TWIN FALLS — Funeral homes are trying to shed their reputations as dark and somber places of the dead — by building party rooms where mourners can raise a glass, and their spirits, to celebrate the life of a loved one.
Cremations, which are also on the rise, are less expensive, giving families flexibility in planning a memorial. And even in Idaho, it all adds up to the decline of the traditional, dressed-in-black funeral.
“Ten thousand-dollar funerals — nobody wants that anymore,” said Heidi Heil, mortician and owner of Serenity Funeral Chapel in Twin Falls.
For many of her clients, an expensive service just isn’t feasible. And many younger people don’t want to take part or be “held captive” in a religious service. So they host more casual tributes or open houses to honor the deceased.
In response to these changing times, funeral homes such as Heil’s are getting more flexible with what they offer.
“We are becoming more and more event planners,” Heil said. “Venues and event planners.”
But even Serenity Funeral Chapel, with its outdoor patio and indoor kitchen, can’t offer the same thing an event center can. It’s part of why Heil put her business on the waiting list for a liquor license in 2013.
“People want to have alcohol at the events. A lot of people do,” she said. “I have families that will do something here and then they go to the Turf Club.”
Heil considers herself something of a visionary. She saw the writing on the wall and knew that in time, more people would turn to cremation, and the traditional church service or graveside funeral would be at thing of the past. Celebrations of life, tributes and open houses are becoming the norm for memorials.
“Nobody’s doing the traditional funeral,” she said. “It needs to be something that’s going to draw meaning for people.”
So she got her name on Twin Falls’ waiting list early. In Idaho, liquor licenses are awarded based on population estimates — one license for every 1,500 in population. Cities with less than 1,500 people get two licenses. When all licenses are taken, you can either rent or buy a license — or get on the waiting list.
It could take years to get a license; Serenity Funeral Chapel is still fourth on the Twin Falls list. Heil knew her less expensive option would be to wait, but she probably has just a few years left, and the time to act is coming soon.
Because liquor licensees have to run an establishment a minimum number of hours per week, Heil’s plan is to open a bar as a part of an event center. She wants to host everything from baptism parties to funerals.
“My long-term goal was to get that event center,” she said. “It was something I was going to figure out as the time got closer.”
Heil recently began a GoFundMe campaign to get the ball rolling. She’s hoping to raise $400,000 so she can buy an old building in Twin Falls’ warehouse district, fix it up, and use it to supplement her business.
Although she wants to have a partner to help manage the bar, Heil has some experience with liquor sales already.
“I did a lot of bar tending in college,” she said.
And her sister operates a bar in Gooding.
A few years after Heil applied for the liquor license, an article appeared on ConnectingDirectors — a sort of news site for funeral home directors. The article was titled “Now That’s a Celebration of Life: Funeral Homes With Bars,” and it featured several U.S. businesses that are picking up on the trend Heil foresaw.
At Rosenau Funeral Home & Crematory, about 60 percent of patrons still choose a traditional service, in a chapel with a program, funeral director Dustin Godfrey said. But more and more — and especially with the rise of cremation — people are hosting public gatherings.
“It’s less like a service and more like a reception, almost,” Godfrey said. “There’s a lot more laughter and remembering the good times. Those stories that weren’t ever supposed to come out.”
He’s seen open-mic events with food and casual attire. His business even provides live-streaming video of services.
In Rupert and Burley, it seems, this trend is slower to pick up. Joel Heward, owner of Hansen Mortuary and Morrison Payne Funeral Home, said he is doing more events with food — but many people still want a service at his chapel.
“I’ve tried to bridge that gap by having refreshments and tables available,” he said.
Heward said he doesn’t see a liquor license in his immediate future. Nor does he see a correlation between cremation and the type of service people want.
However, in 2016, Heward officiated 50 funerals, in place of a pastor — an usually high number for his business.
“They didn’t have a pastor or someone they looked up to, other than us, I suppose,” he said.
He thinks fewer people these days have a church home to turn to.
Cremation is about a third to a fourth the cost of a burial, Heil said. At Serenity Funeral Chapel, she can have remains “in and out the door for less than $1,500.”
But aside from the cost, cremation also has a lot more convenience. People can take their time planning a service or a memorial.
“It gives them a lot of flexibility,” Heward said.
Instead of a burial, you can opt for a scattering. Cremated remains are considered all-organic and can be scattered anywhere in the state on public property. If it’s on private property, you have to get permission from the landowner, Heil said.
Or you can take the ashes home however you like.
“You can use almost anything as an urn,” Godfrey said. “Think of something that fits that person.”
A cookie jar or a boot, for example.
When it comes to providing a proper send-off, people get creative. Godfrey said he’s seen an urn placed on a motorcycle seat during a reception. He’s heard of people scattering ashes of loved ones at their favorite camping or hunting spots.
Ninety-five percent of Heil’s business is cremation. But of those patrons, 75 percent won’t use her chapel for a service. Serenity Funeral Chapel has a chapel area mostly because of the perception it gives people about her business.
“I’ll go six months and I’ll never even use this at all,” Heil said, looking around the room.
There’s a stigma that funeral homes are dark and somber, and people want to avoid that feeling, she said. Some funeral homes, such as Rosenau and Serenity, have opened up their rooms for other events: birthday parties, weddings and anniversaries. Heil’s chapel and patio are being branded as a Life Celebration Center.
But an event center, she feels, is the way to capture lost business and make people feel comfortable in a neutral location. And it would keep the drinking and socialization at the event, instead of at a bar offsite.
Heil sometimes hears people say that when they die, they just want someone to throw them a party. And the people who remember them want to comply with those wishes. She sums up this sentiment in her GoFundMe campaign:
“People want to celebrate,” she said. “They want to celebrate the life that was lived.”
BURLEY — Richard “Dick” Burleigh Call loved his family, the theater, his students, his friends — and every single day of his life.
Call, 60, died Saturday at his Burley home after a valiant battle with cancer.
After a lifetime spent on the stage, his funeral will be held at the King Fine Arts Center in Burley.
Call taught drama for nearly 30 years, and he coached speech and debate teams for countless students in Texas, Twin Falls and Burley.
He retired from teaching in 2012.
“He was a lot of fun and he got to know the kids on a personal level,” said Corrine Goodheart Benavides, a former Burley student. “He left a lasting impression on people. I felt like he cared about me as a person.”
Benavides’s mother was diagnosed with cancer when she was a junior in high school. Call was always there to ask how she was doing and offer words of encouragement.
And Benavides, who is program director for the Magic Valley School of Performing Arts, credits Call for sparking her interest in theater.
“My passion for the arts started with him,” she said. “He had a wealth of knowledge and should have been teaching at the college level. Through the theater he gave kids the opportunity to be whoever they wanted to be.”
He maintained those friendships long after the students graduated from high school.
John Gochnour, of Eagle, was Call’s student at Burley High School for four years.
“One of things that I appreciated about him was his ability to make students feel important and capable,” Gochnour said.
Call taught him how to have fun in life and enjoy the moment.
“That’s something I carry with me to this day,” Gochnour said.
Regardless of the challenges, Call taught his students to get up when they stumbled and try again, he said. Many of Call’s students saw him as a father figure who helped encourage them during difficult times in their lives.
“He loved everybody and was completely non-judgmental of people,” Call’s son, Richie Call said. “It didn’t matter if they thought differently from him or came from different walks of life, he gave them unconditional love.”
His father, Richie said, had an inexhaustible capacity for love.
“He offered that to so many people — but it was never at the expense of his family,” Richie said. “We never felt like we didn’t get enough attention from him.”
Richie, an assistant professor of acting at the University of Utah, said his mother and father had a special bond.
“We always knew our parents were so in love with one another,” Richie said. But when Richie and his siblings got older they realized how uncommon that love really was.
“He was strong and loving and had such a beautiful heart,” Call’s daughter Aubrey Call, said.
He was also well loved by his other three children, Giselle Call, Brianna Leigh Jones and Anson Call, and his five grandchildren.
Call always allowed them to tag along with him during after school or evening theater rehearsals, and his children grew up on the stage, as he did.
His wife, Sayda Call, said while he was ill, he performed in “Arsenic and Old Lace,” and part of his oncology team from the Huntsman Cancer Institute in Utah came to watch him in the show.
“They’d never seen someone who was so sick have such a good sense of humor,” Sayda said. “He was a comedian, and he made them laugh.”
She and Richard met as teens and were married 38 years.
“It was love at first sight,” she said. “I knew he would be my companion.”
Sayda said a Facebook memory — written by him in a previous year — popped up on her timeline wishing her a happy Valentine’s Day. The way it was worded, she said, made it seem like it was truly a special delivery.
He held out hope to the end that he would get well, and he welcomed students and friends to their home during his last days on hospice so they could say goodbye to him.
“A lot of the time the visitors would get really distraught, and he would end up comforting them,” Richie said.
When people would ask how he was doing he would say, “I’ve got blue skies.”
Call directed hundreds of plays over his career, and he continued to perform and direct while he battled cancer, including directing “Witches” for the Unicorn Children’s Theater in Logan, Utah, in October. The theater was founded by his mother.
His humor also continued to be present during the last days of his life, Richie said.
“Sometimes it seemed like he was saving up energy for his next zinger,” he said.
Even at the end, Benavides said, he was still so full of life.
“A piece of me feels kind of like he’s not gone because he lives on in so many of us,” she said.
TWIN FALLS — A Kimberly man is accused of dragging a woman alongside his truck and then running her over.
Vernon L. Massey, 41, is charged with felony aggravated battery and violating a no-contact order.
The victim, who is acquainted with Massey, told police Massey came to her house Monday and asked her to meet him outside. Then, he grabbed her by her shirt and pulled her into the driver’s side window and began driving, court records said. The woman told police Massey had a hunting knife, and she tried to get away, but couldn’t.
The woman said she ran beside the truck trying to keep up but fell on the pavement where a rear tire of the truck ran over her arm.
She ran back home, and her boyfriend called 911. When police arrived, an officer used the woman’s phone and left a message for Massey. He called back later and agreed to meet with police.
“Massey told me that he remembered driving off,” the officer wrote in the report. “But thought that Roundtree had jumped down from his truck and was just fine.”
The woman’s injuries and torn shirt matched the description of what she said happened, police said.
Massey was arrested Tuesday and released on $50,000 bond.
Court records prior to the incident show the woman filed a no-contact order Jan. 2 against Massey. He was charged with misdemeanor assault two days later. Massey posted a $5,000 bond and was released. He has a pretrial hearing on Feb. 21 for the misdemeanor assault. A preliminary hearing is set for Feb. 23 for the felony assault.
The woman filed a second no-contact order Wednesday.
GOODING — As Idaho’s population grows, there are more children to serve who have vision or hearing challenges.
And as it works to keep up with that growth, The Gooding-based Idaho Educational Services for the Deaf and the Blind is pushing to identify deaf and hard of hearing or blind and visually impaired children at a younger age.
IESDB reported its growth Wednesday in an annual report to the Idaho State Board of Education.
“We’ve about tripled on both sides the number of babies we’re serving,” IESDB superintendent Brian Darcy said Thursday. “Early intervention is huge.”
That’s compared with eight years ago. Now, it’s serving about 75 blind/visually impaired babies and 160 deaf/hard of hearing babies.
Statewide, the agency reaches more than 2,000 people from birth through age 26 — up about 300 over 2015 and 900 since 2009. Two-thirds are deaf/hard of hearing, consistent with nationwide trends.
“The growth has been in the deaf/hard of hearing, and mostly in the hard of hearing range,” Darcy said.
Once a child is in the school system, they’ll often be identified as having a speech issue first.
“If they’re not hearing soft sounds… they have a tendency not to produce them themselves,” he said.
For younger children, IESDB has four preschools throughout Idaho — in the Meridian area, Coeur d’Alene, Gooding and Pocatello.
“We’re trying to get them kindergarten ready,” Darcy said.
The agency also has as “common ground kindergarten” program in cooperation with the West Ada School District in the Treasure Valley. Children spend the morning in their regular classroom and the afternoon in the IESDB classroom. Last year, eight of nine participating children scored a “3” on the Idaho Reading Indicator — the highest possible, Darcy said, meaning they’re reading at grade level.
“That type of early intervention is proving itself,” he said.
Children are identified to receive IESDB services through partnerships with other agencies, school districts, Idaho State Department of Education, and Idaho Department of Health and Welfare’s Infant Toddler Program.
In Gooding, nearly 100 students attend classes at the Idaho School for the Deaf and the Blind’s campus — up from 77 during the 2009-10 school year.
“We’re seeing a significant uptick in that and have some fantastic growth,” Darcy said.
About half those students live in the Magic Valley with their families. Others stay in on-campus cottages during the school week and get free transportation home each week by bus or plane. Across Idaho, many other students receive help at their hometown school, such as having an American Sign Language interpreter assigned to them. IESDB also provides Braille textbooks and materials at no cost to school districts. The agency helps school districts make accommodations for students in need, Darcy said, including sound amplification systems or changing seating arrangements for a student who is hard of hearing.
ISDB employees are “rock stars” and “outstanding at what they do,” said Mike Gemar, director of support services for the Twin Falls School District. “We really appreciate our working relationship with them.”
For Twin Falls children who go to school at ISDB, Gemar said, it’s considered their “least restrictive environment” where their needs can be best met.
ISDB provides highly specialized services, he said, the Twin Falls School District can’t. “They’re the experts. We rely really heavily on their expertise.”