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Technology puts new spin on afterlife

FARMINGTON ‘” For decades, even centuries, the art of funeral directing and the ceremonial marking of the passing of a person from this life remained quite the same. But the past few years have brought an entirely new way to look at what transpires between here and the hereafter.

The classic movies of the early 20th century showed life and death of the 1700s, 1800s and 1900s much the same. A person dies ‘” often prematurely as the result of a plague, in childbirth, or by being cut down in the middle of the street at the hands of a ruthless gunslinger ‘” and that’s where the story of funeral directing begins. Everyone knows the scene where a funeral director dressed in black walks into the camera frame and checks for a pulse. When satisfied the deceased is truly such, he orders a couple assistants to carry the body away and begins building a pine box.

A wake is held in the home of a relative or local minister. The body is dressed in the best attire available. Nickels are placed on the eyelids. If the deceased had the benefit of family, the relatives gather for several hours and divide their time between mourning and eating food prepared by the townspeople.

Eventually a minister oversees a funeral service, either at a church, funeral parlor or graveside. The pine box is lowered in the ground by ropes as sobbing family members wander away from the scene. Six-feet of dirt is shoveled on top of the box by the crew of grave diggers. The movie cuts away to a commercial.

But there are innovations and amazing changes in funeral directing in the new millennium. Funeral directors are now offering services and introducing people-friendly alternatives that would have had their predecessors gawking in awe 40 or 50 years ago.

Jon Cozean, third-generation owner of Cozean Memorial Chapel which traces its roots in the business back to 1863, says his father and grandfather would have been amazed if they had been able to see some of the changes now taking place in the funeral direction industry. ‘œFor the past 15 years, personalization has been the (focus),’e Cozean said. ‘œTo remember the life of a loved one … a celebration of a life that was lived.’e

Funeral chapels across the United States and in other countries are tapping into modern improvements in video, audio, mechanical processes, engineering, and the flow of timely trends and bringing the funeral ‘œservice’e in line with them. In some instances, cues for change have come from what has been witnessed in modern-day church services ‘” projection screens, top-of-the-line audio, and more audience involvement.

Use of video

For years the passing of a community member was marked with an obituary prepared by the funeral director and printed in the local newspaper. Obits, as they’re often referred to, are a mainstay in newspapers and often still the first thing many people look for when they sit down to catch up on the local news.

With the growth of the Internet starting a couple decades ago, funeral homes eventually found another outlet to post their pending visitations and services. Most people still rely on the newspaper to discover the details of the passing of a community member or long-lost acquaintance, but now the funeral service could post a copy of the obituary on its site as a place to refer back to for details.

As with other industries, soon came the ability to easily post a photo alongside the online print. Then came the possibility to have several photos, eventually in a way they would cycle through from picture to picture. Soon to follow were audio files to allow music to accompany the scrolling photos. Now funeral services often include photo and video tributes which celebrate life moments that family and friends can view online as a way of remembering the good times with a friend or relative.

But video technology isn’t only being utilized on funeral service Web sites. Merchandise providers such as urn, casket and vault manufacturers and dealers have created short informational videos and audio/video soundbites that family members can review quickly when making decisions on arrangements for burial or cremation.

And perhaps one of the biggest innovations in the funeral business these days is the use of video, especially streaming video, associated with the actual funeral service.

More and more funeral homes across the country are now offering video copies of funeral services for family members to have as keepsakes of a loved one’s memorial service. The trend began with audio recordings, first on cassettes, then burned onto compact discs. By the time digital recording became reasonably affordable as the next evolution for sound keepsakes, video processing was taking a turn toward being more manageable ‘” and video recording of funeral services became the next step.

Cozean began early, seeing the emerging trend as he traveled to funeral director conferences and visited churches across the state as a representative of the Gideon organization. He installed a camera, eventually increasing it to three cameras including one with an adjustable lens. In the past few years he’s updated video processing equipment through three generations of technology. Along the way, his trial and error took him to other funeral directors and an assortment of computer and video specialists, both locally and across the nation.

After the video system was in place, the next logical step seemed to be webcasting of funeral services over the Internet for the benefit of family members who might not be able to attend a service. While other funeral directors elsewhere were working on similar advances, Cozean eventually found a company in Kentucky who could help with his project. Now services are offered via Internet to family and friends at the discretion of family members. Relatives are given a password to access the online streaming video to watch in real time, or for an extended period of time following the funeral service.

Along the way Cozean discovered Midcom Technologies, located in Farmington. The local company was able to ‘œfill in the missing links’e to some of the funeral director’s nagging problems with his webcasting concept. Ironically, Midcom owner Keith Petty has now started a new company called ‘œMemorial Streams’e, which has created a simple system to provide funeral homes with the ability to webcast services utilizing a single camera mounted on a tripod and a laptop computer with specialized software.

Use of computers

From the handling of video production and webcasting down to the preliminary gathering of information for the obituary and state death certificate, computers play a role in every aspect of funeral directing these days.

For much of recent history the process of planning a funeral involved family members gathering at the funeral chapel to meet with the director. The group would often sit down in a small office or conference room and quietly, solemnly dole out names and dates and other pertinent information so the funeral director could use pen and paper to record the details. Once put on paper, the funeral director would take the information into another room and hand it off to a clerk typist, who would fill in the proper blanks on forms and return them a few minutes later for the relatives and funeral director to review. Mistakes were noted and the process was handed off once again to the typist to repeat until all agreed that the details were in order.

Nowadays, more and more funeral directors are relying on a computer program designed and developed in part by Cozean. Working with a New York company, a software program was developed that allows the pertinent information to be gathered and entered directly into a computer program by the funeral director or an employee while the family members watch on a large computer screen for any needed corrections. In some instances the family requests and is given the opportunity to take over the wireless keyboard and enter the information themselves.

Once the family helps collect the necessary information, those accurate details are then used to simultaneously write an obituary and complete a mandatory state certificate of death. The process eliminates timely typing and corrections, and more importantly includes the family members in the process.

Computers also come into play with the selection and personalization of merchandise. The interior of a casket can carry any personalization imaginable. Companies offer dozens of standard displays, nature scenes and messages. But family members can incorporate an existing logo and a personalized message, or start from the beginning with a custom-designed display. Utilizing computer-aided design programs, any personalized message or artwork can be added to a casket interior with a 24-hour turnaround time on the work.

A suggestion is scanned in at the funeral chapel and electronically mailed to the manufacturer. Design workers transfer the artwork or message into an electronic format and it is produced and shipped overnight delivery to the funeral home the following day.

So much more

‘œThere are a lot of changes taking place in so many fields that serve the public,’e Cozean said of other changing trends.

Many funeral homes have gone away from the ‘œcasket room,’e the back room where family members would visit to pick out the final resting place for the deceased relative. ‘œThat was often the hardest thing on families. Caskets or urns symbolize the finality of death,’e Cozean said of the visual impact of walking into a room full of caskets. Instead, many funeral services are now going to a method of displaying only ‘œends’e of casket options.

The displays are often a simple corner of a casket, with full image photos available for viewing upon request. Other displays show the benefits and purposes of a vault. Again, the selection is done using only cross sections, or models, of the full-size vault ‘” something which seems to have less negative impact on those responsible for making arrangements.

Funeral services have also changed tremendously in past decades. Some funeral homes are going away from the traditional row seating during visitations, opting instead for a mixture of couches and chairs in a more relaxed setting. Family is now encouraged to bring in snapshots or home videos for photo tribute boards and streaming video remembrances. It’s not uncommon these days to see a saddle, a motorcycle, or some other meaningful object displayed during visitation. More and more services are now going away from the traditional minister-delivered ‘œmessage.’e In some instances the memorial services have no spiritual references at all.

Video monitors are now available for family members to utilize while taking a break from visitation in a comfortable dining and relaxation area. Family can take time away to eat a snack or rest for a time and monitor the activity in the visitation room, then return if they see a friend or loved one enter the room.

More and more funeral homes are now providing separate dining and relaxation areas, as well as ‘œkid-friendly’e play rooms for small children, far away from the visitation or memorial areas. It just another way to serve family members during an otherwise difficult time.

As for cremation, new technologies have simplified that process tremendously. Family members can now purchase jewelry which contains a small opening in which a few ashes or hair fibers can be implanted as a keepsake.

And one of the latest trends in cremation is LifeGem® Created Diamonds. For a cost ranging from $2,199 to $24,999 (depending on clarity and cut), the LifeGem company will reduce a loved one down to the size of a diamond and provide a setting on a ring or other piece of jewelry.

According to the company’s Web site, ‘œThe LifeGem® is a certified, high-quality diamond created from the carbon of your loved one as a memorial to their unique life, or as a symbol of your personal and precious bond with another. LifeGem diamonds are molecularly identical to natural diamonds found at any high-end jeweler. To qualify as diamonds, they must have the exact same brilliance, fire, and hardness (the hardest substance known) as diamonds from the earth, and of course, they do.’e

Going ….Green

Admittedly the most recent trend in passing is to leave as little a footprint as possible. The ‘œgreen’e trend has found its way into the funeral business as well. In some ways, the new trend of green funerals are a throwback to the old days of a pine box burial in a hole in the ground.

New ‘œgreen’e trends in burial include the elimination of the embalming process, and burial in an all-wooden casket lined with bio-degradable material with the body dressed in bio-degradable clothing.

Industry standards require that a body buried without the process of embalming be put in the ground within about 24 hours. However, a body can be cooled or processed with new bio-friendly embalming fluids and be held for longer periods of time prior to burial. Doing so would allow family members travel time to arrive for a funeral service.

Most cemeteries located in municipalities require the use of a vault. Rural cemeteries often offer the option of burial in a casket without a vault. In that instance, a person can be buried using green choices in embalming, clothing and casket in a nearby cemetery.

For the hard-core eco-friendly, there is a growing popularity for environmentally-friendly cemeteries. Such plots are established adhering to the guidelines of the Green Burial Council, based in Santa Fe, New Mexico. One such cemetery has been developed west of Columbia, Mo., created by two entrepreneurs. The two men have named their business Pushing Up Daisies, and offer burial plots in their Green Acres cemetery ranging from about $500 to $2,000 depending on location within the grounds.

Whether it be family-friendly measures such as video tributes, webcasting of services and better funeral chapel design and processes, or the extremes including ultra-cremation and ‘œgreen’e burials, the fact is that new technology is allowing the funeral business to change and evolve perhaps quicker than it has during any other period in history.

Doug Smith is s reporter for the Daily Journal. Contact him at 573-756-8927, or at

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