The Second Half: Passing away with grace

May 18, 2011

By Kathleen D. Tresemer
Columnist

How many different ways are there to die? Or rather, how many ways can you handle a loved one’s death and disposal of their remains?

In our Second Half, we can’t escape the reality of dying, and there are a million issues associated with the topic: afterlife, regrets, grief and financial concerns. The issue at hand today, however, is funeral arrangements.

Rock Valley College’s Center for Learning in Retirement recently offered a class, “Innovations in the Funeral Home Industry.” Is it any surprise I could not convince a single friend to join me?

“You go and tell us all about it,” one Second-Half pal encouraged me. “You’ll just write about it anyway, and I can read it in the paper.”

Who knew that my writing career would isolate me so much from having actual friends? “Of course!” I responded with moderate sarcasm. “Why spend the morning with me when you can just read about my thoughts and feelings at your convenience?”

“Thanks! I knew you’d understand,” she replied, leaving me with my mouth open and a dozen snotty retorts hanging in the air, unsaid…probably better that way.

I wandered down to Five Points in the old Colonial Village Mall to the site of Grace Funeral & Cremation Services. I was greeted at the door by owners Bob and Kristan McNames, both licensed funeral directors with more than a decade of experience. I can’t help but think these two look like teen-agers, albeit competent, friendly adolescents. “Isn’t anyone growing old with me?” I wonder, but I guess if anyone knows about the latest trends in the industry, it’s someone with a fresh outlook.

First, their location: isn’t it strange to house a funeral parlor in a mall?

“It might seem like a weird idea,” Kristan shared, “but this way we are able to keep our overhead low. That’s one of the primary ways we contain costs, passing the savings on to you.”

I give ’em credit—retailers have been doing it for years. The difference is that “foot traffic” and “location” are not as important in the funeral biz. However, they are in a very visible part of town, and consumers are finally starting to find them after two years in business.

“This place looks like a hip, new coffee shop,” I mumbled. Most funeral homes, well…they look like funeral homes! The décor at Grace is very eclectic and inviting, like an upscale condo of a friend with great taste. A couple of us were tempted to walk out with some of their artistic pieces.

“The idea is to offer comprehensive personalized services without charging exorbitant prices,” Kristan explained. “It isn’t cheap service—we provide excellent service at a better price.”

There are no secrets at Grace. They freely offer their GPL (general price list) to anyone who comes in.

“We spend a lot of time searching for service providers that are competitive, so we can offer our clients a better price,” they explain. For example, they offer a large selection of caskets, but display only end-cuts—roughly 18 inches of each casket—instead of purchasing a large stock that increases consumer cost.

“You still have access to the actual material, details and quality of the product, so you can make an informed choice,” Kristan explained. And really, that was all I would need, as a discriminating buyer, to make a decision. Other examples of their cost-effective efforts: leased vehicles and drivers, use of a local crematory instead of building their own, and purchasing caskets from a small, family-owned provider in the region.

“We use local artists and craftsmen, too,” she said, showing us rugs, quilts and wall-hangings that can be made from the clothing of loved ones. There is even a local artist who incorporates your ashes into a beautiful painted portrait.

The concept is brilliant, really, in an age where conspicuous consumerism is falling from favor. Who can afford to pay more when the same quality is available without the financial padding? A conscious effort to offer great service and quality products at a reasonable rate—like “fair trade” with a twist.

“Our motivation comes from personal experience,” Kristan tells us. “Most importantly, we want people to feel loved and cared for at Grace.”

Kristan told us about her own experience as a teen-ager, when her father died suddenly. That experience inspired her to become a funeral professional who showed sincere respect for the families she served. Bob comes from a small rural area not far from my home, one that emphasizes community support and the concept that we are all in this together.

“We both worked at other places,” Bob explains quietly, “and they just didn’t fit with the way we wanted to serve our neighbors and the community.” Their vision for something different led them to open Grace.

A focus on community service, ethics and innovation in the industry has already earned Grace the Pursuit of Excellence Award from the National Funeral Directors Association. And these young people give back to the community in a variety of ways, from collecting cell phones for soldiers to holding scrapbooking events and AARP driver safety classes. They even offer eco-friendly products and services, as well as end-of-life services for your animal companions.

I like their notion that we are all connected and should care for one another. In my Second Half, that’s the kind of treatment I want and deserve, right up to the end!

In her second half of life, Kathleen D. Tresemer is both a journalist and an award-winning fiction writer. She lives with her husband on a small ranch in rural Shirland, Ill. Kathleen can be contacted by e-mail at kdt-insights@hotmail.com.

From the May 18-24, 2011 issue

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