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Old Aristocracy Hill isn't a part of Springfield, Ill., that draws a lot of attention. The quiet neighborhood dates back to before the Civil War, its historic homes now carefully preserved by proud business owners.
But outside a stately funeral home, a large black-and-chrome Harley Davidson motorcycle trike pulls out of the parking lot, towing a matching casket in its glass-sided trailer.
It's not something you would expect to see, but it's exactly what 67-year-old Lew Bird says his friend Dave Rondelli wanted: one last ride.
"Our generation, the baby boomers, have really taken to motorcycles. We're retiring, and we can afford to do that kind of thing," Bird says. "He loved it. He retired, and he rode his bike a lot. You know, guess if you're going to go out, go out the way you like to go."
Chris Butler, director of Butler Funeral Home, says he bought the motorcycle funeral coach because his customers are increasingly seeking a highly personal and unique experience. Funeral customs and rituals, he adds, tend to evolve with time and reflect the culture in which they're practiced.
"Today people are wanting very much [for] their ceremonies to reflect their life, the meaning of their life," Butler explains. "So we can offer families the traditional as well as unique options for remembering their loved one."
He also says posting an obituary on his company's Facebook page is another option to get funeral information out to the community quickly. But not everyone in the business agrees it's a good idea.
Randall Earl, former president of The National Funeral Directors Association, which tracks trends in the industry, has been in the business for 40 years and holds concerns about some of the innovations, including utilizing social media in the funeral planning and grieving process.
"It can be very harmful if you have family members who are angry with other family members and they have a death," Earl says.
He maintains that it's just too difficult to control what's said and done by mourners on social media platforms.
"I would say we're just trying to protect our business as well as the families we serve, and I do not have a Twitter or Facebook for those reasons," Earl explains.
Others, like Greg Young, argue that protecting families and social media don't have to be mutually exclusive. The 32-year-old entrepreneur, who left his job at IBM five years ago to launch funeralinnovations.com, maintains that careful use of social media can vastly improve a memorial experience, while upholding an appropriate level of privacy.
"Every funeral home needs to have their own strategy; there's no cookie-cutter approach," Young says. "There may be some times that you do not want to post the obituary, and we do have those cases that we work with."
Young's company sells Web, mobile and social media marketing, and believes that, like so many other things, the future of funeral planning will rely on tablets and smartphones. As families scatter across the globe, he says that often the best way for his clients to connect with mourners may well indeed be online.
"We're really starting to push webcasting, which has been out there for years, but funeral homes typically have not accepted it," Young explains. "We think it's very important to preserve that moment, so that generations to come can easily come back and access that information and learn more about their ancestors."
All of the recent innovations — webcasting for genealogy, Facebook pages for grieving families, mobile devices to plan a funeral or find an obituary, even a motorcycle hearse — may or may not stand the test of time.
But what's clear is that whatever changes endure will likely be those sought by baby boomers, who continue to drive consumer trends in life and in death.
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