As the funeral and crematory industry evolves, changes are on the horizon for one local funeral home, which plans to renovate one of its locations while closing down another.
Whitten Funeral Home will begin renovations this summer to its front exterior and chapel and plans to build a crematory at its Timberlake Chapel at 7404 Timberlake Road — a $2 million project.
“What we’re seeing is that’s what the consumers are wanting and as an industry if we don’t evolve and remain relevant … if we decide that, ‘Nope, we’ve got a funeral home parlor here, four beautiful sofas and 16 chairs and that’s the way it’s always been and that’s the way it’s always going to be,’ if we can’t fulfill their needs they will go somewhere else,” Paul Whitten, general manager at the funeral home, said.
“We have to provide what consumers are starting to ask for.”
Whitten also said the Park Avenue location would be closing sometime next year after the renovations and crematory are complete.
The Timberlake Chapel was built in 1960, with a new chapel and more visitation rooms added in 1995.
“In 1960 they had one big chapel, one visitation space and that was all they needed,” Whitten said. “People were receiving more people at home and the visitations at night weren’t popular yet. People could get off work to go to funerals, which were well attended.”
Now visitations are larger and funerals are smaller, leading to the changes coming to the Timberlake location.
In the chapel, all pews will be removed and replaced with chairs and some added tables. The carpet will be pulled up and replaced with hardwood so catered receptions can be held in the chapel.
A new structure will be built behind the existing building, which will house a crematory, prep room, walk-in cooler, embalming area and viewing area.
Whitten said Park Avenue is closing because most of his business is now held in Timberlake. When his grandfather, W.C. “Red” Whitten, founded the funeral home in 1937 at Park Avenue, the neighborhood was different, Whitten said. For instance, what was once Lynchburg High School is now Lynchburg High Apartments.
The increase in cremation has been a trend for a lot of reasons, Whitten said. It has a lower cost and has become a more accepted practice, especially as society has become more transient.
“It used to be where families stayed here forever and their kids stayed here but not anymore, and people aren’t all buried together,” he said.
Bert Davis Sr., owner of Davis-Turner Funeral Service, said the company hired a graphic designer about five years ago to help design programs for funerals.
“With new generations, we have to make sure we individualize everything we do, because every family is different, everyone is an individual and you have to celebrate that individual,” he said.
“We’re paying attention to the individual, not doing cookie-cutter services and not making every service the same,” he said.
He said this trend toward adding personalization began about 10 years ago.
“It’s more a family atmosphere. As far as the reception, we’re making it a celebration and something that people can have memories of and can get together and talk about their loved one,” he said.
Davis agreed cremation has become more popular and said it is cheaper, easier and simpler.
About two years ago, Diuguid Funeral Service and Crematory introduced a Sharelife Projection system that can be displayed on a wall in the visitation room. The 12-foot-wide by six-feet-high projection can feature palm trees on a beach with the sounds of ocean water or flowers in a garden, a waterfall or mountains to help set the mood and create a calming, stress-free atmosphere, Funeral Director Chuck Bartel said.
Sharelife creates a room that can become personalized with sounds and even scents that were enjoyed by a loved one.
Bartel said Diuguid can also play music during a visitation that was important to someone who has died and it can be a very therapeutic experience for those attending a visitation.
He said people have enjoyed seeing old photos of loved ones, some of which they may never have seen.
“And that’s a lot of what we’re trying to do is not only do a funeral service, but what we’re trying to do is create something that reflects that person’s life,” he said. “And we’re seeing more and more of that. When I first started 30 years ago in this business, there were a couple of churches where all you would have had to do is change the name of the person and the service was exactly the same. But at that point, that generation, that was what they expected.”
If a funeral didn’t have Psalm 23, the Lord’s Prayer and the Doxology in the service, it wasn’t considered proper for that generation, he said.
“As the generations change and take over their expectations, their needs change. and so that’s where you’re seeing a lot of this technology being brought into it.”
Diuguid also offers to broadcast a live stream from its chapel that can be viewed by friends and family who couldn’t make it to the service.
“So what we’re looking at as a company is to find ways that we can use technology to honor the person without taking away from what we’re trying to do. You know, our mission here is to celebrate the life of whomever has passed,” he said.
Diuguid can also capture DNA from someone who has died and preserve it so it can be medically tested.
“There’s so much more of this technology that’s going on. and the difficult part is how much technology is too much technology. Once we take away from the core part of making sure that we’re taking care of our families, we’re providing them an environment where people can come express their sympathies, they can talk, and they can work through their grief.”
“If we go past that, and it all becomes technology, then we’ve gone the wrong direction. However, by being able to embrace the technology, we’re taking the best of what’s out there, and adding that to what we do in order to be able to help our families even more, even on the grief side of things,” Bartel said.
With all these changes, there is one thing that will always remain, Whitten said, and that’s how staff treats and helps families during a very difficult, emotional and stressful time.
He said 99.9% of people have no idea where to start when a loved one dies, but that’s where people like Whitten and his staff step in.
“As professionals that’s what we focus on, making it easier for them, taking the burden off them and answering questions. That’s what we pride ourselves on, serving the family. Those kinds of things won’t change,” he said.
Rachael Smith covers local businesses and nonprofits. Reach her at (434) 385-5482