This is the second in a series of posts where Cremation Solutions is focusing on the findings of the 2012 Funeral Service Foundation study. The first, “Can the Funeral Industry Change with the Times?” was published earlier this month as a follow-up to “Public Opinion Concludes Funeral Service has Dropped the Ball!” Today, we’re talking about what Alan Creedy called your “primary touch point” with the people living in your service area: your funeral firm’s facility.
It’s not really very surprising but, no matter their reason for being there, it seems people really don’t like to go into most funeral homes. Participants of the study said funeral homes are “sterile,” “cold” and “intimidating.” One went so far as to say “it separates you from the outside like a coffin.” You’ve got to admit: the picture these words paint isn’t at all inviting. And perhaps neither is the idea of making significant changes to your facility–but if you read the most recent post and did your homework, you’ve already gotten a head start.
Don’t remember your assignment? We challenged you to go around your facility asking yourself this question: “What signal is it sending?” Depending your level of interest, it could have taken just a few seconds to complete (“Hey, it all looks good to me!”), or far longer (“Oh, that could be a problem. And chances are those drapes have got to go, and the…”) However long it took, we’ll bet when you were done, there was an uncomfortable feeling in the pit of your stomach. That’s because, if you thought “everything is a-ok”, you’re now concerned you were just kidding yourself (or downright delusional). Or, if you now have a long list of potential problems, you may be feeling anxious or overwhelmed by the tasks that lie ahead. Set those feelings aside, and let’s get down to specifics.
There are Four Major Goals
According to the researchers, in order to dispel these very negative impressions, funeral home design must focus on achieving these four things:
- Minimizing the feeling of physical and psychological confinement
- Providing consumers and mourners with a stronger sense of control
- Encouraging creative thinking in the planning process
- Highlighting that the funeral home is an area where a transformation takes place
Researchers made some very specific suggestions: you’re to encourage social interaction, making the funeral home “come alive” with a man cave like feel where mourners can retreat for relaxation; rooms with writable walls, outdoor gathering places, and a chapel that looks less like a chapel and more like a living room.
To reduce the uncomfortable sense of “confinement,” funeral home owners should incorporate outdoor areas (perhaps one for congregation and one for quiet reflection), bring in more natural light, and create comfortable, open indoor spaces.
I know these are really big recommendations, and major changes like these take time (and solid planning). But where do you begin? That’s easy: with the very first thing a visitor to your funeral home sees.
Go stand outside your funeral home and try to view it with new eyes; pretend this is the first time you’re seeing it. Ask yourself: what does the entryway look like? Is it clean and well-swept? Is the landscape well-maintained? In my opinion, entryways are the most important: it’s all about first impressions. Keep it light and inviting and understand that people want to know where to go: your signage should be clear and highly visible. My friend and collaborator, Kim, spoke with MaryAnne Scheuble, an interior designer and author of the Nomis Funeral & Cemetery News “Designing Woman” columns. In “Design Plan: Where Do I Start?” she was decidedly practical, simply asking readers “does the entryway have a safe yet attractive surface for bad weather conditions?” These are things which can make a huge difference in making visitors feel welcome from the moment they arrive at your door.
It’s really a no-brainer: good lighting sets the tone and creates the atmosphere in a room. Lucy Martin, author of The Home Lighting Effects Bible, argues “the key is to understand the use of that room and apply the relevant lighting to ensure it functions well.”
According to Ms. Martin, you’ll want to hire a designer who can set the balance between task lighting and mood lighting, use lighting to enhance small spaces (or break up large open ones), and take into account the effects of reflection and shadow in a lighting scheme. “So much has changed in lighting over the last two years, it is a minefield to understand so if at all affordable get help. It will reap dividends in the future.” If you can’t afford a certified designer, I would recommend that you head over to your local lighting store and have a professional consultant visit your funeral home. In the meantime, however, here are some tips to get you started:
Get rid of those torchers and cosmetic floods and redneck bulbs you use to make the deceased look more life-like. Really, where else do you see these things? There’s got to be a better way to get some pink light on the bodies. And while we’re asking, do we really need the pink light?
Make the switch to Compact Florescent Light and Light Emitting Diode bulbs (CFLs and LEDs). It will lower your overhead and impress your customers that you really do care about the planet and the whole green thing.
Lighten up the drapes and let in the natural light as much as you can in every room. The days of heavy damask drapery are long gone. Today it’s all about bringing in natural light, and reducing oppressive feelings. Dump the drapes. Period.
Get rid of those old table top brass lights with the giant ugly cloth lampshades. “Oversized lamps are out-of-date”, says MaryAnne; and we agree. Kim can’t begin to tell you how many times she’s seen photos of facilities where the lighting was just plain awful: pockets of bright light from floor and table lamps, surrounded by a sea of dark shadows. This is not the place for darkness; nor is it the right place for clinical lighting like in a hospital examination room. Remember to think “task” and “mood” lighting and provide adequately-lit transitions between task-oriented spaces.
MaryAnne Scheuble (in that same column noted above) offered three points-to-ponder regarding lighting when taking a second look around your funeral home (spoiler alert: that’s your homework for this week):
- Is there directional lighting for flowers or memorabilia?
- Does the room look balanced and visually interesting?
- Are seating areas welcoming?
Carpeting and Floors
We’ve all seen some wretched carpeting, but hopefully not in your funeral home. If your firm’s carpeting is showing its age and is stained or just plain ugly and could be the cause of that “old smell”, it’s a relatively easy and inexpensive fix in the big scheme of things. My rule of thumb: if you wouldn’t put it in your house, don’t put it in your funeral home. Think light and airy, but remember you will have to keep it clean. I personally like the area rugs of artist Susan Sergeant. Or, if we want to be conscious of the potential for coffee and tea stains, how about hardwood or bamboo flooring in the coffee area?
Wallpaper, Paneling, and Paint
So who watches any of those home improvement television shows? If you do, you’ll know the paneling and wallpaper in your funeral home has got to go. The first thing they do is to tear this stuff down and so should you. It’s outdated, faded, peeling and ugly.
If your walls are painted, ask yourself if the paint is peeling, stained, or if the color is out-of-date. MaryAnne asks you to consider, before repainting, whether the paint color should be the same in each room (or should each room have a different color theme).
Earlier I advised to dump all the heavy drapery in your funeral home. But MaryAnne encourages you to ask yourself these questions:
- Are your window treatments appropriate to the total design?
- Do they provide “architectural” interest in a plain room?
- Are they too full or heavy-looking?
- Is their purpose to cover unattractive views or do they allow natural light?
Here’s something you might not know: there’s actually a professional association for people who make window coverings. That’s right: the Window Covering Association of America, where you can find a window covering specialist in your area. If you’ve got window covering issues, it might be the right time to call in reinforcements.
There’s certainly an abundance of styles: classic contemporary, modern, traditional, eclectic, rustic and even something called vintage industrial (which, although cool, may not be quite right for a funeral home). Again, it comes down to checking the simple things (before making any big changes):
- Is seating firm and comfortable for those with hip, knee or back issues?
- Are there pieces available to accommodate generously-sized people?
- Examine all furniture for sagging seats, rumpled cushions, and weak or unsteady legs.
- Do tables have scratch marks or stains?
I have some strong opinions about wall art. Art can make a huge difference in the feel of your décor, but I would urge you to modern it up! Make it real with real pics of people in your community doing all the stuff that make your community great! Use local scenery and highlight local events, like the town fair, the river, the mountains; whatever makes your community and region unique.
And in no uncertain terms, absolutely nothing dark and dreary! Visit your local frame shop and tell them you want to get hip! Frames can add so much. Giant gold gilt frames were beautiful about 200 years ago!
MaryAnne notes that “wall groupings are good; sparse or non-existent wall décor is neither inviting nor interesting.” If you check out the Designing Woman column for February 2015, she’ll introduce you to two firms who know the value of wall art. Coyle Funeral Home in Toledo, Ohio, where, “at the end of (a) hallway, guests are greeted with a hand-painted mural of double doors opening to a lush garden. Well-positioned spot lighting completes the effect of this trompe-l’oeil. Nearby furniture anchors the scene to reality. It is as if you could walk into that garden and escape into a more beautiful, peaceful world”.
Smith Funeral Home in Grinnell, Iowa features an equally memorable moment when, she writes, “a step in the door leads the eye to some remarkable antiques. The second look takes in in a long hallway carpeted in a Meadow Green color is punctuated by several wide doorways. The third glance is the most captivating: an artistic collection of veterans’ memorabilia from World War I through the present.” Here’s her bottom line: “funeral homes need to bring in more art; it soothes the soul.”
Ambient Temperature and Overall Air Quality
Is your funeral home warm enough? Maybe it’s too warm. Are there pockets of cold air, or bothersome drafts? Certainly opinions differ as to the right indoor temperature, but most experts tell us the comfort range is between 62°-74°F.
And while we’re looking at the topic of air quality, does your funeral home smell bad? My big tip of the day: burn candles. I prefer Relaxing Rituals Comfort Blended candles from Yankee Candles. They’ll get the whole place smelling inviting and awesome.
This can be the most important part of your property. Wherever you’re located, seasons permitting patios and garden areas should be easily accessible to those in attendance. Outdoor funerals can separate you from the competition. Look at all the outdoor weddings these days! In many rural areas, people would prefer to get married on a farm in a cool barn over any fancy catering hall. I believe they prefer real to fancy fake. In life and death when the going gets rough, people will always turn to nature to seek balance.
In the End
It comes down to making people more comfortable in what is a thoroughly uncomfortable situation. We want to contradict their expectations, and – to some degree (as in the case of Coyle Funeral Home trompe-l’œil mural) – to surprise them.
John McQueen spoke of this quiet surprise: “When a family comes in, the first thing we do is to give them a tour of the facilities. Usually they say, ‘This just doesn’t feel like a funeral home.’ Because I am who I am, I then ask them (somewhat jokingly) ‘Do you frequent funeral homes a lot?’ Nine out of 10 have never been in one. But they have a preconceived picture in their mind, and in renovating our facilities, we’ve done everything to contradict that mental image. In fact, we tore out all the heavy drapery about 15 years ago, and we’ve always done our best to not make it feel like a funeral home. ”
Alan Creedy remarked, “If I was building a new facility from scratch, every public room would have lots of windows for natural light, and I’d bring the outside in–eliminating that feeling of confinement described by the study participants.” He goes on to answer his own question: “What would I do if I had to work with an existing facility with none of the study-recommended features? I’d hire a certified interior decorator or designer–not your wife’s best friend or maiden aunt– but a fully accredited and recognized professional to assist me. I’d give them a copy of the study, and tell them, ‘This is the reason behind the changes we need to make’.” (Certified interior designers can be found on the website for the Certified Interior Decorators Association.)
Need additional inspiration? We’ve been prowling around the internet, and found dozens of galleries of wonderful funeral home design and decoration ideas, and I’m sure you can too. Here’s a short list to get you started:
What’s up next for you? Your homework this time around is to take that second look around your funeral home facility. Again, take notes, and keep them in a safe place, because we’re not done yet. See you next time around.