Personalization: 15 Lessons From KIP Winners

Date Published: 
June, 2004
Original Author: 
Susan Loving
Managing Editor, ICCFA Magazine, Sterling, VA
Original Publication: 
ICFM Magazine, June 2004

"Wow! I hope whatever funeral home I use offers this."
"Should be offered everywhere."
“An amazing selection of options—most of which I've never heard of or seen before."
"Great service—everyone should do this."
"One of those ideas where one wonders: Why doesn't everyone do this?"
—judges' comments about entries in the 2003 KIP Awards

Everyone in the funeral and cemetery profession talks about personalization, but not everyone does something about it. The ICFA Personalization Subcommittee's Keeping It Personal Awards encourage those who do to write about it. The result is always entries that surprise the judges—coming from outside the cemetery and funeral service profession, they don't know what to expect—and provide ideas for others to consider. What can we learn from the 2003 winners?

1. Creating a personalized funeral really is about listening to the family. First place winner in the Most Personalized Service category and grand prize winner was Rick Trejo, Schoedinger Funeral and Cremation Service, Columbus, Ohio, for a service with a Native American theme.

The family had came to Schoedinger on an at-need basis, having heard the funeral home had previously handled such a service. The visitation and service were both held at the deceased's cabin in the hills rather than the funeral home. "We arranged to take a full set of equipment to the home, including lights, flower stands, a sign-in table, tissues, baskets for memorials and special memories, picture boards, casket biers and anything else we found appropriate," Trejo said.

After the service, pallbearers carried the casket to a fire ring Schoedinger had set up outside. An Indian priestess conducted the service, which was followed by a weapons salute by the deceased's stepsons. The following day at the cemetery committal service, “The family commented on our open-minded attitude about doing something so out of the ordinary," Trejo said.

2. A willing funeral director who goes the extra mile makes all the difference. Honorable mention in the most personalized service went to Elizabeth Baty, Evergreen-Washelli Memorial Park and Funeral Home, Seattle, Washington, for a service for a tow truck operator and local raceway celebrity. During the arrangements conference, the family mentioned that the deceased used to give rides on his John Deere tractor to his grandchildren, some of whom called him "John Deere Grandpa." Evergreen-Washelli happens to own a fully restored 1938 John Deere tractor, and the family was immediately offered its use. The widow wanted a "simple pine casket" (she chose a Batesville Finley Pine) but wanted to reline the casket with a premier velvet interior in a dark green color that would compliment the deceased's uniform and truck colors. The casket and interior were next-day shipped to Evergreen-Washelli, where Baty did the "reupholstering" herself to make sure the casket was the way the family wanted it in time for the viewing. The casket had a custom head panel with the deceased's name and tow truck likeness embroidered on it and was removed after the service for the family to keep.

Baty took a thumbprint and offered to store it so the family could order thumbprint jewelry later. Six weeks later, a granddaughter placed the first order for a necklace. The family found boxes of note pads and pens with the deceased's business logo on them, which Baty suggested handing out at the viewing and service—truly a memento to remind family and friends of the deceased.

The funeral procession included the tractor and about 40 tow trucks, inching along at less than 5 miles per hour and creating a traffic jam covered by the local radio traffic helicopter. In a final bit of irony, the deceased's tow truck would not start, so it was towed to the church and in the procession, right behind the John Deere tractor pulling the flower-covered trailer on which the casket was placed.

3. Memory boards are great, but giving the family photos they can take home is even better.  Eternal Hills Memorial Gardens and Funeral Home, Klamath Falls, Oregon, won first place in the Product that Personalizes category for the video CDs it creates. Using software from, Eternal Hills scans in photos provided by the family to create a video eulogy disc which can be played on a DVD player or computer CD-ROM drive.

Once the CD has been created, additional copies cost only about $1 a piece to make, so the family usually ends up ordering 10 to 20. On top of that, the funeral home gives the family a CD that includes the obituary, a copy of the video eulogy, the memorial folder, copies of all photos scanned in and photos of all flowers sent, listing who sent them. "Excellent, low cost, comprehensive," is how one judge summed it up.

4. Embrace the Web! Honorable mention in the Product that Personalizes category was Evergreen-Washelli Memorial Park and Funeral Home, Seattle, Washington, for its online funeral planner (http://evergreenwashelli.comlpreplannerlindex.cgi)

In addition to being convenient and encouraging preplanning, this online funeral planner mimics a modem arrangement where the funeral director says, ''Tell me about Mom," instead of simply going down a list of standardized questions. For example, under memorial requests, the online form says: "I suspect that it will be appropriate to talk a bit about my life. You might mention that I felt good about these accomplishments:"

"The first focus is on the need for, and the meaning of the ceremonies being planned," said Evergreen-Washelli President B. David Da1y, CCFE. The second focus is on distributing the plan—people are encouraged to e-mail it to family and friends, and they may keep it on the Web site and update it later. The gathering of vital statistics is the site's last focus.

5. Some of the best ideas may seem counterintuitive at first. Taking family photos at a funeral—doesn't that sound a bit off-putting? But stop and think about it:

Funerals, like weddings, bring together far-flung family members who may not have seen each
other for sometime. At a wedding everyone seems to have a camera stashed in a pocket or purse, while almost no one thinks to bring a camera to a wake, visitation or funeral.

The judges loved Nelsen Funeral Homes' practice of providing families with a disposable camera prior to the visitation. The Richmond, Virginia, firm includes free developing with the gift, a gesture sure to be appreciated. MKJ Marketing, Key Largo, Florida, helped Nelsen do what wedding planners often do—select an appropriate cover for the camera, in this case a tranquil garden scene for the front and, on the back, brief instructions on how to take good photos plus the Nelsen name and logo.

When presenting the camera to the family prior to visitation, "we explain to them that they may be surprised by the outpouring of love and support they will receive and by the people who attend," said company President Blair Nelsen.

6. A family already having to make dozens of decisions at an arrangement needs your help to avoid being overwhelmed by the options personalization adds. Krause Funeral Home, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in conjunction with MKJ Marketing, received a Magic Moments honorable mention for its Remembrance Services Book. "Items range from the most simple, such as memory tables at no additional charge, to the most elaborate, such as firework displays," said company President Mark Krause.

Giving the family a book to peruse, with an explanation and cost (if any) listed for each item, rather than having a funeral director read off a laundry list of available options: "Would you like a butterfly release? A scrapbook? Valet parking? Help with the eulogy? How about a live Internet broadcast?" (it's a very long list at Krause Funeral Home) also removes the funeral director from a potentially awkward situation. "We do not want to appear as if we are trying to push something more on them," Krause said. "We know today's consumer wants more control and interactivity. The book accomplishes this very well for us."
7. Anything you can do to help families who have lost an infant is especially appreciated.  When a life is cut so short, the family will have little if anything in the way of stories, photos and memorabilia to collect and treasure. "With precious little in the way of memories, families grasp for any tangible remembrance of the child," said Scott Sheehan, staff manager at EvergreenWashelli, which received a Magic Moments honorable mention for its practice of offering these families a Loss of a Child card. The child's footprints are taken, digitized and incorporated into the card. The family is given as many copies as they wish.

8. Personalization is getting more sophisticated. Celebritas!, Mill Creek, Washington, won first-place honors in a tough competition in the Innovative Personalized Product by a Supplier category for its Moving Lives documentaries. The company offers different packages, the simplest a DVD incorporating 20 photos and music. The most elaborate package includes documentary interviews on the tape or CD and a book written by or about the deceased.

The company's contest entry included several samples, including one titled "The Boys of Montana," about two brothers who left their Montana ranch to join the Marines, which included a 57-minute VHS tape and a matching book in one impressive package. Among the judges' comments: "Spectacular idea that is sure to generate a lot of revenue as well as wonderful memories," "I loved this," "outstanding," "fantastic."

9. It's not enough to personalize, you must do it well. Trigard, Danville, Illinois, won an honorable mention in the Innovative Personalized Product by a Supplier category with its Storybook Collection of precision engravings created from family photographs and/or stock images on bronze memorials. In one of the testimonials included with a product sample, a woman said she was hesitant to make the purchase, questioning whether a bronze etching could really have a photographic effect, but the result "is awesome," she said. "These are beautifully done," one judge said.

10. You can't offer families too many types of photo memorialization. Memory boards. Photo CDs. Photos on memorial folders. Photos in and on the casket. Photos engraved on the cemetery memorial. What else can there be? Zachary Douglass LLC, Orem, Utah, who received an honorable mention in the Innovative Personalized Product by a Supplier category, is among the companies that have newly discovered the funeral services market as a possible outlet for their products. Zachary Douglass produces commissioned art works incorporating photos and text which can be turned into a framed print or glass tribute, as well as being used on memorial folders.

11. An annual, life-affirming event can bring people of all ages to your facility and generate publicity and goodwill. Buchanan Group Inc., Indianapolis, Indiana, spends big bucks ($50,000) on its annual Play It Safe, Life Awaits children's bicycle helmet giveaway, held at 17 Indiana cemeteries and funeral homes, but more than 15,000 people attend. This program was recognized with first place in the Events Over $1,000 category.

Local managers at the funeral homes and cemeteries contact schools, which are happy to cooperate in publicizing the event, also advertised through press releases and ads. The budget covers promotional efforts and the purchase of thousands of helmets. Fire, police and sheriff department representatives are recruited to help with crowd control and fitting the helmets, which come in three sizes.

Children must be accompanied by a parent, grandparent or guardian, so thousands of adults visit one of the funeral homes or cemeteries, and many more hear about Buchanan's community-minded campaign. ''We saw many smiles and received many a thank-you for sponsoring such an event,” said Buchanan President Bruce Buchanan. "We were even recognized by the city of Indianapolis with a special citation."

12. Meeting the needs of your families may mean planning events that honor the traditions and holidays of a variety of ethnic, cultural and religious groups. Cypress Lawn Memorial Park and Mortuary, Colma, California, serves immigrants from all over the world who have brought with them their own traditions, including ones which express reverence for the dead. At Cypress Lawn, two Chinese remembrance festivals are observed, including the Chung Yeung Festival, for which the cemetery received an honorable mention in the Special Events Over $1,000 category.   "Also known as Autumn Remembrance, Chung Yeung is a practice dating back 1,000 years," said Cypress Lawn President Kenneth Varner, CCFE. "In China, people journey to the cemetery to clean their ancestor's grave sites and pay their respects."

The cemetery invites Buddhist monks to perform special ceremonial services and sets up a large tent for this purpose. The back wall is designated as a remembrance wall. A Chinese calligrapher is available to write the names of loved ones on yellow ribbons, which are placed on the wall, and the monks bless the names. After the ceremony, the ribbons are burned with paper money and paper clothes offered to protect the deceased and make them more comfortable. After the ceremony, food is served.

When they ceremony was first held in 1991, only a handful of people attended, Varner said, but now the Chung Yeung Festival attracts thousands of people "who are grateful to Cypress Lawn for providing the ritual expression" so they can continue their tradition of honoring their ancestors.

13. There's no rule that says a remembrance service has to be scheduled in December and have a Christmas theme. The Tribute Co./Pinelawn Memorial Park, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, holds semiannual remembrance services based on different themes. It received first place in the Events Under $1,000 category for its spring Grief Garden service.

Families who had had a burial at the cemetery during the past year were invited to a "casual service ... in memory of your loved one" and in recognition of "your recent loss as well as those that have occurred in the past." Facilitators and guest speakers were brought in from a voluntary grief and bereavement support group operated by a church near the cemetery

Among the thank-yous Pinelawn received from families after the service were a bouquet of flowers sent to the office the next day and, during the ceremony, a verbal thank-you from a family who had buried five members in six months' time for "putting up with them through this horrific time in their lives," said Pinelawn Vice President Christine Toson Hentges.

14. People's deep connection to their pets provide another avenue for reaching them with your message. Chandler Funeral Home, Wilmington, Delaware, had held estate planning seminars, grief seminars and cremation seminars and found that many of the participants said they came away with a better appreciation of the funeral home and of preplanning. When they sensed from talking to families that some were struggling with the loss of a pet, they decided to address that need.

"Though we do not have a pet crematory, we wanted the families we serve and the community at large to understand that our role as death care professionals includes sharing all types of information," said Anne Rowan, Chandler's director of advanced planning. With the help of MKJ Marketing, Chandler advertised the event and put together a pet loss brochure and packet of information to hand out at the seminar. At the local university, Chandler was able to locate an expert in pet bereavement counseling who prepared a program.

"It was amazing to see how many people came," Rowan said. "Men and women of all ages and all walks of life openly shared stories of the special moments they had with their pets, often while clutching pictures of their beloved pets." The attendance for this seminar (approximately 60) was higher than for any previous seminar, Rowan said, so the funeral home has continued to schedule more of them.

15. To win, you must enter. As you were reading Nos. 1-14, did you say to yourself at any point, "We do that' or "We do something better than that"? As in any contest, judges can only rate the entries.

For an entry form go to or call 1-800-645-7700. Winners will be recognized at the Annual Convention & Exposition and in ICFM magazine.