No resting on plain choices; Caskets: More people are seeking a wider range of choices for funerals, ordering caskets that are decorated or painted to reflect heritage or personal history.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

DALLAS -- June O'Donnell describes her husband, James, as "all Irish. His parents and grandparents were Murphys and O'Donnells, about as Irish as you can get."

So when the couple planned a funeral for James O'Donnell, who had cancer, they picked Irish music, flowers the color of Ireland's flag -- even a casket with a picture of that flag.

The service was in February.

"It created such a joy," O'Donnell says from her home in Hot Springs, Ark. "It was very original, very unique. There was such warmth there. It's the talk of Hot Springs."

Across the nation, people such as the O'Donnells are increasingly asking for one thing when they plan funerals: choice.

The desire for options is causing some big changes in America's traditionally staid funeral industry. It has inspired several entrepreneurs, including the Dallas man who created the Irish-flag casket, and businesses that sell a wide variety of caskets directly to the public.

"A trend is going on in funeral services that is resulting in almost revolutionary changes in the way Americans celebrate the life and commemorate the death of a loved one," says Kelly Smith, spokesman for the National Funeral Directors Association. The association represents about 15,000 funeral directors nationwide.

"People are becoming more interested in personalizing the service," says Beverly Henley, who owns Forest Lawn Funeral Home at Turtle Creek in Dallas. She recently sold an HIV-positive man a casket affixed with an AIDS ribbon design.

According to Smith, the personalization trend was prompted by Americans' increased mobility, which has loosened the boundaries of some local, religious and family traditions. People are substituting personality for tradition and seeking services that reflect their lives and beliefs, he says.

That's what led Patrick Fant to start his White Light casket company last year, featuring "art caskets" -- a line of caskets decorated with images such as the Irish flag, religious symbols and a golf fairway.

"All we're trying to do is let the caskets show some personality," says Fant. "If you have to buy a casket, why buy a blank? Nobody's life is a blank."

Fant was thinking about his own mortality and his own funeral when "art caskets" were born. The products are made by wrapping steel caskets, made in Greenville, Texas, with a vinyl-based laminate that holds the design.

Twelve designs are now available; more will be issued each spring and fall. Among the first images are angels -- the most popular design -- crosses and the Virgin of Guadalupe.

"We have focused on the reverent and respectful side of what we're offering," Fant says.

Other images include the Fairway to Heaven casket, showing a golf hole, and a casket that looks as if it's wrapped in parcel paper with "Return to sender" stamped on it in red.

"I can't explain that one. It just came out," Fant says.

Individuals can special-order caskets -- they take about three weeks to make. Stock designs can be delivered overnight.

"It's only limited by your imagination, and good taste," Fant says. "If somebody wants to do something that's really in bad taste, they'll have to do that themselves. They'll have to hand-paint it."

A dozen art caskets have been sold so far, with six more on order. Fant dreams of producing 3,000 a year.

The prices vary -- Forest Park sells art caskets for about $1,700; a Boston funeral home sold one for $2,400. In general, Fant says, the art adds about 40 percent to a casket's cost. The most popular type of steel casket costs an average of $2,200, according to the funeral-trade association.

Art caskets are distributed only through funeral homes, and a few directors have said the decidedly nontraditional caskets aren't for them. But others see possibilities.

"I think a funeral home, whether it's this kind of art or whatever, should have options. People have different tastes," says Albert Gonzlez, director at the Gonzlez Funeral Home. While he hasn't ordered any art caskets yet, the golf fan said the Fairway to Heaven did catch his eye.

The number of funeral homes that can offer such caskets is limited. Many large, upscale homes are owned by big, publicly traded funeral firms that have exclusive contracts with national casket makers.

"There are some people who would suggest that if the baby boomers continue the personalization and individualization trend that their parents started that bodes very well for the continued survival of the individual, family-owned funeral home," Smith says.

Even the biggest firms are offering more personal touches. Houston-based Service Corporation International has an exclusive contract with Indiana-based Batesville, the nation's biggest casket firm. Batesville is increasingly selling caskets with options such as engraved lids or embroidered designs on the interior, company spokesman Joe Weigel says.

Others are trying to loosen the traditional reliance on funeral homes. Dallas entrepreneur Barbara Forbes, a banker for 25 years, heard many requests over the years for funeral loans of $10,000 or more. So three years ago she opened The Casket Store, which sells caskets directly to the public at discounts of as much as 60 percent off what high-end funeral homes charge.

Her brightly lighted showroom features about 25 kinds of caskets -- more than the average funeral home offers. Prices range from $500 to about $3,000.

Forbes says many of her customers like the range of choices. Some embellish the caskets with paintings or other decorations.

One woman chose to spangle her cloth-covered casket. "She hauled it off in her truck. She put glue all over it and sequined it up," Forbes recalls. "She said, 'People are going to celebrate at my funeral.' "

Traditional wooden coffins are not entirely forgotten. Hank Stevens, a sign maker, formed Pioneer Casket Co. and built five wooden coffins so far. The caskets are cheaper than most metal ones. "I've heard several people I know say in their old Texas accent, 'Well, when I go, just bury me in an old pine box,' " he says.

Pub Date: 3/16/99

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