PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Preplanning a funeral has become an important step for many people because they want their own service to be a celebration of life, a chance to be remembered for who they are and what they loved. Rather than a traditional funeral service, the new trend is to create something more modern and nontraditional.
But that doesn’t always happen if people don’t have the important discussion of what they want at their funeral with their families and their funeral director.
It’s important for couples to have “The Talk,” the one in which your wishes are expressed to the other spouse. Should that not be the case, then those wishes should be shared to an adult child or to an appropriate friend or representative. Once that happens, the next step should be to document those wishes so that it becomes “The Plan” should something unexpected occur.
The plan details what kind of service they want, what music they want to have played, their casket, and any other additions to the service and ceremony. If they don’t do that, then it’s incumbent on couples to have that discussion with each other, and understand what it is they want and what falls into the “don’t you ever do that to me” category.
“I think we should plan the next phase of our lifetime instead of having our kids make that kind of decision on the worst day of their lives,” said John Bresnahan, managing partner of Devanny-Condron Funeral Home in Pittsfield. “Many times, couples will sit with me and one will have one idea and someone will have an entirely other point of view.”
Preplanning is all about setting down on paper what people want and what they’re comfortable with.
“It’s an important discussion, but they’ll never know, as a couple, the importance of it until they pick up the phone and say, ‘John, I’ve lost my spouse,’” Bresnahan said.
Pre-planning a funeral is not as arduous as it seems. It’s not fun, but it’s necessary so people can make good, informed decisions before they have to. So each person can say they are happy with their choices, instead of saying, “I wish we didn’t do that.”
“It’s about being satisfied with your choices,” Bresnahan said.
He pointed out that funerals can come in a variety of formats and styles. There are wine receptions that celebrate the individual. Or during the pandemic, having a celebration of life in a place that meant the most to the deceased in the Berkshires. They can be inventive and most satisfying to people. But funerals are not always traditional these days, as the deceased want to be remembered for the things they loved.
Preplanning a funeral documents all of the person’s wishes, and in turn, commits those wishes to paper so they can be memorialized in the way of their choosing. And it can even be changed right up to the moment the person dies.
Once those directions have been laid out, Bresnahan says he’s obligated to follow them to the very best of his ability.
“There’s peace of mind in that,” he said. “It might not be what we have done traditionally over the years, but this is where people are now and this is what they would like.”
Funeral trends reflect today’s society
Funeral services have certainly changed over the last two centuries. Back in the Victorian era, everyone wore black, and a spouse would typically wear black for a year. There were special funeral cars, funeral pins, long corteges (funeral processions), horse-drawn carriages, and even black feather plumes for the horses.
In the 20th century, it was traditional to wear black suits or dresses, and men would wear black armbands. Services were almost always held in a church, or at least, the funeral home. But as more people are unchurched, they might opt to have the service in a funeral home or even an entirely different venue.
Funeral trends are changing as society changes. For some people, if their church is meaningful to them, they’re more likely to want to be honored there. If they’re less inclined toward church, they want to be as much at ease as possible with their location, and they want their families and friends to be comforted in a setting that the person has selected.
“I once took the cremated remains of a waitress to an area restaurant here, and ended up being the celebrant/facilitator of a Margaritaville-style funeral service within the establishment,” Bresnahan said. “She had planned the entire ceremony. She asked me to sit with her prior to her death and help her plan her service, including that everyone be dressed in either beach attire, Bahama shirts and flip-flops.”
Whatever setting brings people to their comfort level, whether it’s spiritual or not, organized religion or not, Bresnahan says that they listen to people at Devanny-Condron and help them figure out what’s going to get them through this time of their life and then put it in place.
He spoke of another funeral service he had performed for a man who was a licensed tattoo artist and was an artist for a business that did special effects for Hollywood studios, in addition to being a serious Star Wars Fan.
“As you walked into our funeral home, there was a six-and-a-half foot Darth Vader figure in the foyer,” Bresnahan said. “His representative artwork was displayed throughout. We even started by playing the theme to Star Wars from behind the casket area. I even asked people to raise their hands if they’d hand personal ink provided by this man. Afterward, people told me, ‘This was so him.’ This is what funeral services should be doing.”
Ultimately, the setting of a funeral should be whatever brings people to their comfort level, whatever is going to help them get through such an emotional time.
“Funerals are a celebration of people’s lives, more today than ever,” said Bresnahan. “There are those folks who are churched and this is the tradition they want to follow. And there are people who would like to put their own personal touch to that because the music and liturgy doesn’t do as much for them as it did for their parents and grandparents.”
Once again, this illustrates how funeral services have evolved and morphed into a direct reflection of today’s values. Devanny-Condron has worked to keep up with those changes.
“’Please tell me how I can help you.’ That’s how I begin every arrangement discussion,” Bresnahan said.
To make arrangements for your own funeral service or that of a loved one, you can speak to John Bresnahan or Caroline Sullivan-Mulherin by visiting them at 40 Maplewood Avenue in Pittsfield, or calling them at (413) 445-5988.
Contributing editor: Kelly L. Anderson