Life’s bookends – birth and death – offer a rare glimpse of the vulnerability that lies at the core of each one of us.
Recently, I came across a website that appeared to be in the honeymoon business. A smiling couple in their 60s was sitting on the deck of a cruise ship, gazing rapturously at each other as the wind whipped through their hair. The next photo showed a group of attractive young adults laughing over martinis. A pair of women chatting over fancy hors d’oeuvres scrolled underneath.
But then these words popped to the foreground and reset the glow in a surprise frame: “Distinctive Life: Cremations & Funerals.”
I blinked. A funeral home defined by smiles and sunny images? Was this modern marketing having the final say or was something deeper playing between the lines?
I decided to visit Distinctive Life to learn more. Two polished women greeted me chirpily, the foyer exuding a hybrid of chic hair salon and art exhibit. On the walls hung candid blow-ups of people laughing large, the colors vibrant. Chests of diamond rings and blown glass lined the hallway – gifts for the bereaved, the reps explained, created out of human ashes.
“You know, we get so caught up in the rituals of tradition,” said Distinctive Life’s founder Jeff Friedman as we toured the space. “We think we need to do this, this and this – the cookie cutter – that the funeral business has never done anything personal. When in reality, there’s a memory, there’s a life that’s been lived. We’ve got to celebrate that, not the doom and gloom of the death.”
Intuitive enough and the market agrees. Business has ballooned since its beginnings in 2012, and the requests get creative. One minister recorded himself on a video to officiate his own funeral. Another was a softball player and asked for her memorial service to be held in the field with the guests signing a ball. A firefighter’s family put his ashes in an urn that was the shape of a fireman’s helmet.
“I think the more distinctive the idea, the more awesome it is,” Friedman said. “It’s really important that when you pick an urn, that that piece tells a story. What we’re doing is listening and giving people permission to celebrate what made them unique.”
Friedman is a successful player in an industry that is the latest to skim the wave of entrepreneurs looking to innovate in untapped fields.
According to CNBC, death care in this country now rakes in $17 billion per year. What’s new is the social acceptance to treat it as a competitive market.
Anne Snyder is a member of the Humane Pursuits editorial board. She is currently living in Houston, Texas, where she is studying the assimilation patterns of the city’s growing immigrant population while also working for the Laity Lodge Leadership Initiative. She has started a biweekly column for the Orange County Register and freelances elsewhere. Before moving to Houston she worked in the Op-Ed department of The New York Times in Washington, DC, and before that at World Affairs Journal and the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Originally from Boston but given the cross-cultural bug from a childhood spent in Hong Kong and Australia, she holds a B.A. from Wheaton College (IL) and an M.A. from Georgetown University.