Funerals are changing. One McHenry funeral home wants a liquor license to adapt to those changes.

Celebrations of Life go hand in hand with toasts to the deceased

Robert Justen of Justen Funeral Home & Crematory holds the cremated remains of a person who was returned to the funeral home after many years for burial.

A McHenry funeral home would like the opportunity to serve alcohol during its memorials, the owner said.

As the owner of Justen Funeral Home, Robert Justen sees a liquor license as a way to give mourning families the kind of send-off they want for their loved ones. He approached the McHenry City Council in November seeking a liquor license.

“With the growing shift to cremation as [the] method of disposition, we have more and more families wanting to have a celebration of life, … a short service not necessarily religious but mainly a gathering with some beer and wine and appetizers,” Justen wrote on his liquor license application.

He has many families who just get the minimum cremation services and then take the cremated remains to another venue for the life celebration. That, Justen said, does not help support his overall business.

At the same time, families struggle to find event spaces for a memorial that are not already booked with weddings, sometimes years in advance, he said.

While Justen still is working with McHenry city staff to determine whether a liquor license is feasible, professionals in the funeral industry said offering liquor is one more way they can provide families the services they are seeking.

The Justen Funeral Home & Crematory, on Dec. 6, 2022. The funeral home is trying to obtain a liquor license from the city of McHenry so it can provide the services families are looking for.

“The funeral service industry, like everything else, is evolving,” said Matthew Baskerville. He is president-elect of the Illinois Funeral Director Association and operates funeral homes in Coal City, Morris, Gardner and Wilmington.

“I don’t know it would be appropriate in my business to acquire a liquor license but applaud [Justen] for thinking out of the box to serve the families calling them,” Baskerville said.

A handful of Illinois funeral homes already have received liquor licenses, he noted.

“Will it be in every community or every town? Probably not,” Baskerville said. “It is a trend we will probably see more of moving forward.”

Having a liquor license allows the funeral homes more control over what is consumed, and where.

Families bringing a bottle of alcohol to toast their loved one isn’t unusual, said Jack Davenport of Davenport Family Funeral Home and Crematory in Crystal Lake.

Both Davenport and Justen said it is not uncommon for families to do a little “tailgating” in the parking lot, doing shots or having a drink to remember the loved one.

What they don’t always know is how much those mourners consume.

When families decide to drink in the parking lot, “grief and violence sometimes intermingle” and his staff might have to call police if someone walks into a service drunk, Justen said.

One of the different hearses that Justen Funeral Home & Crematory offers. The funeral home is looking to the future, trying to address what families want with new products and services.

With a liquor license, he can offer families a beer and wine package as part of the service and have a trained server “keeping tabs on how much they are consuming,” Justen said.

He said he also plans to work with area restaurants for appetizer trays for celebration of life services.

“With a liquor license, I will be able to help families from start to finish with their celebration and have a connection to bring disjointed providers together,” he said.

Celebrations of life have become a more-used term for a memorial service as more people are being cremated, Davenport said.

“Cremation will continue to rise because we are more of a mobile society than we ever have been in the past” with families no longer remaining in the area or state they were raised in, Davenport said. “We are not as tied to one location,” he added.

More than 50% of Illinois deaths are now cremated, Baskerville said.

The National Funeral Director Associations said in its 2022 Cremation and Burial Report that the U.S. cremation rate was projected to be 59.3% this year and the burial rate is projected to be 35.7%.

The U.S. cremation rate first surpassed the burial rate in 2015, according to the report. It noted that a cremation costs about 40% less than a traditional burial.

The trend toward cremation and celebrations of life was something Kit Columb saw in school and among her peers. She is an apprentice funeral director with Saunders Funeral Home, with locations in Harvard and Woodstock.

Ashes made into a rock form is a new product being offered by Justen Funeral Home & Crematory in McHenry. The funeral home is looking to the future, trying to address what families want with new products and services.

“It is similar to planning a wedding or an anniversary party. That is more what people want to do now. They don’t want to dress in black and listen to prayers. They want pictures and music, to have a meal and celebrate that way,” Columb said.

When loved ones are cremated, it does not matter if the celebration is held the same week as the death or a few weeks or months later, Justen said.

More people are having those services at locations other than a funeral home. According to the association’s 2022 Consumer Awareness and Preferences Report, 55.6% of respondents said they have attended a funeral at a nontraditional location.

What Justen said he often reminds families is that once a body is cremated, that is not the end of the remains. Unless the remains are buried, that urn ends up somewhere.

It isn’t uncommon for him to receive calls from people who have found an urn with the funeral home’s name on it and not know who is in the urn. He takes them in, and eventually those unclaimed remains go into a cemetery grave plot, Justen said.

There are more options for families who choose cremation other than just put them in an urn and leave them on a shelf, Justen said. They can be made into stones, added to blown glass or put in the root ball of a sapling so they become part of the root system for the tree.

“We have always tailored our services to meet the family needs,” Davenport said. “But funerals are for the living .... and starting the process to healing.”