When the dozens of mourners filtered into Don Allen's memorial celebration on the evening of May 21, they were gathering in a community hall, not a church, and were greeted with recordings of Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey, not with organ strains.
Allen, who died at age 81 of cancer, didn't want a "traditional, sad funeral," said his widow, Ellen, who described him as spiritual but distanced from organized religion.
His memorial at the Fraternal Order of Eagles hall in Jeffersontown consisted instead of a brief prayer circle and a reminiscence about his love of family, bridge and dancing to big-band music. Then the music resumed, and people gathered over punch and hors d'oeuvres, trading memories and admiring displays of photos, golf trophies and other mementos.
Allen's memorial "shouldn't be morbid," said his longtime friend and golfing partner, Bubby Klotter. "He was a very gregarious person. It's pretty consistent that he would be remembered this way."
As are many other people.
Scan a list of obituaries, with their traditional calling hours and funeral times, and the trend away from tradition may not seem obvious.
But as an increasing number of Americans describe themselves as "more spiritual than religious," funeral services are beginning to follow suit. They may include Psalms or hymns, but increasingly they are less liturgical, less focused on the eternal destiny of the deceased, and less likely to be led by clergy.
Instead, the services have become more focused on the mourners and their memories, often with storytelling, videos and photo slide shows.
"A lot of that is being driven by the baby boomer spirit," said Chris Hammon, executive director of the the Louisville-based Wayne Oates Institute, which trains ministers in integrating spirituality, health and ethics.
"We seek to embrace life a lot more than death - even in death," he said.
A dramatic shift
According to the American Religious Identification Survey, conducted by researchers at Trinity College of Hartford, Conn., the proportion of Americans with no religious affiliation nearly doubled to 15 percent between 1990 and 2008, and more than a quarter of U.S. adults expect a non-religious funeral.
As a result, the tone of many memorials, even in traditional settings, is shifting dramatically, particularly among non-Hispanic whites, according to Thomas Long, a professor at the Candler School of Theology in Atlanta and author of "Accompany Them With Singing: The Christian Funeral."
The term "funeral" is being replaced by such terms as "life celebration" and even "FUN-eral," with a greater focus on the life lived than the hereafter.
Increasingly, the deceased isn't even present at his or her funeral, with cremation or burial taking place separately.
Though cremation rates remain lower in Kentucky and Indiana, the practice is on the rise nationally, particularly in the more secular Northern and Western states - removing a traditional marker of a religious funeral, the presence of the deceased in a casket.
And "even in the buckles of the Bible Belt, we're seeing a huge rise in people who are just not getting connected to (traditional) religious experience," said Glenda Stansbury, dean of the In-Sight Institute of Oklahoma City, which has trained more than 1,700 celebrants of memorial services - including lay people, funeral directors and even clergy.
"The philosophy these days is, 'It truly is about me,' " said Stansbury, herself a licensed embalmer and funeral director. "Facebook and Twitter would not exist if people didn't believe somebody cared about what I had for breakfast."
Is something lost?
Jim England, a chaplain with Hosparus, said he encourages families to tailor services to the memories and preferences of the deceased. He recently helped honor the deceased's wish for a New Orleans-style funeral - with a jazz band playing a dirge on the way to the grave and an upbeat piece on the way back.
Vulnerable families feel - correctly, England said - that the memorial is "about the person who died. It's not a time for you to preach to me."
Diane Walker, an interfaith minister who has presided or helped prepare for dozens of funerals, said she often works with families to help them find language and personalized rituals through which they can grieve while celebrating the life of a loved one.
"I always invite people to go to the God of their understanding," and if God isn't part of their belief, then "the place where they connect with the love that binds us all," Walker said.
One service she led at historic Locust Grove mixed traditional funeral readings with recollections of the deceased's favorite jokes, displays of his woodworking tools and live music from the jazz band he regularly went to hear.
In another case, the deceased woman was memorialized by a Catholic Mass, then by a separate, informal storytelling session "the way she would have done it," Walker said.
Long said he can understand the motives for this cultural shift.
Families blanch at the thousands of dollars in costs for embalming and other services - one reason people shift toward the simpler, less costly practice of cremation.
And after experiencing funerals that were too morbid, meaningless or heavily evangelistic, many people conclude, "We can do it better on our own," he said.
But Long lamented that with this trend, churches are forfeiting the ancient "theatrical proclamation of the gospel" - accompanying the dead to a final resting place, awaiting a promised resurrection.
The Rev. Jeffrey Nicolas, pastor of the Roman Catholic Cathedral of the Assumption, agreed, saying a proper Catholic service, for example, should balance honoring the liturgy as well as individual touches. With a strictly personalized event, "a sense that this is something larger than me gets lost," Nicolas said. "The Mass really belongs to everyone, to all the church."
In Catholic practice, memorializing the dead takes three phases - the vigil, often at a funeral home; the funeral Mass at church; and the committal of remains to the earth.
The vigil, Nicolas said, is well-suited for extended eulogies and tributes, though some want to make that part of the Mass - "People will say, 'Why can't we play Fred's favorite country hit? It has God in it.' " But that belongs at a vigil, he said, while Mass music is prescribed to reflect "Jesus Christ and our hope in him."
Russell Moore, a dean at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, said funerals should avoid manipulative evangelistic appeals but also emphasize "a Christian gospel that promises forgiveness of sins and resurrection from death."
'There needs to be closure'
Even for non-religious people, Long decried cases in which there are cremations but little or no memorial service.
"It is costly to our society in general, quite beyond the church, not to observe the death of a person in a way that witnesses to the dignity of the person and the meaning of life and death," he said.
On that note, there's actually wide agreement.
"I do believe in ceremonies of passing," said avowed humanist Edwin Kagin of Union, Ky., national legal director for American Atheists. "There needs to be closure."
When his wife, Helen Kagin, died in 2010, her family honored her at a memorial celebration a couple of months afterward, complete with bagpipe music and storytelling.
The service did not include "some false sense of being reunited" in an afterlife, but it was the "best combination of humor and sorrow," Kagin said.
Rabbi Laura Metzger, who has conducted several traditional Jewish funerals for those not connected to local congregations, said she's found that many grieving people still benefit from following funeral formats rather than doing it themselves. "I think we're all inclined to return to our roots in times of extremis," Metzger said.
"There's a comfort" in tradition, she said. "Ritual helps us get through the times in life, the experiences in life we don't know how to get through."
That's a sentiment echoed by local funeral directors.
Gayle Anderson Yates, of Fern Creek Funeral Home, said there are exceptions - she recalled one client who insisted there be no God talk at his funeral, and another who sought a Wiccan ceremony.
But often, the bereaved "reach out for a higher power that's in control of things because they feel so out of control," she said. "Even if they're not practicing a faith, they're like, can you get us a preacher?"