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Aging Baby Boomers bring changes to funeral industry

Pacific Crest Cemetery in Redondo Beach
Susan Valot/KPCC
Pacific Crest Cemetery in Redondo Beach

The first of America's 70 million or so “Baby Boomers” turn 65 this year. That’s a lot of people heading into their “golden years.” They’ve changed the way we look at love, sex, work – and death. That last one means big changes in the funeral industry.

The green grounds of Pacific Crest Cemetery in Redondo Beach are quiet and peaceful. Birds chirp and flit around. Colorful flowers dot grave sites. It’s what you’d expect at a cemetery. But expectations are changing as Baby Boomers hit the age when it’s prudent to plan funerals for loved ones, or their themselves. Pam Vetter is a funeral celebrant in LA and Orange counties. She says Baby Boomers have transformed the funeral industry.

"In 2005, when I’d meet with a family, they didn’t really have an idea of how to plan their first funeral. They’d been to funerals, but they didn’t have certain things in mind. So we’d sit for hours and listen to stories and develop a service and develop an order of service, with songs and maybe a slide show or something like that, together. Today, Baby Boomers come in with an order of service. They know what songs they want to have played. They all have slide shows," Vetter said.

Vetter says Baby Boomers know the kind of funeral they want and will do what they have to do to get it. She says that’s how they’ve lived.

"They had control over social issues. They spoke their minds. They grew up during the Beatles, you know, mania where, you know, you were more yourself, rather than my parents’ generation, where you just sat back and let the pastor do it all. There’s more of a hands-on approach. Plus, Baby Boomers know they’re consumers. They realize when they walk into the funeral home, they’re paying for a service. They’re not beholden to a pastor or a priest. They are paying for a service and they’d better get what they envision or they won’t come back next time," she said.

Vetter says Baby Boomers are pushing the funeral industry toward more personalized, creative memorial services — even to the point of handing out favors.

"They give away grandma’s favorite cookie at the end of the service or they give everybody a golf ball for the golfer. We’ve had several services for people who loved gardening and families will hand out a flower to every single person who arrives at the service. And then we ask them to hold their flowers in the air. And the whole church looks like a garden. It’s beautiful, and it’s personal," she said.

Ron Barrett, a Loyola Marymount University psychology professor who has studied the funeral industry, agrees Baby Boomers want to “have it their way.”

"We think it’s a good thing. We think that funerals should be individualized," Barrett said. "They should honor the deceased. And they should represent a meaningful ritual for the person who is being memorialized."

Barrett says the Baby Boomer reach stretches beyond the funeral service.

"Even down to the design of caskets now. They’re much more personalized. You can have personal signatures. You can have your own, let’s say, fraternity logo or your favorite team. They make caskets now that can have a Lakers or Dallas Cowboy logo. Or if you were a golfer, you could have your golf clubs," he said.

Rice Mortuary in Torrance seems to be traditional, with soft music playing in the background. But John Kirk of White and Day Mortuaries, which owns Rice, says he’s seen relatives and friends bring a motorcycle to the front of a funeral service for a motorcycle buff. Kirk says as people live longer, our view of death changes.

"We serve an increasing number of people who die in their mid 90s. And they just have had a long, wonderful life. And, you know, while it is sad in a way for, you know, those who have lost them, it isn’t so sad to them. And they don’t want it to be a somber, really sad, sort of downer," he said.

Kirk says they want to be able to say, “Hey, we gave Grandma a really great send off” — one that fit her personality. Kirk says funeral homes like his have brightened their interiors and added more space. That way, families can gather in a setting that’s less somber, more informal – and more about a life lived than one lost.