The consensus amongst local funeral professionals, Gerald Burpee of Albert & Burpee, Charles Kincer of Funeral Alternatives and Michael Martel of The Fortin Group, is that personalization of the funeral process is the newest trend, and it is likely here to stay.

Depending on circumstances, there are many options available to families. Kincer explains, “Our goal is to let the families know what their options are, we will accommodate them if we can.”

Martel adds, “Although to honor lives is still the core the right way to do that has changed.”

According to Burpee, the practice of embalming was invented during the civil war as a way of preserving fallen soldiers for the long journey home. Though available in the early 1900s, embalming was not widely used.

In 1925, all funerals were done in private homes. The funeral director usually had a storefront and was employed to bring in and keep stocked an ice tray that would preserve the body for the duration of the visiting and viewing period. He would also supply the folding chairs and hang a funerary wreath on the door to alert passersby that a death had occurred and visitors were welcome.

When embalming became popular, it was originally performed on the deathbed. Although embalming is not presently required by law, Kincer explains that sometimes it is necessary.

One of the most significant changes, per Burpee, is that “funeral homes used to be all family owned.” This is no longer true and although many are still privately owned, including Funeral Alternatives, some are part of larger groups of funeral homes, as is the case with The Fortin Group. This change has led to adjustments in pricing and the manner in which services are offered.

According to Martel, the industry is consumer driven and changes have been made through careful attention to consumer requests, “particularly in the last 10 years.”

Burpee notes, preferences change with “every generation.”

When asked about unique funerals of which he has had a role, Kincer smiles as he recalls a long procession of tow trucks from all over the state of Maine. The lead truck carried a single casket on its flatbed as it passed, one last time, through the large garage doors and truckbays of a business built over the course of a busy and successful lifetime. Kincer also offers the use of a horse drawn carriage style hearse and a 1939 hearse.

Although cremation has been legal since the mid-1960s, the practice has only become widely popular in the last 10 years. Historically, as with embalming, some groups have not permitted cremation.

According to Burpee, 1985 saw a “big jump in the number of cremations” performed in the state of Maine. Kincer and Martel both estimate that cremation is requested at their facilities by about 50% of families served. Kincer notes the practice is more popular in New England than it is in other parts of the United States.

The Cremation Association of North America estimates that by 2025, 60% of consumers in the United States will choose cremation. Kincer believes that the primary reason for this change is cost. While the cost of a traditional funeral can run upwards of $5,000, cremation services are less expensive. There are, of course, other factors including religious and cultural influences, as well as phobias, affecting consumer choices.

Regarding the disposition of ashes, many families choose to keep their loved one’s ashes in an urn, and many decorative urns are available for this purpose. Others, however, choose to scatter the ashes. Although scattering can be done from a traditional urn, environmentally friendly scattering urns and beautifully simplistic paper urns that float for a short period of time before sinking and dissolving to scatter the ashes in water are also popular.

Other changes in the funeral industry have also been consumer driven. Burpee indicates that the number of visiting days at the funeral home has gone from two or three days, with multiple viewings, to just one day with one extended viewing session or two shorter sessions. This allows visitors to pay their respects while saving the family from the exhaustion that results from extended receiving hours.

Martel indicates that the days of dark shades and windowless viewing rooms are gone, replaced by sheer curtains to allow both natural light and privacy, as well as other amenities such as bowls of a favorite candy, a grand piano and, once, a beloved motorcycle. Family photographs and videos also bring life into the viewing room.

Although not all funeral homes offer extended services, Peter Arsenault of The Fortin Group adds that some will assist the bereaved with everything from arranging air travel for visitors from far away to developing an Everlasting Memorial and online tribute, assisting with matters regarding the estate and insurance, scheduling support groups, and staffing a 24-hour Compassion Helpline with mental health professionals. In addition, The Fortin Group offers the use of a Celebration of Life Center with seating for 60 where groups often gather for a meal.

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