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Their personalities are far from grave

Funeral directors humor themselves at convention

Joel Solimine (left) and Clive Anderson of Heritage Caskets talked shop near a Hot Rod casket. Joel Solimine (left) and Clive Anderson of Heritage Caskets talked shop near a Hot Rod casket. (Bill Greene/ Globe Staff)
By David Filipov
Globe Staff / October 27, 2009

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Then there was the one about the guy who met his wife at a funeral: The deceased was her grandfather; the groom-to-be was the manager of the funeral home.

As with a lot of the stories one hears when 5,000 funeral directors and suppliers descend on one room, the punch line is that this one is true: James King of Houston met his life partner, Terri, as he helped her mourn her grandfather’s passing 12 years ago. They were married a few months later. King laughs at the memory. A funeral director has to be able to laugh at death.

“When funerals and death are not fun anymore, I’ll get out of the business,’’ he said.

Fun and funerals were just one of the unlikely themes as Boston was overrun by undertakers yesterday. They came to the Boston Convention and Exposition Center to talk shop, trade ideas, and marvel at how one of the world’s most somber professions has been changed by technology and the growing demand for funerals that go beyond hearse-and-casket basics.

Designer caskets, green burials, and funeral webcasts for family members who cannot make it are just some of the innovative solutions to the world’s oldest problem: what kind of send-off to give the departed.

Kurt L. Soffe, denizen of a 95-year-old funeral home in Utah, recalled what he dubbed “the Harley funeral.’’ A pack of bikers wanted to bury their Harley-Davidson-loving loved one in a way he would have appreciated: with a procession of Hogs instead of black limos, led by a Corvette instead of a hearse. Oh, and could the funeral staff wear casual clothes instead of suits?

“We do not say no,’’ Soffe said.

Lately, he has been getting requests for personalized funerals all the time, as baby boomers “come of age,’’ as he puts it. Boomers were raised to have it their way. It is an attitude they take with them to the grave. And it has required funeral directors to evolve. They still need to be as staid and straight-laced as ever, someone people will entrust with the most sensitive of human transactions. But they need to be a lot more open-minded about how to do it.

“We need to be a funeral director, not a funeral dictator,’’ said Soffe, who is also a spokesman for the National Funeral Directors Association, which is holding its four-day annual convention through Wednesday. “With the baby boomers coming of age, for lack of a better way to say it, we have embraced more personalized funeral ideas, and we have embraced technology.’’

King’s latest venture represents the high-tech advances the living have made in dealing with the dead. He is vice president of a company, BioSeal Systems, that makes bags that can safely carry an infected or badly decomposed body without danger of contamination or the spread of harmful bacteria. It is a serious advance that has made possible safe funerals for people who have died of infectious diseases, people whose remains once would have been cremated regardless of their wishes or those of their loved ones.

The bags also allow safely maintaining DNA evidence, which is germane to one of King’s recent assignments: He and his staff gathered and preserved the remains of the victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center so that forensics specialists could identify them and so that families and friends could achieve the closure of learning the fate of their missing loved ones.

It is work that gives King satisfaction. It is also heavy stuff.

“Funeral directors have the best sense of humor in the world,’’ King said. “We’re normal people, even though people don’t think we are.’’

And they walk among us. Brian Haight and Robert Freeman, of Haight Funeral Home and Chapel in Sykesville, Md., are also volunteer firefighters. They purchased from a company called Hotrod Caskets a coffin fit for a firefighter - red top, Maltese cross, pike poles as handles - in case one of their fellow jakes might want one.

“You need to have the latest knowledge,’’ said Haight, whose funeral home has been in business since 1888.

Hainsworth has been around a tad longer than that. The English company has been making woolen uniforms for the British Army since the Battle of Waterloo (and currently makes the outfits worn by the Beefeaters.) This year, they began using the wool to make 100 percent biodegradable coffins (all sizes, including pet-sized).

Egyptians have been around a tad longer than Hainsworth. A small museum exhibit detailed the embalming techniques they invented, as well as some of the primitive tools used by American morticians when they started practicing the art in earnest in the mid 1800s. The exhibit drew laughs and quips from passing funeral directors. Laughter in the face of death is part of the funeral director’s makeup.

“Any time we can’t explain something,’’ Soffe said, “we use humor.’’