Celebration of Life

Each of us will face final days on this earth, and each of us will face the loss of people we love. While we can’t change this fact, there’s plenty we can do to improve end-of-life quality and to memorialize those we’ve loved and lost.

After someone dies, family and friends are faced with one last chance to find the right words, the best pictures, significant mementos and the most meaningful music to sum up the feelings of a lifetime.
The more personalized a funeral or memorial service is, the better, says Melinda Hagerman, fourth-generation funeral director and certified embalmer with Fitzgerald Funeral Home and Crematory, 1860 S. Mulford Road in Rockford.
In the business for 45 years and employed at Fitzgerald for the past 29, Hagerman remembers a time when every service was exactly the same, with an emphasis on protocol, not people.
Then something changed.
“We learned that we needed to do something more meaningful,” says Hagerman. “We needed to let family members make more decisions and to encourage their input. It’s healthy for survivors to express their feelings and find ways to honor their loved ones in ways that are important to them. For example, we’ve had company trucks in funeral processions, motorcycles by caskets. Special music is an important part of a service, too. Our lives are a series of rituals, including birthdays, graduations, marriages, promotions, retirement parties, travels and other celebrations. The funeral or memorial service is the last ritual to celebrate all of life.”
As baby boomers age, a growing number are coming face-to-face with their own mortality, the death of their parents, and the loss of friends and relatives. Today, the goal of every funeral director is to make each funeral or memorial service as special and unique as the person being remembered.
“Between the funeral director and the family, we can design a service that gives meaning to everyone and helps the survivors to grieve. It feels good to honor the person who has died and the survivors are healthier because of it,” Hagerman says.
Whether a death is sudden or expected, people need time to think about what they need.
“By talking to people, we hear what they’re saying about the person and what that person meant to them,” says Hagerman. “In the case of a sudden death, I have sometimes suggested a person write a letter to their loved one and bury it with them because there was no time to say goodbye.”
If a person has pre-arranged and/or pre-paid for a funeral, it helps survivors to feel at ease because there’s just that much less to think about.
“I’ve seen people just breathe a sigh of relief when they find out plans are taken care of,” says Hagerman. “There’s just a sense of peace, knowing arrangements have been made. There’s a part of us that stops thinking at the time of a death and we just make much better decisions if we plan ahead.”
Technology has opened the doors for a better-connected world – in life and in death. Funeral home websites allow people to research products and services, meet staff, find and share obituaries and write sentiments in an online guestbook.
Funeral directors can help people put together memorial DVDs with photos and music that can be shown during visitation or the service; copies can be given to family and friends as a keepsake. And, when not everyone can make it to the funeral service, some funeral homes even provide an online live broadcast of the service to draw everyone together.
But nothing takes the place of the real thing.
“There’s nothing more valuable than that human connection, to touch, make eye contact, and just know someone is there to support you,” says Hagerman.
Scott Olson, president of Olson Funeral and Cremation Services, 1001 2nd Ave. in Rockford, is the fifth generation to run the business.
“I grew up around the funeral business and it was just a normal part of conversation,” says Olson. “It made me realize at a young age that death and dying are a natural part of life. There are tragic elements to death, but funerals can also be a celebration of a life well-lived.”
Maybe because he learned at an early age just how fragile life is, Scott took time off after college to live and work in Colorado before coming back to Rockford. He graduated from mortuary school and continued the family tradition of helping people say “goodbye” and begin a new life.
“I just feel good about helping others,” says Olson. “People question how I can work in the funeral business, but when I get an opportunity to help those same people with a loss, they’re so appreciative and that’s when I feel rewarded. People need to work with someone they trust,” he says.
One of the biggest changes for the industry is the dramatic increase in the use and acceptance of cremation. Olson has seen the number more than double, during the 16 years he has been in the business. Cremation is now more socially acceptable, better accepted by faith groups and, in many cases, more economical.
People can have a traditional funeral or a family viewing followed by cremation, or the body can be cremated right away, with a memorial service held on a future date. Some people keep remains in their possession and skip the cemetery all together.
For those concerned about conservation of the environment, Natural Land Institute (NLI) can assist families who want a “green” cremation. Honor Grove, at the Nygren Wetland Preserve in Rockton, Ill., began in 2006. NLI purchased the preserve in 2000, with a gift from Carl Nygren, grants and donations, says Jill Kennay, assistant director of NLI.
The 721-acre site is located at the confluence of the Rock and Pecatonica Rivers and is being restored to wetlands, savanna and prairies. As part of the restoration project, Honor Grove involves planting a tree near a biodegradable urn, marked with a small wooden nameplate. In time, everything goes back to the earth.
Rebecca Olson, Scott’s wife, is an environmental consultant who serves on the NLI board and helped to develop this “green” option.
While many things have changed, one thing remains constant – the grief process.
Grieving the loss of a loved one takes time, can’t be hurried, and is as individual as the person feeling the loss. No two people grieve exactly the same and, although feelings of grief are predictable, there’s no set order in which feelings will be felt or a time frame in which the job of grieving can be fully completed.
Some funeral homes have a bereavement counselor to help survivors process their loss. Olson Funeral Home has specialized support groups for people who’ve lost a spouse, mother, or someone from suicide.


With the advent of hospice, more than 40 years ago, the needs of the dying and their survivors were finally addressed. According to the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization, the term “hospice” comes from the same root word as “hospitality,” which can be traced back to medieval times when it referred to a place of shelter and rest for weary or ill travelers.
The name was first applied to specialized care for dying patients by physician Dame Cicely Saunders, who began her work with the terminally ill in 1948 and eventually established the first modern hospice, in London. She brought the hospice concept to the United States in 1963 and reported the dramatic differences before and after symptom-control care. Her lectures launched a chain of events that resulted in the development of hospice care as we know it today.
Peggy Richard, education manager and compliance officer at Serenity Hospice and Home, 1658 Illinois Route 2 in Oregon, Ill., says medicine focused only on saving lives, before the advent of hospice.
“It started a whole moral and ethical debate about how terminally ill patients wanted to spend their last days – hooked up to life-saving equipment in a hospital intensive care unit for weeks, or in the comfort of their own homes, surrounded by family and friends,” says Richard.
At the time hospice was created, advances in medical science were keeping people alive with treatments even when there was no hope for a cure.
“Hospice is not just about keeping someone alive, but helping them to live,” says Richard. “Our goal is to make life better before it ends. That’s the beauty of hospice. You can stop treatment and focus on having a good life.
Hospice is the completion of good medical care, and having a say in how we want to die,” she says.
New on the horizon is the idea of blending hospice and palliative care.
“Many people confuse palliative care with hospice care,” explains Lynn Knodle, executive director of Serenity Hospice. “Palliative care focuses on offering symptom management along with the concept of interdisciplinary care, including home visits from nurses, social workers, and chaplains; however, palliative care does not require an individual to forgo curative care. With hospice care, an individual must make the decision to no longer seek curative treatment.”
The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) are testing a new option, called the Medicare Care Choices Model, for Medicare beneficiaries to receive palliative care services from certain hospice providers while concurrently receiving services provided by their curative care providers. During the demonstration project, CMS will evaluate whether providing concurrent hospice and palliative care services can improve the quality of life and care received by Medicare beneficiaries, increase patient satisfaction and reduce Medicare expenditures, Knodle explains.
“This would help in the transition of care and it would not be such a huge leap from active aggressive treatment to no treatment at all,” she says.
Another advantage of hospice is the follow-up care survivors receive. For about a year after a death, hospice follows up with families by calling, sending letters and cards, and offering support groups.
“We believe we have two patients; the person who is dying and the family,” says Richard. “We care just as much, and longer, for the survivors. We begin by creating good memories for the family and helping their loved one be at peace and in comfort.”
As hospice has evolved through the years, so has bereavement support for relatives. The Serenity Shed recently opened as a place where people can come and re-purpose furniture or work on other projects, while talking about their loved ones and making new friends. The facility is located in downtown Oregon.
“It’s very therapeutic to be creative with your hands,” Richard says.
Also therapeutic is openly talking about death.
Jolene Smith, marketing & community relations director for Northern Illinois Hospice, 4215 Newberg Road in Rockford, reached out to international artist Candy Chang to bring her Before I Die project to the Rockford area, in partnership with Bridge Rockford Alliance, Inc. and Illinois Bank & Trust. The project was part of Rockford Area Art Council’s Fall ArtScene event.
Before I Die is a global art project that invites people to reflect on their own lives and share their personal aspirations in a public place. It was started by Chang, who turned the sides of an abandoned house in New Orleans into a public blackboard where people finished the sentence that began with “Before I Die.” Chang was inspired to do something meaningful after someone she loved died.
“Preparing for death is one of the most empowering things a person can do, and thinking about death clarifies life,” Chang states in a TED presentation.
About 100 people attended the event and wrote on the wall constructed by Northern Illinois Hospice.
As difficult as it is to talk about death, end-of-life conversations are a healthy part of life, Smith says.
The event ties in with a rebranding campaign just launched by Northern Illinois Hospice that includes a new logo with the words “First in caring for life’s final months,” and also includes a new user-friendly website.
Dan Kennedy, executive director of Hospice Care of America, 3815 N. Mulford Road, in Rockford, says that when people hear the word “hospice,” they automatically think of death and grief.
“Hospice is all about a celebration of life and living it to the fullest in body, mind and spirit,” says Kennedy. “It’s about living in the moment and focusing on what a person can do with the valuable time left. Our goal is to keep patients as pain-free as possible so they can do what they enjoy doing for as long as possible.
“We have a saying in hospice work: ‘We want people to die well.’ The way we do this is by helping people live life to the fullest until they die. Sometimes our role is to help people with what we call “unfinished business” in order to find a sense of peace. For some, it’s talking to a friend or relative after decades of not speaking. Others need to tell someone ‘I’m sorry,’ and some people have projects that need to be completed.”
One man wanted his wife to have a new car because he wouldn’t be around to do car repairs. Another wanted new windows in the house, so the family got together to make that happen. One woman wanted to spend her last days looking out a picture window at the wildlife in her yard; another wanted to know her son had secured a job before she could feel at rest.
“When life is short, priorities quickly shift and there’s a greater focus on family and relationships rather than accomplishments,” says Kennedy. “Taking care of business is about what’s going on in the heart and mind, so a person can leave the earth content and with no regrets.”
People can choose to ignore their fate, but those who embrace the fact that they’re going to die deal with death differently.
Kennedy has degrees in theology and pastoral studies and worked in church administration before finding his second career in hospice. He started out as a hospice chaplain and mainly did bereavement work before going into administration 11 years ago.
Regardless of one’s beliefs, faith makes a difference in life and death, he says. “Faith gives hope for something beyond this life and makes life more meaningful while being lived,” says Kennedy. “When we believe death is not the end, there’s a supernatural peace that can’t be described, but you feel it. People with a strong faith openly embrace death, not just because they believe they are on a pathway to a better life, but because they trust God with their lives and don’t feel so alone. They truly believe the Lord is with them and everyone around them can feel the difference. Sometimes, people can minister as much in death as they do in life.”
Siblings Polly Gibson and Janine Caruana, general manager and assistant manager of Scandinavian Cemetery, have witnessed that survivors take their celebration of a person’s life right to the grave.
“People today want to be more involved and do something meaningful,” says Gibson. “Most people see the gravesite as another way in which they continue making good memories, and it’s important for those left behind to feel as if they have contributed to a symbolic farewell. Grief and healing follows, but good memories surface after the sadness subsides.”
When it was clear that cremation was a growing trend, Scandinavian Cemetery established a Memorial Garden, designed exclusively for the burial of ashes. Gibson and several Board members worked with designers to create this special area 12 years ago.  The garden is located in the northeast corner of the cemetery and is a very nature-inspired place with plants that provide continuous blooms in spring, summer and fall.
The garden is just another way to help survivors feel a special connection with their cherished family member, says Gibson. “We encourage people’s ideas and participation in the service,” she adds. “It takes the meaning of the service to a whole new level for everyone. For a long time we heard the word ‘closure’ used at the graveside, but now we see ‘closeness,’ because people have contributed to the graveside service, which makes survivors feel good as they honor someone they love.”
Some ways in which families achieve special meaning include physically helping to place the urn in the ground, sending personal mementos to the grave, releasing doves or butterflies, and bringing music to the grave. One family loved their Mom’s baked goods so much that they buried her ashes in her favorite Waterford cookie jar and shared cookies at the gravesite.
Caruana adds, “Today we see so many more people walking away from a grave with positive emotions rather than sadness. It’s all about making this experience memorable in a good way and giving their beloved a perfect final tribute.”

A Lasting Mark

One of the last things done after a death is to mark the final resting place.
Jennifer Muraski, who owns Muraski Monument Company with her husband, Bryon, says there’s no time like the present to think about a lasting memorial. The couple typically meets with families at the funeral home or at the family home, but will also see people (by appointment only) at the home office at 2711 Highcrest Road.
“A grave marker leaves a record, a footprint somewhere that says there was a life lived,” says Muraski.
With today’s technology, there’s almost nothing that can’t be done. Pictures, emblems, symbols and etchings of a favorite place can all be part of a grave marker, whether done by computer or hand, as a way to continue to tell the story about a person’s life.
A grave marker is a memorial that is flush with the ground and can be placed at the head, foot or center of a grave, depending on cemetery rules. A monument is the large upright piece of art that usually is made of granite and often signifies a family plot, although single graves can be marked with a monument as well. Depending on cemetery rules and regulations, there may be restrictions on the size and use of monuments and a certain number of plots may have to be purchased to place a monument.
In the monument business for about 20 years, Muraski has seen families who’ve done pre-planning work and those who have not. She believes one of the most thoughtful things you can do for your loved ones is to leave nothing undone but the final dating.
“There’s so much stress at the time of death, the fewer decisions that have to be made, the better,” she says. “We need to think about how someone is to be remembered long before the time comes. It’s not an easy subject, but like anything else, with good information and a clear, unemotional mind, better decisions are made.”

Flowers – A Reflection of Love

Last, but not least, flowers say so much. They bring beauty and meaning to a funeral or memorial service and are a way to continue loving someone on special occasions, or for no reason at all.
Erin Stoffregen, owner of Event Floral, 8181 Starwood Drive in Loves Park, says a funeral arrangement is made meaningful by the types of flowers used, the color theme, and what personal items are incorporated, such as a picture, letter, statue, rosary, cross or sports team memorabilia.
“It’s refreshing and inviting to do things that are different,” says Stoffregen. “We encourage people to think outside of the box and do something that speaks about the individual – what they liked and what they meant to you.”
So often, people will be thinking about what they want and forget to bring in vital information like the name of the deceased, time and place of a visitation and service, and where the flowers need to go after a service. To have that information available at the time of ordering is a great way to reduce stress, she says.
The flowers used for a service depends on the family’s taste and the time of year, says Michelle Joley, owner of Broadway Florist, which moved from its downtown Rockford location to  4224 Maray Drive two years ago.
Most people know what money they have to spend and have an idea of what they want, while others need some guidance finding the right words to say with flowers. For a funeral, there are some standard floral pieces on or next to the casket that can include a large, lettered ribbon that indicates the relationship the deceased had with survivors. Friends and others will want their arrangements to blend in with what the family orders, or will want something the family can take home with them.
“Every funeral is different,” says Stoffregren. “I just sit down with the customer and let them explain what they’re looking for and look at our floral books for ideas. Our job is to be prepared and we have a great staff that can create what they’re looking for.”
Once the funeral is over, flowers continue to send a message of love and provide comfort.
Silk or fresh arrangements can be made for any occasion, and Broadway Florist can provide containers that can be secured into the ground. In the winter, it’s very common for people to order greenery pots, wreaths and grave blankets to place on the grave, she says.
“Taking flowers to the grave at any time is a way to continue to love and honor someone. It makes survivors feel good by showing they care, and flowers are a symbol for all to see that love never dies.”