Just over a month ago, Aretha Franklin’s funeral was beamed across the globe from Detroit. Stevie Wonder, Chaka Khan and Jennifer Hudson sang, former president Bill Clinton spoke and a parade of more than 100 pink Cadillacs lined the streets. Even in death, Franklin underwent a series of costume changes. Her looks included a bright crimson mid-length cocktail dress, another in pastel blue, and a golden evening gown, each accessorised with matching five-inch Christian Louboutin heels.
Franklin’s seven-hour ceremony took place the day before that of Republican senator John McCain. “It was a really great weekend for funeral coverage,” says Erin Furey, one of the co-founders of Going Out In Style, a US-based funeral planning service that launched last year. “Hopefully this gets people thinking about their own service a little more,” adds her colleague Cassidy Iwersen.
According to Iwersen, times are changing. No longer is your average person willing to shuffle off this mortal coil with a nondescript outfit, generic flowers and hastily designed order of service. Iwersen and her three co-founders want to help people find a different way to do things — while tapping into a hidebound $16bn industry.
“We’re all ex-wedding-industry people,” says Furey. In that arena, outlandish demands and high productions are normal. “We didn’t notice anyone applying this sort of thing to funerals.”
They argue we should be thinking of funerals as a chance for a final turn in the spotlight — an opportunity for choreography, personalisation and style. It is no coincidence that all the business’s founders have worked, at one time or other, for Martha Stewart.
Franklin’s service, organised by the Swanson Funeral Home, was received as a fitting reflection of her life — a considered fashion moment and the chance to hammer home her iconic status. Bess Lovejoy, the author of Rest in Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses, compares it to that of Eva Perón, who was given a full state funeral despite never having held office, and Alexander the Great, whose hearse was designed to resemble a palace. “The display of his body was a major power move,” she says.
Louise Winter, the London-based founder and director of funeral planners Poetic Endings, used to be a funeral celebrant. She started her company three years ago to put an end to “badly designed orders of service, 20-minute time slots at crematoria, the lack of imagination shown by some funeral directors, celebrants who use templates for funerals with an ‘insert name here’ mentality and the fact that death is seen as a retail opportunity”.
People are hungry for something new, she argues. “Funerals are changing because the public’s expectations are changing,” she says. “I’m not sure the traditional funeral profession will survive the changes. My team dress beautifully (in a modern yet respectful way), we have a lovely and helpful website, we create modern orders of service — we aim to do everything with style, sophistication and substance.”
Her dress tips are breezy: “As you were, as you are. Why wear a suit to the grave if you never liked one while living?” she asks. “My own preference is for a white cotton nightgown, which is currently hanging in my wardrobe. I paid €5 for it in a flea market in Florence.”
In the US, the major supplier of corpse clothing is a brand called Ethel Maid. Every year it shifts tens of thousands of gowns and suits that look like they’re from a Victorian period drama. “People settle for these things the funeral home provides,” says Iwersen, “maybe without knowing there are opportunities to make it more personal.”
Potential clients of Going Out In Style begin by answering a questionnaire. Most of the questions are what you would expect — location, time of day, guest list — but some of the suggestions show a flair for the dramatic. Would I consider holding proceedings on a boat? Or sending the invitation out via a social media post? Giving guests a printed mini-zine? Having my ashes made into a diamond or jewellery?
When it comes to what to wear, there has been a move towards eco-clothing. Pia Interlandi of Garments For The Grave, based in Melbourne, makes clothes from calico, cotton, silk or lace, rather than synthetic fabrics, which could prevent the body from decomposing at a steady, uniform rate. Her pieces are also easy to get on — most garments aren’t suited for putting on a corpse, which is stiff and heavy. American artist Jae Rhim Lee’s “Infinity Burial Suit” is a black, hooded garment incorporating mushrooms and micro-organisms that aid decomposition and help transfer nutrients from the body back into the earth. It retails for $1,500.
Why the demand for these new services? “I think it’s about presenting another opportunity for choice,” says Iwersen. Baby boomers and the generations below them are devoted to the idea of self-expression to the very end. “That’s a wider trend in general — this idea of individuality.”
“It’s a day you can’t do again,” adds Furey. “You never get a second chance to make a last impression.”
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