Bespoke Memorials

Helping friends and family cope with the loss of loved ones.
Down to Earth Funerals provides loving guidance through the grief process. Photo: iStock by Getty Images

By Caroline Schrank

When my father died after a short illness in 2008, I was a single mother with two toddlers faced with figuring out how to plan his funeral. Making critical decisions was more than I could handle. Death is inevitable, the biggest disrupter, and the first place many turn to is a funeral home. (This isn’t a choice here in New York, one of seven states left in the country where by law one must contact a funeral home after a death.)

Following protocol, I contacted a local mortuary to discuss how things would proceed. Old rules and traditions were presented, but none seemed to fit. Despite the fact that I felt my options were limited, I pressed on.

Death wasn’t discussed in our family. I never knew my father’s wishes, and ended up having him cremated. This felt strangely disconnected, so I made up for it by adding personal touches to his memorial. Rather than sit in a velvet-draped room at a funeral home staring at a podium, family and friends gathered at the house I grew up in, the place my father lived in and loved for most of his life, and shared stories about him.

The rabbi who had married me and knew my father officiated. More spiritual and emotional than traditional (much like my father), he gave everyone something relatable to mull over. We further honored my dad by eating his favorite foods, including McDonald’s hamburgers (my father had a long-standing investment in the company, really an excuse for eating there) which brought smiles to everyone’s faces. The day was more what his life was about—mostly laughter, and a few tears.

At funerals I’d been to in the past, you’d sooner talk about the weather and the flower arrangements than the fact that your heart had just been ripped out. Through my father’s bespoke memorial, this was not the case. I learned that grief no longer had to be the elephant in the room. It was a necessary element, and could sit alongside happy memories. Because of this, my dad’s memorial offered a safe space for all who loved him, and became a turning point in my healing.

Seeing firsthand how death could use a reboot, I chose to go to mortuary school—despite just turning 50—and became a licensed funeral director. After graduation, I opened Down To Earth Funerals in 2018. My mission became to help families find their own personal way through the process of losing someone they loved.

I would be present as a clear and practical guide, compassionate and supportive, holding their hand, or not, depending on the person. No rush, no sales pitch. My business model seemed to say, “Take a breath. This is about you now.” As a New York licensed funeral director, I legally facilitate the removal and preparation of the body, handle all necessary paperwork—such as ordering death certificates and necessary cremation and burial permits—and plan the service. Many people think certain funeral traditions are necessary when they are simply customs, some of which are outdated and expensive.

I encourage people to come to me and share their ideas of how they want to honor those who have passed, rather than have me tell them what their options are, because I believe funerals don’t have to be one-size-fits-all. I tell grieving families to imagine what their loved one would have wanted for them, especially if the loved one, like my father, did not leave clear instructions. I often use my intuition to guide families toward alternative options. One evolved from private discussions with a woman who decided to anoint the deceased with essential oils. I reached out to Nousha Salimi, an essential oil and aromatherapy guide, who designed the custom oil and poured it Into vials for mourners to take home with them.

Another one of my favorite memorial options is “the yogic,” where I arrange a yoga class to include friends and family. I have found this not only helps support grieving, but also honors the person who has passed in a nontraditional, intimate way. It’s an opportunity for people to be fully present as they heal together.

NYS Licensed Funeral Director Caroline Schrank is the founder of Down to Earth Funerals.