take years to get a license; Serenity Funeral Chapel is still fourth on the Twin Falls list. Heil knew her less expensive option would be to wait, but she probably has just a few years left, and the time to act is coming soon.
Because liquor licensees have to run an establishment a minimum number of hours per week, Heil's plan is to open a bar as a part of an event center. She wants to host everything from baptism parties to funerals.
"My long-term goal was to get that event center," she said. "It was something I was going to figure out as the time got closer."
Heil recently began a GoFundMe campaign to get the ball rolling. She's hoping to raise $400,000 so she can buy an old building in Twin Falls' warehouse district, fix it up, and use it to supplement her business.
Although she wants to have a partner to help manage the bar, Heil has some experience with liquor sales already.
"I did a lot of bar tending in college," she said.
And her sister operates a bar in Gooding.
A few years after Heil applied for the liquor license, an article appeared on ConnectingDirectors — a sort of news site for funeral home directors. The article was titled "Now That's a Celebration of Life: Funeral Homes With Bars," and it featured several U.S. businesses that are picking up on the trend Heil foresaw.
At Rosenau Funeral Home & Crematory, about 60 percent of patrons still choose a traditional service, in a chapel with a program, funeral director Dustin Godfrey said. But more and more — and especially with the rise of cremation — people are hosting public gatherings.
"It's less like a service and more like a reception, almost," Godfrey said. "There's a lot more laughter and remembering the good times. Those stories that weren't ever supposed to come out."
He's seen open-mic events with food and casual attire. His business even provides live-streaming video of services.
In Rupert and Burley, it seems, this trend is slower to pick up. Joel Heward, owner of Hansen Mortuary and Morrison Payne Funeral Home, said he is doing more events with food — but many people still want a service at his chapel.
"I've tried to bridge that gap by having refreshments and tables available," he said.
Heward said he doesn't see a liquor license in his immediate future. Nor does he see a correlation between cremation and the type of service people want.
However, in 2016, Heward officiated 50 funerals, in place of a pastor — an usually high number for his business.
"They didn't have a pastor or someone they looked up to, other than us, I suppose," he said.
He thinks fewer people these days have a church home to turn to.
Cremation is about a third to a fourth the cost of a burial, Heil said. At Serenity Funeral Chapel, she can have remains "in and out the door for less than $1,500."
But aside from the cost, cremation also has a lot more convenience. People can take their time planning a service or a memorial.
"It gives them a lot of flexibility," Heward said.
Instead of a burial, you can opt for a scattering. Cremated remains are considered all-organic and can be scattered anywhere in the state on public property. If it's on private property, you have to get permission from the landowner, Heil said.
Or you can take the ashes home however you like.
"You can use almost anything as an urn," Godfrey said. "Think of something that fits that person."
A cookie jar or a boot, for example.
When it comes to providing a proper send-off, people get creative. Godfrey said he's seen an urn placed on a motorcycle seat during a reception. He's heard of people scattering ashes of loved ones at their favorite camping or hunting spots.
Ninety-five percent of Heil's business is cremation. But of those patrons, 75 percent won't use her chapel for a service. Serenity Funeral Chapel has a chapel area mostly because of the perception it gives people about her business.
"I'll go six months and I'll never even use this at all," Heil said, looking around the room.
There's a stigma that funeral homes are dark and somber, and people want to avoid that feeling, she said. Some funeral homes, such as Rosenau and Serenity, have opened up their rooms for other events: birthday parties, weddings and anniversaries. Heil's chapel and patio are being branded as a Life Celebration Center.
But an event center, she feels, is the way to capture lost business and make people feel comfortable in a neutral location. And it would keep the drinking and socialization at the event, instead of at a bar offsite.
Heil sometimes hears people say that when they die, they just want someone to throw them a party. And the people who remember them want to comply with those wishes. She sums up this sentiment in her GoFundMe campaign:
"People want to celebrate," she said. "They want to celebrate the life that was lived."
Information from: The Times-News, http://www.magicvalley.com