By Jessica Bliss, The Tennessean
A recent Facebook conversation between one Middle Tennessee 30-something and her friends began simply, "I've compiled a list of songs I want sung at my funeral. That's normal, right?" The response was, "Absolutely."
Others chimed in about funeral plans of their own. One woman had her song list stuck in a Reader's Digest Home Improvement book along with her handwritten will. Another man noted a Word document on his computer saved as "Alpha&Omega" that details his funeral requests. A third person responded that she already picked out caskets made by monks in a monastery.
The moment a person starts thinking about his or her own mortality varies greatly, but there's something about being in your 30s and 40s that makes it seem more real. Perhaps it is seeing aging parents begin to slow down. Maybe it's the time when friends start regularly dealing with significant disease. Or it could be a wedding or the birth of a child that makes people feel the need to create wills and plan funerals.
Whatever the impetus, dealing with mortality - at least in small measure - is something encroaching on middle age inspires people to do.
With advance planning, families can create celebrations of life as unique as the individual being remembered while arranging a special service that reflects individual wishes.
"I love James 4:14, which reminds me that we have no idea what could happen tomorrow," said Carrie Brock, the 33-year-old Nashville mother of four who initiated the Facebook post about funeral songs.
"So, while I don't want to dwell on the 'what ifs,' I want to live life to its fullest."
Practical, not morbid
A long car ride with his grandma triggered David Duer's first thoughts about his own funeral.
Grandma had knee surgery scheduled and was convinced her time had come. During the three-hour trip to the hospital from her home in north Alabama, she laid out for Duer and his mom what she wanted her funeral to be like - the scripts, the songs, the readers.
"She thought it was the end," Duer said. " ... That planted a seed."
Duer was only in college at the time, but it wasn't long until the now 37-year-old Nashvillian created a file on his computer outlining a few of his own wishes, including his desire to be cremated. It wasn't a morbid experience for him, but a practical one.
"As we embrace the fact that there is an end, we naturally think about, 'How do I want that end to be celebrat- ed?' " Duer said. "... It's definitely something I am not ashamed of. Rather than a negative, I think it's really beneficial, because the last thing you want for your family is for them to worry about the silly details."
Death is less apparent in younger age than it was 100 years ago, said Laura Carpenter, associate professor of sociology at Vanderbilt University. In decades past, it was common to have an adolescent sibling or middle-age parent pass away. Still, there are events today that are natural triggers for thoughts about personal transience.
Typically, it is within 72 hours of the death of a loved one that a person thinks about his or her own mortality, said Sean Patterson, a funeral director at Nashville's Phillips-Robinson Funeral Home.
But there are other life events that have similar effect. An experience like Duer had with his grandmother is one. Illness in an aging parent is another. New life stages - like getting married or having children - also prompt reflection.
"Moments when you are going through a big social transition as far as who you are and what your place is in the generational hierarchy often make us think about our mortality," Carpenter said. Such transitions often inspire action such as writing a will, Carpenter said, and people think: " 'If I am writing a will, I might potentially die, and I want to have some control of that.' "
Popularity of personalization
Today, some of that control means creating a unique, individualized celebration. As a result, funerals in our society have evolved, Carpenter said.
Instead of everyone being buried in the same type of box by the same minister or rabbi as the generations of family before them, now there are options. People move away from their hometowns, change religions and broaden social circles. At the same time, they develop an expanded sense of self that makes personal expression a priority.
"As a culture, we are highly attuned to thinking our individual statement is important." Carpenter said. "I want my clothes or my car to reflect who I am, so why not my funeral?"
Personal touches already are finding a place in today's funerals. As baby boomers age, they are making funeral choices based on values that are different than previous generations, according to a look at trends conducted by the National Funeral Directors Association.
Funerals, to boomers, are viewed as a valuable part of the grieving process and, as a result, that generation seeks to make them more meaningful. That might include adding elements such as favorite music or incorporating hobbies and life accomplishments into the event.
"Gone are the days it has to be three church hymns with an organist," Patterson said. "Gone are the days a gentleman has to be buried in a suit and tie.
"Now, die-hard football fans are buried in their favorite collegiate sweatshirt or NFL jersey. They bring in signed footballs or pictures with their favorite baseball player. They bring in savored items. We've had motorcycles, a barber's chair; we've had a little of everything. It's as creative as can be."
That sort of individualism is what inspires those in their 30s and 40s to begin jotting down their wishes. They create lists of speakers and readers or indicate important people to be pallbearers. They reflect on songs they want sung and poems to be read.
Duer's computer file is sprinkled with requests such as the singing of "It is Well With My Soul" by Horatio Spafford, the traditional Irish hymn "Be Thou My Vision" and "You Never Let Go" by Matt Redman. He wants guests to hear "If" by Rudyard Kipling, Phillipians 1:3-11 and 2:1-13 from the Bible, and the anonymously penned "Don't Quit."
Brock's song list includes "How Great Thou Art," "When We All Get To Heaven" and "There's a Stirring."
Of course, that doesn't mean that they or others with similar thoughts go through a formal preplanning process with a funeral home. People in their 30s and 40s make up less than five percent of the preplanning business at Phillips-Robinson Funeral Home, Patterson said.
Instead, she said, the average age for those preplanning a funeral is 67. So, while some people will think about it or make private handwritten lists or computer documents, few want to verbalize it or formalize it. "No one wants to talk about the day they are leaving their families," Patterson said. "That's just reality."
But the other reality is that death is coming, and that's what inspires Duer to keep adding to his own document.
Though his grandmother didn't die until many years after her knee surgery, when she did pass away her family knew exactly what she wanted for her funeral. "It was meaningful to me that we were doing what she wanted," Duer said. "Yeah, she didn't know or care when it was all said and done, but I know some of the stuff she did was specifically to send messages to some people. ... It's a way to communicate those last few things you want to communicate."
And now, with his own parents growing older, "it makes me realize I am dying, too," he said. "It makes me more cognizant of the fact that I have to communicate. If I care enough about it, then I want my wishes known."
And so, every once in awhile, Duer sits at his computer and opens his Alpha&Omega file. Sometimes he changes the songs he has listed or adds to the names of meaningful people in his life he would want included in the service.
He has been married only 11 months, and hasn't yet created a will, but he knows eventually his computer file is where he will put the details of where the will is kept. And, though children are still in the future, he also has a list of places he wants his kids to know were special to him.
He also created some more memoir-esque documents, like thoughts to share with his wife. And one day he will type letters to his children, because he knows that file is where they will find them.
"Thinking about things like this keeps me more centered on the reality of life," Duer said. "Life does go on, and we are just one generation. While I am just a speck in this world, I am also a speck that is important to people."
A speck that wants to be remembered in a special way and let others know what meant so much to him.
Preplan your funeral
Here are some tips from local funeral directors and experts on preplanning your funeral.
Do some research. Call local funeral homes for general information and
follow up with visits to get a feel for the location and its employees.
Compare the funeral homes with respect to services offered, merchandise
(such as caskets and urns) and costs.
• Study the Federal Trade
Commission's (FTC) Funeral Rule and obtain FTC brochures on the topics
of funerals, caskets and vaults.
• Visit the cemetery of your choice to select the location of your grave.
• Let your spouse, partner and relatives know you have gone through this process and share your wishes.
Put your requests in writing. After deciding on a funeral home, go
there and sit down with a funeral director, who will document all your
decisions. Preplanning a funeral doesn't cost anything, and the document
can be transferred at any time to any funeral home across the country.
Don't prepay. The FTC and AARP recommend caution before prepaying for a
funeral, which may benefit the funeral home more than the customer.