Embracing the Next Chapter: A 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.


Sometimes during the end-of-life journey, hospice care is necessary to help make life easier for patients and their families. Because of compassionate services in our region, this can be a meaningful time preceding a “celebration of life” service or a more-traditional funeral. Qualified, considerate people in our region are capable of guiding families through these emotional times.

Kristan McNames became interested in a career as a funeral director when her father died the day after Thanksgiving in 1992.

“I was only 16 at the time and that was my first time making funeral arrangements,” says McNames, funeral director at Grace Funeral & Cremation Services, 1340 S. Alpine Road, Rockford. “My dad was the oldest of 10 kids and I tried to be there for my mom and extended family.”

Laying a loved one to rest can be daunting. The bereaved are left with the difficult task of resuming “normal” lives that feel all but normal.

But it’s also a time to cherish special aspects and moments of a loved one’s life, and hopefully cope with confusing and oftentimes overwhelming emotions of loss.

Experts like McNames can guide you through what may be a depressing time in your life.

Grace Funeral & Cremation Services is family-owned and operated by McNames and her husband, Bob. Both are licensed funeral directors with more than 20 years of experience. They each earned their bachelor degrees in mortuary science and funeral service from Southern Illinois University. The couple has owned Grace Funeral & Cremation Services since 2009.

“There’s a lot of funeral services we can do to be creative, and we can offer suggestions to families so they can have a service that reflects a person’s life, whether it’s a hobby or interest, or if they want their grandchildren to be involved,” McNames says. “I love working with customers and incorporating their extended family in the service. I like doing things for the family that’s above and beyond what most people would expect.”

McNames was just a junior in high school when her father died of a heart attack. He was just 43. When it came time for her father’s funeral, the funeral director incorporated a special member of the family into the ceremony.

“We had a 180-pound Rottweiler that my dad walked every day,” McNames says. “They always saw my dad with the dog, so they suggested that we bring the dog in to visit him one more time. They did a lot of things to make the service be what we wanted it to be.”

McNames tries to help people feel the same way she did after her dad’s funeral.

“My goal as a funeral director is to accomplish whatever the family wants,” McNames says. “When you’re grieving, it’s like thinking through Jell-O. We have to be detail oriented as funeral directors, but also compassionate.”

When a family comes to the funeral home, McNames says she sits down with them and learns about the deceased.

“Is music special to them or do they have anything they collect?,” McNames says. “I take that information and create a personalized service that’s a tribute to a person. People usually come up to me after a funeral and say they didn’t know John Smith, but they felt like they did because we share so much information about a person. Whether it’s me or whoever, if you really take the time to dive into what drove the person and what was important to them, that information can create a great service.”

McNames says in the last decade, more people have been making the switch to celebration of life services. Instead of a traditional service that can be somber, McNames says people are turning funerals into social gatherings.

“We’re finding that people want to party and have a celebration,” she says. “It’s pretty much 50/50 where some families want a visitation and a church service and there’s people who want a cremation and party with food, drinks and reflection. As a society, we don’t deal with death very well so we want something that doesn’t make us focus on the deceased person being present. They want to focus on the gathering and the festivities.”

As a way to cater to more celebration of life services, McNames says Grace Funeral is moving to the former Moose Club, 4301 N. Main St., Rockford. Construction is currently underway and McNames hopes services can begin taking place in their new location this summer.

“We’ve been here for 10 years and we’ve seen a change in what customers want, so we’re leaving this space to help better cater to those needs,” she says. “It’s a much larger space, so we’ll have much more room than what we have now.”

Another change in the industry, McNames says, is people are choosing not to run obituaries. She has mixed feelings about it.

“People are just doing the free notices due to the cost but sometimes, they’re not running when the service actually is,” McNames says. “They say everyone who is invited is on Facebook and that’s not true or sometimes, families will say they’ll notify everyone themselves and that’s not possible.”

No matter how you recognize the death of a loved one, McNames wants people to pay their respects one way or another. She also suggests people come together to share memories.

“Everyone’s life has value and every one of us has made an impact on people,” she says. “If you don’t have a service, everywhere you go, you’ll run into someone who knew your loved one and they’ll ask where they are. So, either you’ll have a designated date and time where people can come in to view the body and visit the family or you’ll have a visitation everywhere you’ll go because people will want to know what’s going on with your loved one.”


Hospice Care

When a family sends their loved one to hospice care, they want to celebrate their life while embracing their final chapter. Hospice consists of specialized and compassionate care for those with a life-limiting illness, after the patient themselves or their family decided to stop the patient’s curative treatment.

Mercyhealth at Home Hospice, 4223 E. State St., Rockford, offers support and guidance to patients, families and their caregivers. They provide care at a patient’s residence, a nursing home or an assisted living facility. Mercyhealth’s main focus is to ease the symptoms of illness, with an emphasis on pain and symptom management. The program also addresses the social, emotional and spiritual issues that a patient’s family will face.

“Hospice is not a bad word in any way,” says Dacia Hart, hospice director. “The earlier people sign up for hospice, the more we can support them. We want to do whatever we can to make things easier for the families.”

Medicare, Medicaid and other forms of insurance often cover hospice services. The funds also help cover the cost of most medications, home equipment and other services used by the facility.

Anyone is able to refer a patient to Mercyhealth at Home Hospice. Hospice care may require a doctor’s order, but you or your loved one could suggest it as a care option.

The hospice team includes nurse practitioners, pharmacists, nurse aids, a bereavement coordinator and plenty of volunteers who receive specialized training and give their time and talents to assists patients.

“When we live our life, we need a place where we can stay and our needs are met,” says Joe Marek, bereavement coordinator. “Hospice is a always a place where a patient can be cared for – it’s all for the purpose of caring for a person on a journey. If we do our work well, that person will continue their journey.”

Services at Mercyhealth at Home include dietary guidance from dietitians; massage therapy; 24-hour aid from registered nurses; physical, speech or occupational therapy; and Pet Peace of Mind, a pet companion program.

In addition to friends and family, patients can turn to pets, which can provide unconditional love and companionship at a time when it’s needed the most.

“We have dogs going to nursing homes and hospitals to visit patients, and we also have two miniature horses,” Hart says. “We had a blind lady that used to raise horses and she didn’t do anything at all during the day. When she got around one of the horses, she started petting it.

The nurse described what the horse looked like and she cuddled up next to it and it opened her up.”

Mercyhealth at Home also provides families with bereavement services up to 13 months after the loss of a loved one. Marek’s goal is to provide comfort, support and compassion.

“When the death occurs, and it will occur, the baton is passed to bereavement,” says Marek, who’s been a pastor for nearly 40 years. “I’ll keep in touch with the family through phone calls, mailbags and bereavement support groups. Birthdays, holidays and anniversaries can bring back grief. I stay in touch with the family on a precise schedule to make sure if those needs surface, they know of me and they know I’m available.”

Sometimes, people just want someone to talk to, and Marek says he’s all ears.

“One common request I get is people just want to talk to someone that’s not part of their family,” Marek says. “They may be getting too much advice or too much family telling them what to do, when they just want time to themselves. They just want someone to unload on or talk to about the grieving process.”

Marek adds bereavement services are helpful to people experiencing grief, or the acknowledgement of loss.

“Sometimes, these people have been through 10 deaths in their lives and other times, this is the very first time they’ve been though death or never experienced it, so part of their grieving is talking to someone about how awful it was to be there when they were holding that person’s hand as they took their last breath,” Marek says. “It’s something they’ll never forget and it takes some time to talk that out. They just need a trusting person to chat with and that’s the biggest grief need.”

Mercyhealth Hospice has a connection with Mercyhealth Hospital Systems, so the organization has additional resources, including additional doctors and clinics, to help patients and their families receive top-notch care.

Marek says he’d put the staff he works with up against anyone in the hospice industry.

“If we didn’t have the staff we do, we wouldn’t be able to compare to others,” Marek says. “They provide excellent care, emotional support and they’re always available for the patients and their families. If you or your loved ones ever need hospice, they’ll get the very best care here.”