Funeral home adds special Vegas touch

Posted: Sunday, September 21, 2003

LAS VEGAS One Las Vegas funeral home is selling more than somber silver caskets and gladiolas.

Palm Mortuary has begun offering giant playing cards, oversized dice and a towering slot machine to memorialize the dearly departed in the gambling capital of the world. Gargantuan casino chips and the signature ''Fabulous Las Vegas'' sign also are available to give gamblers a special send-off.

''Each life is unique,'' Palm Vice President Ned Phillips said. ''We plan the events of our lives. Why not plan this, too?''

Even in death, Viva Las Vegas.

Themed funerals have taken hold across the country, and Las Vegas has jumped into the lucrative fray, upping the local ante with customized backdrops and an almost anything-goes attitude.

The attraction of personalized funerals stretches from Los Angeles to Florida to Boston as the $10 billion industry looks for new revenue sources. Mourners can make videos to help remember those who have died or play Hawaiian music in place of a sorrowful organ.

Ashes can be launched into space for those whose death is the beginning of another exploration, or stuffed into a decoy duck for hunters who have fired their final shot.

The Wade Funeral Home in St. Louis offers the Big Mama's Kitchen setting that boasts Crisco, Wonder Bread and real fried chicken in a tribute to Sunday meals and the women or men in a couple of instances who prepare them.

''We've even had to replenish the chicken,'' said Aaron Grimes, a Wade branch manager. ''We don't encourage (eating) it.''

Palm Mortuary executives said they conjured up the ceremonial props earlier this year and began marketing them about two months ago. A local outfit designed 11 custom-made sets for the funeral home. So far, six of the ''celebration of life funerals'' have been purchased. The backdrops rent from about $1,000 to $3,000.

Grieving customers can flip through a photo album of backdrops and select one that best suits their deceased relative or departed friend.

For rodeo types, there's a plastic horse, bales of hay, wagon wheels, cacti and a cowboy boot that could fit Paul Bunyan.

Garden, military and kitchen settings are available, too.

Others have chosen the golf package, complete with course scenery, towering irons and regular club bags.

After her 67-year-old mother died in August, Lyssa Zwart of Las Vegas went to Palm Mortuary to handle arrangements. Soon her notion of saying goodbye forever changed forever. Zwart said she found the perfect fit for her mother, Shelby Myers, a lifelong golfer who racked up scores in the high 70s and low 80s.

Zwart bought the golfscape.

''It was the first time I'd ever seen something like that before,'' she said. ''It was awesome. This is mom all the way. This is exactly what mom would have wanted.''

Zwart, 39, briefly considered the Vegas funeral but decided against it, even though her mom gambled occasionally. It might have been inappropriate, she said. Palm officials said the Vegas theme isn't for everybody.

''We have a lot of people associated here in Las Vegas with the gaming industry,'' Phillips said. ''Many of them enjoy what the gaming industry has to offer. I think it's something that would appeal to a certain segment of those people.''

Other funeral homes are beginning to take notice.

Kyle West of Bunkers Mortuary in Las Vegas said it all comes down to ''who can provide the most personalized service. Everybody is using that as a competitive edge.''

Bunkers offers coffins with dice and playing cards embroidered in the lid, tame by Palm standards.

There is nothing wrong with Las Vegas funeral homes proffering the city's unique image at a very somber time, said David Walkinshaw, a spokesperson for the National Funeral Directors Association.

''That's Vegas,'' Walkinshaw, a funeral director in Arlington, Mass., said. ''It fits.''

At least one local clergyman said the displays were unseemly.

''I don't like it,'' Rabbi Felipe Goodman of Temple Beth Shalom said. ''It feels fake. I think that there are other ways to honor people than doing this.''

Palm officials said they are sensitive to preserving some decorum. Don't expect people to deliver a eulogy from a blackjack table, beginning the oration with ''Life is a crapshoot.''

''I don't think that's going to happen,'' Palm President Ken Knauss said.

But what about a ''Fabulous Las Vegas'' tombstone?

''We'll design anything you want,'' he said.

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