A recent Facebook conversation between 30-something Middle Tennessee friends began simply, "I've compiled a list of songs I want sung at my funeral. That's normal, right?" The response was absolutely.
Others chimed in about funeral plans of their own. One woman had her song list stuck in a Reader's Digest Home Improvement book along with her handwritten will. Another man noted a Word document on his computer saved as "Alpha&Omega" that details his funeral requests. A third person responded that she already picked out caskets made by monks in a monastery.
The moment a person starts thinking about his or her own mortality varies greatly, but there's something about being in your 30s and 40s that makes it seem more real. Perhaps it is seeing aging parents begin to slow down. Maybe it's the time when friends start regularly dealing with significant disease. Or it could be a wedding or the birth of a child that makes people feel the need to create wills and plan funerals.
Whatever the impetus, dealing with mortality -- at least in small measure -- is something encroaching on middle age inspires people to do.
With advance planning, families can create celebrations of life as unique as the individual being remembered while arranging a special service that reflects individual wishes.
"I love James 4:14, which reminds me that we have no idea what could happen tomorrow," said Carrie Brock, the 33-year-old Nashville mother of four who initiated the Facebook post about funeral songs.
"So, while I don't want to dwell on the 'what ifs,' I want to live life to its fullest."
Practical, not morbid
A long car ride with his grandma triggered David Duer's first thoughts about his own funeral.
His grandmother had knee surgery scheduled and was convinced her time had come. During the three-hour trip to the hospital, she laid out for Duer and his mom what she wanted her funeral to be like -- the scripts, the songs, the readers.
"She thought it was the end," Duer said. " ... That planted a seed."
Duer was only in college at the time, but it wasn't long until the now 37-year-old created a file on his computer outlining a few of his own wishes, including his desire to be cremated. It wasn't a morbid experience for him, but a practical one.
"As we embrace the fact that there is an end, we naturally think about, 'How do I want that end to be celebrated?' " Duer said.
Death is less apparent in younger age than it was 100 years ago, said Laura Carpenter, associate professor of sociology at Vanderbilt University. In decades past, it was common to have an adolescent sibling or middle-age parent pass away. Still, there are events today that are natural triggers for thoughts about personal transience.
Typically, it is within 72 hours of the death of a loved one that a person thinks about his or her own mortality, said Sean Patterson, a funeral director at Nashville's Phillips-Robinson Funeral Home.
But there are other life events that have similar effect. Illness in an aging parent is one. New life stages -- like getting married or having children -- also prompt reflection.
"Moments when you are going through a big social transition as far as who you are and what your place is in the generational hierarchy often make us think about our mortality," Carpenter said.
Popularity of personalization
Today, people take control by creating a unique, individualized celebration. As a result, funerals in our society have evolved, Carpenter said.
Instead of everyone being buried in the same type of box by the same minister or rabbi as the generations of family before them, now there are options. People move away from their hometowns, change religions and broaden social circles. At the same time, they develop an expanded sense of self that makes personal expression a priority.
Personal touches already are finding a place in today's funerals. As baby boomers age, they are making funeral choices based on values that are different than previous generations, according to a look at trends conducted by the National Funeral Directors Association.
Funerals, to boomers, are viewed as a valuable part of the grieving process and, as a result, that generation seeks to make them more meaningful. That might include adding elements such as favorite music or incorporating hobbies and life accomplishments into the event.
"Now, die-hard football fans are buried in their favorite collegiate sweatshirt or NFL jersey," Patterson said. "They bring in signed footballs or pictures with their favorite baseball player. They bring in savored items. ... It's as creative as can be."
That sort of individualism is what inspires those in their 30s and 40s to begin jotting down their wishes. They create lists of speakers and readers or indicate important people to be pallbearers. They reflect on songs they want sung and poems to be read.
Of course, that doesn't mean that they or others with similar thoughts go through a formal preplanning process with a funeral home. People in their 30s and 40s make up less than 5 percent of the preplanning business at Phillips-Robinson Funeral Home, Patterson said.
Instead, she said, the average age for those preplanning a funeral is 67. So, while some people will think about it or make private handwritten lists or computer documents, few want to verbalize it or formalize it. "No one wants to talk about the day they are leaving their families," Patterson said. "That's just reality."