||Funeral Homes Find New Life by Hosting Other Events
Paulita and Tony Flores took their wedding vows in December in an elegant rotunda with marble floors amid glimmering chandeliers and a bubbling fountain.
It didn't bother them that a room down the hall showcased caskets and urns. Or that the building was surrounded by a large cemetery with 100,000 gravestones on 60 acres. Or that on other days, the facility hosts something a lot more somber -- funerals.
The Flores' wedding at the Community Life Center at Washington Park East Cemetery in Indianapolis illustrates a growing trend.
Across the USA, funeral homes are building and marketing such centers as not just a place to mourn the dead but as sites for events celebrating the living, including weddings, birthdays, anniversaries, holiday parties and proms.
The lure? It is often less expensive; there is greater availability; and the settings -- inside and outside -- can be nothing short of wedding-picture perfect.
Flanner & Buchanan Funeral Centers opened the $10 million Community Life Center in 2001, but it had a slow start. As recently as 2009, it hosted just 10 weddings. Then Carla Fletcher took over as special events coordinator in March. The center now holds a dozen events each month and has nearly every Friday, Saturday and Sunday booked this year, including 99 weddings, as well as bookings that stretch into 2012, she says.
"The place wasn't being utilized because people had tunnel vision," says Fletcher, who also often plays the part of wedding planner for the couples. "They thought since it was a funeral home, they (couldn't) sell it. But I don't see a funeral home; I see an events center."
The idea of getting married in a funeral home wasn't much of a hurdle to overcome, says Paulita Flores, 21.
"At first, when I pulled up and saw it was a funeral home, it did concern me," she admitted. "But when we walked in and saw everything, it was overwhelming. I fell in love and thought it was the perfect place. It was breathtaking, so it (the funeral home aspect) didn't cross my mind again."
That is precisely what funeral homes -- searching to expand their business base amid increased competition -- are hoping for.
"Over the past five to six years, more and more funeral homes are offering the use of their facilities to the greater community, whether it's hosting a full-blown wedding reception or offering meeting space to an organized community group," says Emilee High of the Wisconsin-based National Funeral Directors Association.
In a 2010 association survey, almost 10% of the 627 funeral home owners who responded said they owned or offered a community or family center in addition to traditional funeral facilities.
A decade ago, when James Olson bought a funeral home in Sheboygan, Wis., he wanted to make his facility more available to the community. This year, he says, he plans to host his first wedding reception.
Olson, who is also a spokesman for the National Funeral Directors Association, says he has noticed more couples tying the knot in funeral homes, but not only because of changes in his industry.
"A lot of (traditional wedding facilities) are shutting down because of the economy, while we (funeral homes) aren't going anywhere," he says. "In our community, two banquet halls closed because of the economy."
Although people may think it morbid to start a marriage in a place surrounded by sadness, it would be no different than doing it at a church -- where both caskets and newlyweds occupy the aisles throughout the year, says Sue Totterdale, national chairwoman of the National Association of Wedding Professionals. "A banquet hall is a banquet hall, and a chapel is a chapel," she says. "If you can get past the driveway and the cemetery, it's going to be beautiful."
Still, the idea of exchanging vows at a funeral home or cemetery isn't for everyone.
Paulita Flores had originally planned on getting married in the Community Life Center's outdoor courtyard in September, which has a clear view of the cemetery, but was glad she moved the event indoors.
"I was worried that people who would come would be creeped out," she says. "I was worried that when taking pictures, it (the cemetery) would be in the background."
But if the proximity to gravestones is a drawback for some people, it can be a selling point for others, says Keith Norwalk, president of Indianapolis' Crown Hill Funeral Home and Cemetery. "We had one situation where a young woman wanted to be married near her grandmother's grave," he says. "It was meaningful to the family."
(Source: USA Today, 01/19/11)