That is what the Golden Gate Funeral Home does very effectively, according to their happy clients.  Featured on The Learning Channel’s pilot show, “Best Funeral Ever” Sunday, January 6th at 9 EST/10CST, viewers were able to discover a whole new approach to funerals that makes everyone re-think the way funerals have traditionally been done.

The Golden Gate Funeral Home, Dallas, Texas, starts with the premise that funerals should be a genuine celebration of the deceased’s life—Not a totally new approach, since the Vikings, the Irish, the Mexicans, and Christians have historically woven celebration into their funeral services.

Vikings celebrated the lives of their warriors lost in battle, believing that the fact that they died while fighting guaranteed them eternal happiness.  The Irish celebrate the deceased’s life during their wakes with feasting.  The Mexicans’ Day of the Dead, despite the name, has more celebrating and feasting than actual mourning.  Throughout the centuries and even today, Christians have often blended recognition of the passing with rejoicing that their loved one is now experiencing eternal life.  Golden Gate Funeral Home’s unique perspective has a strong precedent, so this deserves a serious look.

Dramatic Funeral Celebrations

“Dramatic” is the word.  In the TLC special, Golden Gate Funeral Home took us behind the scenes to see how three of their funeral celebrations were planned and executed.   Their large staff coordinates every aspect of the funeral to create the right effect.  They often participate as actors.   They also bring in professional mourners to provide a catalyst to trigger emotional responses in the rest of the attendees.

Each grieving family is assigned a funeral counselor or sometimes a team of two.  First order of business is to talk to the family to find out about the deceased’s life and hobbies, what he or she was happiest doing, and what the families and friends want everyone to remember about their loved one.   The emphasis is on finding a tangible way to celebrate that life.  The counselor then makes suggestions to translate these precious memories into a themed vision for the funeral.  Once the family decides on a theme for the funeral service, the counselor suggests specific details and gets to work making it all come together.

On the show, one family decided on a Christmas theme because their son and nephew loved that holiday more than anything.  They opted for all the traditional symbols, both religious and commercial.  The funeral ended up as a production with 17 animals in a fenced-in pen, nativity props and characters, giant decorative candy canes, the funeral staff dressed up as wise men, elves, a snowman, a gingerbread man, and several wearing reindeer antlers pulling a live Santa Claus and the casket on a sleigh.  Of course, the funeral was rounded out with Christmas music and singing.

My one criticism is that the counselors seemed so eager to bring in every type of Christmas symbol that the funeral became a jumble of spiritual and commercial props.  I couldn’t tell if the family was ever asked whether they preferred the religious symbols over the traditional ones or wanted them somehow separated, since the funeral sermon was religious.   All in all, the clients seemed to love the final outcome, and that is what matters.

The second themed funeral was for the man who had sung the original Chili’s Restaurant “Baby Back Rib” theme song.  The family decided to build the entire funeral around barbeque ribs, complete with two plastic giant rib stacks on plates carried in the procession, a fountain of barbeque sauce, and live pigs on leashes paraded through the aisles.  During the funeral service, each person took a rib, dipped it into the BBQ fountain and symbolically ate the rib in honor of the deceased.  The attendees were seated at covered picnic tables, and everyone enjoyed a barbeque rib meal together.   Very lively and happy memories for all involved.

Personally, I would have either omitted the live pigs, which squealed constantly and broke loose from their handler a couple of times, or created a pen for them.  None of the commotion seemed to faze the funeral attendees in the least.  They all had a terrific time celebrating the life of their loved one.

The third funeral featured took place at a fair.  The family was celebrating the life of a family member who had been handicapped all his life with spina bifida.  He had always wanted to ride the rides at the fair but was physically unable to do so.  The family decided to give him his wish postmortem.  They planned to take turns carrying his urn on every single ride.   It took persistence on the part of the funeral counselors to find a fair company that would agree to allow the funeral to take place at their fair site.  The managers of the East Texas State Fair finally agreed and the funeral was scheduled.  The urn was displayed on an open oriental-styled litter carried by the pallbearers as the family and friends proceeded from ride to ride, with the ferris-wheel being the final symbolism of his going to heaven.

The over-the-top style of the Golden Gate Funeral Home may make some people cringe, others chuckle, and still others just shake their heads, but for their clients, this team provides a fulfilling expression of the most meaningful part of their loved one’s life.

As funeral home directors, we may not want to be quite as dramatic as this innovative funeral home, but most of us would have to admit that the concept is intriguing:  encouraging family members to find creative ways to express their most cherished memories about their loved one and to actively involve everyone at the funeral in that celebration.  It might make sense sometimes to build the entire funeral around that theme and to think outside the box with non-traditional elements.  Other times, cherished memories can be transformed into tasteful touches throughout the funeral.   Our goal, the same as that of the Golden Gate Funeral Home, is to design a funeral that is the family’s way of genuinely celebrating their loved one’s life.

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