Metro

Funeral directors work to put some life into death

Hearses were on display at the National Funeral Directors Association’s annual convention.
David L. Ryan/Globe Staff
Hearses were on display at the National Funeral Directors Association’s annual convention.

Bob Biggins had a plan for navigating the exhibition floor at the funeral directors convention in Boston this week: Skip the caskets and steer clear of funeral vehicles.

Too boring, said Biggins, 60, chief executive at Magoun-Biggins Funeral Home in Rockland.

Instead, he descended the escalator at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center and walked to a display of customized tribute blankets, like one in his home that honors his wife, Christine, who died of breast cancer in 2015.

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“My grandkids, when they come to my house, where do you think they go to sit? On the chair, where the blanket is, and they wrap it around themselves,” Biggins said. “They make themselves like they’re talking to Nanna. It’s powerful.”

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The blankets, he said, are a “perfect example” of where the funeral business is headed.

As a visit to the National Funeral Directors Association’s annual convention makes clear, the funeral industry is changing rapidly, using technology to usher in a wave of personalized options — from webcasting burial rites to sensors on graves that unlock interactive memorials.

Thousands of funeral directors from across the world gathered for the event, which also delved into how the business is grappling with the opioid epidemic, catering to millennials, and adapting to the surging popularity of cremation.

Fewer families feel bound to follow traditional funeral rites, Biggins said, and that means funeral directors are now helping mourners with everything from wine-and-cheese gatherings to environmentally friendly memorial services.

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George Clark, owner of Funeral Home Gifts, the company that manufactured Biggins’s blanket, said consumers are behind the sea change. He used a hockey metaphor to explain: “We’re Wayne Gretzky. We don’t skate to where the puck is. We go to where the puck is going.”

His family’s textile mill got into the funeral business after a grieving family asked for a blanket featuring the image of a deceased relative.

The blanket, created with technology that transforms photographs into woven products, helped the family heal, and now Clark’s company also sells keepsake pillows, casket cap panels, and personalized urns.

BOSTON, MA - 10/31/2017: Urns on dispaly came in many shapes and materials throughout the convention. National Funeral Directors Association is meeting in Boston at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center (David L Ryan/Globe Staff ) SECTION: METRO TOPIC 02funeral
David L Ryan/Globe Staff
Urns on display came in many shapes and materials throughout the convention.

“If you’re a funeral director, you’ve got only a couple of days to create a wow experience,” Clark said. “These guys have to be on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, ready at a moment’s notice to throw a party for 300 people that’s the most special party that celebrates somebody’s life. What we do is help the funeral director answer the question: How do I celebrate a life overnight?”

New services and products showcased at the funeral industry convention varied greatly.

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A transportation company from Ohio highlighted its family coach, a 13-seat passenger vehicle that also carries a casket.

A business called FuneralVue displayed its webcasting systems that facilitate broadcasting services for loved ones who can’t travel to a funeral.

Porcelains Unlimited, a company in North Port, Fla., featured sensors that are affixed to monuments and memorials. Using smartphones or tablets, people activate the sensors to access a digital memorial that may include family photos, videos, social media accounts, and other content, said Tanner Lewis, the business’s president.

Biggins, of the funeral home in Rockland, found his calling as a 12-year-old boy grieving his grandmother, Ella, who was bedridden by crippling arthritis in her final years.

Frank O’Connor of O’Connor Brothers Funeral Home in Worcester handled her funeral, and in the process, charted a career path for Biggins, who recalled his grandmother as looking “better in the casket than I had seen her in 10 years.”

“Frank answered every single call, every question that I had. He really helped my family out,” Biggins said. “I was just intrigued by the whole process, but I was more so comforted by his caregiving.”

Biggins runs his funeral home with his son, Daniel, and is a past president of the National Funeral Directors Association. At the group’s convention, many stopped to greet Biggins, who always wears a bow tie as a tribute to his late wife, who struggled with multiple sclerosis, as well as cancer.

Among those who stopped to say hello was Richard Gutierrez, general counsel at Guerra & Gutierrez Mortuaries in Los Angeles.

“I got to tell you, he’s my idol,” Gutierrez said. “I always admire his bow ties.”

Forty years into his career, Biggins said he now uses social media daily for business purposes and recently installed a digital sound system in his funeral home to play music, video tributes, and slideshows of photographs.

Saying goodbye, Biggins said, no longer follows a preordained format.

“When you have somebody calling you about a death, it’s not going to be 2 to 4 and 7 to 9 and then a funeral Mass and burial,” said Biggins, referring to traditional visiting hours. “There’s no such thing as ‘This is how you do a funeral.’ ”

Caskets were lined up for viewing.
David L Ryan/Globe Staff
Caskets were lined up for viewing.

Laura Crimaldi can be reached at laura.crimaldi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @lauracrimaldi.