Devon teacher seeks to put the fun in funeral

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Kyle Tevlin dresses as the grim reaper to start her “I Want a Fun Funeral” class. Tevlin runs a personal-planning business that finds creative ways to hold funerals.

Kyle Tevlin understands that funerals center on mourning the loss of those held dear. She's not telling anyone to show up with balloons and noisemakers.

But for people who say, I don't want anyone crying at my funeral, she answers, I can make that happen.

"It's your last opportunity to make a statement - so do it," Tevlin said last week, as she taught a funeral-planning class at the Hatboro-Horsham Adult Evening School.

The class and her Devon-based consultancy share the same name, "I Want a Fun Funeral," designed for those who, Tevlin said, want to put some whimsy in their last wishes.

Maybe they want to hold their funeral at a beach or a bar, have their ashes become part of a coral reef or the soil base of an oak tree.

"You have themed birthday parties," said Debbie Davis, 60, of Montgomery Township, who was one of about 20 students in the class. "I want a themed funeral."

Tevlin seeks to help people plan memorials that are more personal and meaningful, that shed dark suits and somber music and embrace more upbeat, offbeat ways of saying goodbye.

This week she's teaching her one-day course in Cheltenham. She also provides individual and online consultations. And she's heard lots of ideas for final farewells:

A cat lover wants her friends to skip a formal service and spend the day playing with the cats at a shelter, ensuring that, at least for a time, the animals will get love and attention. A connoisseur of low-priced "value wines" wants his friends to find great-tasting, under-$10-a-bottle vino, then gather to lift a thrifty glass in his memory.

Across America, people are thinking about funerals in new ways, a trend pushed by the aging of the baby boomers, now in their 50s, 60s, and 70s. They've lost grandparents and parents, and seen their own end come into view.

Today half of Americans opt for cremation, and more are leaving their bodies to science or choosing "green burials" - that is, buried without embalming, in a biodegradable container. Do-it-yourselfers can buy an urn at Walmart or a casket at Costco.

On Sunday, thousands of funeral directors arrive in Philadelphia for their annual national convention, to include golf and a comedy show along with professional sessions on services for pets, the impact of rising cremation rates, and the organization of unconventional grand finales for families who want that.

"In the past they've typically chosen a more traditional route," said James Olson, a spokesman for the National Funeral Directors Association. Now, "we have funerals at yacht clubs, on sail boats, and golf courses."

Tevlin, 56, has no formal education in funeral arts. She grew up in northern New Jersey, majored in art at Smith College, and works in graphic design. But her life's passion is death.

She serves on the board of the Funeral Consumers Alliance of Greater Philadelphia, which educates people about rights and options. She's been a hospice volunteer and a co-facilitator of a "Death Cafe," where people meet to discuss aspects of the end.

She long wondered: Why does a couple hours at a funeral home or church, followed by a meal, constitute a funeral?

"That's the best we can do? To honor our favorite people?" she asked. "We get scraps. Scraps of what they did with their whole life."

Sharing themes

The class was, well, lively.

It opened with Blue Oyster Cult's "Don't Fear the Reaper," segued to Tevlin donning a black costume as "Death," complete with plastic scythe, then moved into a discussion of loss and rite.

A balky computer momentarily stymied the lecture.

"It died," someone called out.

The machine blinked to life, displaying Victorian-era funeral photos and modern images that included the disastrous ash-spreading scene from The Big Lebowski.

The students tended to be about 60 and up, generally healthy, definitely practical. Several recently suffered a death in their family, which prodded them to attend. Some had already started planning.

"Mine will be a party," said Fred Bostwick, 70, who lives in Center City.

He wants his funeral held at a banquet hall, with food and drinks. Anyone who shows up in black will be forced to wear a party hat.

At the start, a harpist will play "Heaven Must Be Missing an Angel." Friends will laugh to realize that despite the harp's lyrical tone, they're listening to a 1970s disco hit. For the recessional? "Disco Inferno."

"I was so excited about this class, because it's given me new ideas," said the Rev. Roberta Henderson, 77, a member of New Covenant Church in West Philadelphia. "In my family, we had fun."

Her brother, Tommy Tucker, was an inveterate cap collector. At his 2004 funeral, his caps were displayed like flowers. At the end each of his friends was asked to take one, to wear and remember.

"Fantasize a little bit about your goodbye," Tevlin tells the class. "What's my taste like? How do I want this to be?"

She offered a step-by-step planning guide and two key suggestions: Write down your wishes in detail. And give the information to someone sure to carry out your plans.

As the two-hour class concluded, there was applause from the students - and treats from the teacher. From a coffin-shaped container, Tevlin handed out cookies shaped like tiny headstones.

Heroes on hand

It may be in the most tragic cases, Tevlin said, where doing something different can best ease the pain of the survivors and celebrate the life of the departed.

When 5-year-old Brayden Denton died of brain cancer in Indiana, his pallbearers dressed as Spider-Man, Thor, the Hulk, Superman, Iron Man, and Batman. His family recognized the boy's love of superheroes, Tevlin said. And no one who saw the photos could doubt that the child was treasured.

In Kentucky, Aaron Collins' desire to leave a $500 tip for a waiter evolved, after his death at 30, into an "Aaron's Last Wish" campaign that surprises servers with big tips.

Tevlin's plans?

She's donating her body to science.

For her funeral, maybe a scavenger hunt, because her family loves games. And a silent auction at her house, to get rid of all the furnishings and knickknacks. The proceeds will go to feed the hungry.

She wants music, especially James Taylor. And the silly, 1970s National Lampoon parody of "Desiderata."

"I want people laughing," she said. "It will make my spirit be there."

jgammage@phillynews.com

215-854-4906@JeffGammage