Lights, Camera, Mortician! The Rise of 'Fun Funerals'
When a friend and fellow mortician died a decade ago, Teddy Lee received an unusual request. By most measures, the widow said, it was to be a standard Christian service, complete with prayers and promises of life after death. Except for one thing.
Would Lee, asked the widow, put on a little show?
Lee, who is also a magician, gladly obliged. On the day of the service, he stood in front of the mourners gathered in a Bronx sanctuary, held up a few pages of the New York Daily News, and then tore them methodically into pieces as he told a story of life and death.
"God breathes life into your body, and then you go through complications over the last years and last days," he said.
"Lawrence's lymphatic system broke down." Rip. "His cardiovascular system broke down." Rip. "His brain broke down." Rip. "He died." Rip.
"But the Lord restores his soul," Lee said, paraphrasing Psalm 23:3. "He'll guide him along the right paths." Lee clenched the scraps of paper in one fist. Then, he opened his hand and unfolded that same newspaper restored to its original pristine form.
It was "Torn and Restored," a classic beginner's magic trick done in countless talent shows and festivals -- repurposed for death.
"Sometimes I'm asked to do both [magic and funerals] at once," said Lee, a licensed funeral director from White Plains, New York. "People have come to know both sides of me, so they ask. And I say, why not?"
Lee, who long ago claimed the moniker "mortgician" , wouldn't call himself a pioneer or part of any special movement in after-death care. But he's among many who are turning the idea of the solemn, sedate funeral on its head.
Call it the rise of the personalized "fun funeral."
The wide range of what's considered "creative" or "unusual" when burying a loved one means there are little to no statistics on such practices, but industry experts say redesigning the standard funeral is increasingly popular. For the 2.5 million Americans who die each year, families are "making funeral decisions based on different values than previous generations," said Jessica Koth, a spokeswoman for the National Funeral Directors Association.
Cremations are now used in 43 percent of deaths, and environmentally friendly "green funerals" are becoming more common. From customizing the casket to offering surprising music, costumes, themes and performances at the service, families are "seeking experiences that are different than those they perceive as part of a 'traditional' funeral," said Koth.
Cultural, religious and political upheaval in the U.S. in the 1960s and 1970s led to more diverse views about death, noted Gary Laderman, a professor of religious studies at Emory University and author of Rest in Peace: A Cultural History of Death and the Funeral Home in Twentieth-Century America. And, as those in the baby boomer generation age, that has led to more recent changes in how people imagine their funerals.
For those who don't want the same old ceremony, there are others, like Lee, ready to help..