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 lost.

Laying a loved one to rest can be tough. When it happens, the bereaved are left with the difficult task of resuming “normal” lives that feel anything but normal.
Before that, during the end-of-life journey, families sometimes place their loved ones in hospice care, which strives to make life better for people before their time on earth ends. Once a loved one has passed away, they’re remembered during a funeral or memorial service, a time-honored way to honor a life that has ended. It’s a time to cherish special aspects and moments of a loved one’s life and it also helps loved ones to cope with confusing and oftentimes overwhelming emotions of loss.
Beautiful flowers bring healing and comfort to any type of memorial service, and a monument not only marks a final resting place, but it lets everyone know that a person has lived.
Fortunately, there are experts here in our region who can guide you through what may be a daunting time in your life.


Hospice care addresses the needs of the terminally ill and their surviving family. The goal of a hospice center is to make life better for a patient before it ends, and provide follow-up care to the patient’s family with phone calls, letters and support groups. Hospice is about celebrating life and embracing the final chapter.
If there were a phrase to define Hospice Care of America (HCA) at 3815 N. Mulford Road, Rockford, it would be “kind and caring.”
HCA’s team of professionals includes physicians, nurse practitioners, pharmacists, nurses, social workers, a chaplain, nurse aides, support staff and many volunteers. Chief Medical Officer Mike Werckle does house calls every day and is accompanied most days by medical and pharmacy students from the University of Illinois College of Medicine and Pharmacy.
Hospice is essentially a free benefit of Medicare, Medicaid and most insurance plans. HCA not only provides the care, but also the medicines, medical supplies, medical equipment, oxygen and whatever else is needed to care for each patient’s particular illness.
HCA also helps patients and their families understand that even though death can lead to sadness, anger and pain, it can also lead to hope. Hope that hospice will enable a patient to live their lives to the fullest.
When there is no longer a cure for a patient’s terminal illness, HCA is available to offer care, comfort, education and someone who will listen. HCA also provides hospice care wherever a person lives, whether it’s at home, a nursing home or assisted living facility.
Quality of life is HCA’s goal and their motto is “live every day.” A cancer patient on HCA hospice once said, “Fatal isn’t the worst outcome. Not living is the worst outcome.”
Northern Illinois Hospice, 4215 Newburg Road, Rockford, is the region’s first hospice, and it’s been supporting terminally ill patients and their loved ones for nearly 40 years.
“Some people mistakenly think NIH just cares for individuals for the final days of life,” says Jolene Smith, marketing and community relation’s director at NIH. “While that’s true sometimes, many more NIH patients use our services for months. Hospice can stay alongside you from the time of terminal diagnosis to death.”
After six months, Smith says there’s a re-certification with a doctor to make sure the patient is still hospice appropriate.
“We’ve had some patients use our services for years,” she says. Not only does NIH provide care, they also allow patients to live their normal, active lives.
“We had a patient who wanted to fish before he died, so the nurse worked through our local Fish-Abled Foundation to get a boat donated and an experienced fisherman to take him to a place where he’d catch a fish,” Smith says. “People think hospice means ‘I’m going to die’ and they get scared. But, our team of staff and volunteers work to make today the best day possible for our patients and families.”
While in the hands of hospice, patients have access to a variety of services and integrated therapies, such as physical, occupational and dietary, along with other complementary therapies including massage and pet therapies. These services help increase comfort, peace and the ability to function for patients.
NIH was also the area’s first hospice to hire a board-certified music therapist.
“She plays music and that can alleviate pain, manage symptoms, improve quality of life, and she’s been asked to play while people are actively dying,” Smith says. “Some patients enjoy singing with our music therapist and playing an instrument, as well.”
Another advantage of hospice is the follow-up care that surviving loved ones receive. For about a year after a death, hospice follows-up with families by calling, sending letters and cards, holding memorial services and offering support groups.
“We provide 13 months of follow-up with our families,” says Andrew Vitale, CT, bereavement coordinator and spiritual counselor. “We offer support groups for them morning, noon and night. We’re not just looking at the patient here. We’re looking at the entire family.”

A Life Worth Celebrating

Once a death happens, it can be hard for surviving friends and family. It’s still important to take time to say goodbye, says Paul Lizer, funeral director at Delehanty Funeral Home, 401 River Lane, Loves Park, Ill. He wants each funeral or memorial service to be as special and unique as the person being remembered.
After working with grieving families for the past 34 years, Lizer has learned that people who don’t go through with a funeral regret that decision later in life. He believes too many people are using cremation as a way to avoid dealing with feelings of grief and loss.
“There’s nothing wrong with cremation itself because it’s just a form of disposition,” Lizer says. “The problem comes when people opt not to have a service or event of some kind to acknowledge the loss and say goodbye.
“Crying, emotion and grief are a very important part of the process and what’s happening is that people are not going through that process. Going through the grieving process will bring closure to the family,” Lizer adds.
His son, Garrett, also a funeral director, says fewer people today want a standard funeral, which focuses more on protocol. They want to celebrate the life of a loved one by making the ceremony personable and light-hearted.
“Instead of buying an urn, one lady put her husband’s ashes in a Star Wars cookie jar,” Garrett says. “He loved Star Wars and he didn’t take things too seriously. The fact that it was a cookie jar was humorous to her and she thought he would love that. It also gave her comfort.”
Those are the types of things the funeral home can help to make possible, Garrett says.
“Funerals are becoming more like a going-away party,” he says. “The family is sad, but they’re going to share this person and what’s important about this person with everyone else.”
Darryl Johnson and his wife Marsha, owners of Sundberg Funeral Home, 215 N. Sixth St., Rockford, have also seen their fair share of personalized funerals.
One family brought in bushels of produce to celebrate their loved one, a passionate gardener. Another family rented a city bus to drive to the cemetery, as their loved one spent many years as a bus driver. These, and other personalized touches, can help friends and family honor a loved one properly, Johnson says.
“I like to ask the family what the decedent enjoyed in life,” he says. “We have arranged to provide index cards with grandma’s famous recipe, provide a bowl of dad’s favorite candy, encourage attendees to where purple, or listen to Elvis Presley gospel music during the visitation.”
Johnson says many families want to use photo boards or video tributes as another way to celebrate life. Families can also park their loved one’s muscle car in the parking lot, or even display their Harley Davidson motorcycle at the visitation, which also serves as a personalized touch.
“The ways to personalize are endless, and those touches can help honor a loved one properly, and, in time, possibly brighten a memory of the service,” Johnson says. “Some families prefer to keep it low key, so we respect their comfort level.”

A Lasting Mark

One of the last things done after a death is to mark the final resting place.
Jennifer Muraski, co-owner of Muraski Monument Company, 4472 S. Mulford Road, Rockford, says it’s never too early to start thinking about a lasting memorial.
“It’s a footprint and it tells the world that this person was here and lived,” says Muraski, who co-owns the company with her husband, Byron.
With today’s technology, almost anything can be included on a monument or memorial. Pictures, emblems, symbols and etchings of a favorite time or place can all be included as a way to continue to tell a loved one’s story.
“There isn’t anything we can’t offer our families,” she says. “You only get one chance to do this.”
Muraski has been in the funeral industry for more than 20 years and, unfortunately, she has experienced significant loss herself. Because of that, she understands what families are going through when they visit her.
“Having lost a spouse at a very young age, I’ve been on both sides of the table,” Muraski says. “That’s why I believe I offer something to families that may be just a bit softer. I’m not trying to just sell a stone, I’m hoping to provide a creative and meaningful experience. I can empathize with the families I meet with.”
Muraski is an advocate for advance planning. She believes one of the most thoughtful things you can do for your loved ones is to leave nothing undone but the final date.
“There is so much emotional – and many times financial – stress at the time of death, the fewer decisions that have to be made, the better,” she says. “We need to think about how we would like to be remembered long before that time comes. It’s not a comfortable subject for most, but like anything else, with good information and a clear, unemotional mind, better decisions can be made.”

Flowers – Bringing Beauty and Meaning

Flowers have long been an important part of setting the mood at funerals. They bring beauty, comfort and meaning to a funeral or memorial service. They are a physical way many people express their sympathies.
“Sometimes, people come into a flower shop already having an idea of what they are looking for, whether it be a casket spray or blooming plants, and what will fit their budget,” says Michelle Joley, owner of Broadway Florist, which moved to it’s new Rockford location at 4224 Maray Drive about four years ago. “There is the other side where we as the florist can guide them, assisting in making those decisions.
“Each family is different when it comes to the types of flowers,” Joley continues. “For females, we typically see lighter color assortments, and for men, you may see darker colored flowers on their caskets. White, red or even purple flowers are very common for both genders.”
In the winter, it’s common for people to order cemetery pots, wreaths and grave blankets to place on the grave, Joley adds.
“Once it becomes warm outside again, many people stop by for a fresh arrangement to place at the grave as well. It helps the survivors remember their loved ones, and flowers are a symbol for all to see that love never dies,” Joley says.
There are other times where families don’t know where to start. Joley and her staff are available to help.
“A lot of people come in here and they look at our sample books to see the examples we have,” Joley says. “Most funerals happen right away and it’s unplanned. We will always have staff available to help someone if they need it. People can call ahead, but they can also just walk into Broadway Florist to see what we have available.”