Focusing on the needs of family to design an enriched casket selection experience.
design verb \di-ˈzīn\
: to plan and make decisions about (something that is being built or created) : to create the plans, drawings, etc., that show how (something) will be made
: to plan and make (something) for a specific use or purpose
There is no guarantee in life as certain as death. Despite the inevitable, making end-of-life arrangements for a person we love is not an easy task. It is uncomfortable. The death of someone close to us reminds us of our own mortality and of those we have loved and lost.
When my wife, Julie, and I purchased the former Koepsell-Murray Funeral home at 109 N. Lincoln Avenue last summer to create a gallery for our growing casket and furniture company, we embraced our opportunity to "design an experience” around the needs of a family making funeral arrangements. This would be no trivial task; we accepted the challenge and have learned a few things along the way worth sharing.
With keys in hand for the first time in June, I explored the empty building alone. I needed to experience the space in its emptiness and begin to imagine its transformation. Lucky for us, the former funeral parlor was already beautifully decorated with a soothing elegance and a practical selection of wool carpets, papered walls, and painted woodwork. Something occurred to me that summer day as I lay flat on the floor staring up at the ceiling. (There was no furniture.) In those few moments it became clear to me that of all the things that needed to happen to transform this place into a casket gallery, the single most important idea was understanding the needs of the families that would walk through those doors. Who are they? What are they feeling when they enter this space? What questions do they have? What positive outcomes could we achieve together?
Creating a positive experience in our casket and furniture gallery means we need to be prepared to welcome the many different people who will come through our doors for various reasons. It could be a recent widower accompanied by his funeral director. It could be a large family of twenty or more people of all ages seeking to honor Grandpa, or a middle-aged married couple pre-planning their funerals so their children won’t have to. Yet other people will come to see Arts & Crafts furniture, Edison lighting, and the wide selection of eco-friendly natural oil wood finishes and milk paint with no interest in caskets whatsoever.
Juxtaposition with Life, Art, Music
We sought to create a very different experience; one that is exceptional, memorable, classy, comfortable, and practical. We carefully designed our gallery to include lots of green plants to balance our handcrafted caskets. The walls are filled with large exhibits of photography art with plenty of seating throughout the gallery to create a environment more like an art gallery and less like a retail store. Prices are visible, but not prominently placed on everything as in a furniture store. The art captures breathtaking scenes from nature and includes happy people both young and old. Trees are an underlying theme everywhere throughout the gallery. The art, lighting, plants, and music all come together in a subtle fashion as a reminder of life. After all, the primary goal of funeral service is to help the living get on with living.
Horizontal and Vertical Alignment
Before we acquired furniture, plants, and art, our space was filled with caskets on carts. Consider a room full of caskets, all closed. Imagine how all of the visual lines in your field of view are horizontal. Without any vertical lines to slow your eyes and break the flow, scanning the room from right to left and back again was, at best unemotional, and otherwise uncomfortable. We made design choices to add vertical breaks with window treatments, tall plants, tall art pieces, floor lamps, and backdrops with vertically oriented wood grain. When we expect a family to visit, we open most of the caskets.
The Importance of Explaining Why
Being transparent about our individual motivations does not come naturally. I’ve borrowed a chapter from the teachings of Simon Sinek and his “Golden Circle of Motivation” to overcome my own inhibitions about sharing what drives me. There are a lot of things I could do for a living—some of which are far easier and make more money than what I’ve chosen to do. Mr. Sinek explains that it is easy to tell people “What” you do. I build eco-friendly, handcrafted, locally-sourced caskets and furniture. This is the outer ring of his golden circle of motivation. Imagine a bullseye target with three concentric circles. The middle circle is “How” which is only slightly more difficult to explain. But the bullseye, the very center of our motivation, is “Why” it is that we do what we do. When we understand “Why” a person chooses to do whatever it is that they do, we trust them and become loyal to that person and their cause.
I build caskets for several reasons. I want families who care about sustainability, biodegradability, carbon footprint, local-sourcing, or toxic pollution to have an alternative choice in their end-of-life plan. I want to help families at a time of loss and transition. I have learned that when a family is involved in selecting a unique, handcrafted, or personalized casket, shroud, or urn, the collaboration among family and friends helps individuals begin to heal. I’ve also witnessed the solace that a family experiences when a loved one has pre-planned their funeral, having made choices consistent with their values in advance so their families did not have to make those choices.
Being of service to family, friends, and the great people of our state-wide community is a large part of what drives me; but the largest component of “Why” I build caskets is much more personal. For every casket we build, we plant 100 trees in Wisconsin. We plant trees in both our urban settings and in our state forests. We plant trees to sequester carbon and to restore wild life habitats. In 2013, I made a commitment to the people of Wisconsin to plant ten million trees in my lifetime. And above all else, I have made the same promise to my two children, Lilian and Cecelia. It is this promise that is at the very center of my golden circle of motivation—and it is very personal.
When a family comes through the doors of our gallery, there is a theme throughout the gallery that is sometimes subtle and other times stated more boldly. This theme is evident in the art, plants, and furnishings and tells the story of “Why” we do what we do.
I’ve observed several families come though our doors since opening in September. Often one or two members of the family is visibly uncomfortable at first. They hesitate to enter the main gallery “where all the caskets are” and stay in the Stickley Dining hall or seek refuge in the Leopold Family lounge. These spaces were designed and furnished for exactly this purpose. Families can enter our gallery to experience our handcrafted furniture, enjoy the art, learn about natural wood finishes and milk paint, or play with young children next to the toy box in the lounge. Several people have commented that it is easy to forget they are in a casket gallery because there is so much more to do and learn. Much like the casket and furniture stores of years passed, there is a lot of space and content in the gallery that is engaging for individuals not ready, or not comfortable, putting their hands on caskets.
Unlike a typical purchase decision where we tend to think logically and objectively (like buying a car), planning a funeral catches us in a more subjective state of mind. We're thinking emotionally, not rationally, when we lose someone we love. This is normal and largely unavoidable even for the most stoic of individuals. In our gallery there is a display card on each casket that tells a story. Each story is written in the first person from my own personal and emotional experience. The story is less about the casket and more about life and how our individual experiences make us each who we are. These stories help the reader identify with their own personal experiences and often remind us of someone we know.
Values vs. Choices
Feedback from those who have attended our open house events or have explored our casket gallery and furniture store has only been positive. The families who come to our gallery to select a casket—be it an at-need situation or a pre-planning visit—will discover a carefully thought out experience. One that we hope is helpful, comforting, and above all else, sincere. To those families who have already chosen a Northwoods’ casket, we thank you for your support. Together, we’ll continue building a company that values locally sourced materials and talent, sustainability, and the importance of planting trees.