ST. LOUIS -- Vallonia Smith got a down-home send-off after she died of heart disease at 59.
In a Wade Funeral Home room dubbed "Big Mama's Kitchen," loved ones played cards barely an arm's length from Smith's body in an open casket. Guests sipped iced tea and Kool-Aid near a stove with a platter of real fried chicken and a couple of fake pies. A loaf of Wonder Bread sat atop the refrigerator, and dishes were in a drainer near the sink.
"For those two hours, everybody was saying, 'Oooooh, this reminds me of Val,"' her daughter, Angela Harris, recalled of the wake. "No one said anything bad to me about it. Everyone said, 'This is a nice idea, it's different.' It had fond memories, and there wasn't a lot of crying."
Wade Funeral Home's nontraditional services, held in theater-quality sets like Big Mama's Kitchen, represent a new type of send-off designed to help take some of the grim out of reaper.
"We're convinced this is the wave of the future," said Slivy Edmonds Cotton, chairman and chief executive of Arizona-based Perpetua Inc., owner of Wade and four funeral homes in Chicago, Indianapolis and New York.
Wade's services include sports settings for fans who can rest in peace below a basketball goal or near a small fish-stocked pond where a sign notes "Fishing Season is Closed." There is even a recliner, remote control and TV.
"What we found is the new consumer is really looking for a difference, and they didn't like the way funeral directors were telling them how it should be done," Cotton said.
The special services have been chosen by roughly half of Wade's clients.
"It's not like you're at a funeral home; it's like you're at home. It makes it just a happy place to be," manager Aaron Grimes said. He added: "No one has said, 'That's creepy."'
Bob Vandenbergh, head of the 13,500-member National Funeral Directors Association, considers these "vignette" rites an extension of personalized services that the $20 billion-a-year industry has offered for years. Vandenbergh, who owns three Detroit-area funeral homes, said he does not mind such departures from "a cookie-cutter thing."
"A funeral should be a celebration, a recognition of someone's life," he said. "It's not people sitting solemnly in a pew or chair listening to 'The Old Rugged Cross' type of thing. There's nothing wrong with that, but sometimes it doesn't reflect on who the person was."
Margaret Cosey said her husband, Lourenzy, who died in June at 62, wanted his farewell to reflect his passion for hosting neighborhood cookouts.
So, next to Lourenzy Cosey's open casket during a wake at Wade's, a background showed an outdoor grill. The parlor smelled of roasted corn. A cooler was stocked with soda and iced tea. The music was jazz - the deceased's favorite.
"He always told me, 'Margaret, if I pass before you, I want everyone to be happy. I don't want a sad, drawn-out funeral,"' his wife said.
"It described him to a T. It relaxed the people. They were talking, and they were cheerful," she said. "It made it much easier because it was just like he was asleep, and we were at a holiday."
In his book "Balsamic Dreams: A Short But Self-Important History of the Baby Boomer Generation," Joe Queenan complains that people have "transformed the traditional funeral service into a ludicrous stage show."
"Funerals are no longer somber rituals where we pay our respects to the dead. They are cabaret. They are parties, fun-fests, or what used to be known as happenings," he writes.
Mary Wong, a Florida grief counselor and author who developed a national directory of bereavement support groups and services, questioned the wisdom of the sets at Wade's.
"The last thing we want to do is have the image of a casket in a kitchen replayed in a survivor's mind every time they think of their loved one and every time they enter a kitchen in the future," she said.
She suggested that before such a service is chosen, family members, particularly children and teenagers, be consulted to make sure they are comfortable with the idea.
On the Net:
Wade Funeral Home: www.wadefuneralhome.com