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Funeral home uses technology to make remembrance services fun, but the real skill is human empathy.

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Sunnyside Little Chapel of the Chimes general manager Mindy Barella in front of the ShareLife video wall, on to which videos and stills of departed people and their favourit places and things can be projected. Smells and sounds can also be piped in.

The Little Chapel of the Chimes in Sunnyside has a video wall.

It sounded kind of cool, a funeral home with a gimmick more suited to an ad agency or software company, so I went to take a look.

The proprietary ShareLife platform, as its creator calls it, is a giant white wall with a couple of projectors and a camera. From the corporate headquarters of Foundation Partners Orlando, Florida, content providers can program in imagery, such as video of a tropical beach or a still of an Oregon peak. Some themes come with their own scent: canisters of baked apple pie smell, a salty ocean or mountain meadow can all be piped in. The camera is so that technicians back at HQ can see the screen if they need to troubleshoot problems.

The general manager, Mindy Barella, says a lot of people like it.

"People tell us what they want to see, it could be a clip from a phone, or they look through their laptop," Barella told the Business Tribune on a recent tour. There is picture-in-picture functionality, so people can mix in their own video and stills.

"We put the video together. It's not meant to be stuffy. Lurch does not work here!" The three funeral directors are trained in using the system, which allows them to control the music, video and scents on an iPad. They will also burn a DVD and post a link to the video on Facebook for people who couldn't make it to the service.

"It's all what the family wants, what's going to help them heal," she says.

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Sunnyside Little Chapel of the Chimes general manager Mindy Barella talks about the different types of placement available in the garden and cemetary.

No church no Lurch

The Little Chapel of the Chimes provides full funeral home services: handling the body, the service, religious or otherwise, cremation and burial. But Barella says people are turning away from the traditional organ, priest and rows of chairs type memorial service. Partly this is because Oregon is such an "unchurched" state.

"We're not a traditional state. Families are not looking for tradition, they don't attend organized churches, they want more of a celebration. They want this instead of where you have to sit in a pew and listen to a pastor and listen to Amazing Grace and How Great Thou Art."

So, more often than not, the room where the memorial services are held is laid out with café style seating, and not just flowers but themed decorations. They recently had a service for a man who loved Hawaii, planned by his daughter. As well as the sound and the smell of the ocean, there were tiki torches, bird of paradise flowers and fruity cocktails. "They were dancing, laughing, people sharing stories and rolling around," she said.

They've done pots and pans for moms and made catered with favorite recipes. She jokes that if someone has lived a life of drudgery and housework, "I've got Downy! We can put ironing boards and laundry stuff out."

For one fisherman they had his boat in the room and his rods. It is common for hunters to be commemorated by not just photos of them in their blaze orange vests and camo but stuffed deer heads and ducks.

"We are really good with Amazon and going around town to find things." There's a prop room so they can save common items like candles and golf clubs.

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - The ShareLife platform can be controlled from a mobile device, and troubleshooted from Florida.

Why?

"We're transforming our facility so it's more inviting," she says.

This is the simplest explanation of what they are doing at the Little Chapel of the Chimes. The staff design and host the memorial services. But they don't wear suits any more. Or black. Nor do many of the guests.

"People wear jeans T-shirts, they're not dressing up to the nines for a funeral. If you're sitting in rows you don't participate, because you were always taught you don't speak in church...Sitting at round tables you are encouraged to stand up and share, to grieve in a different way, which is more meaningful and healthier. They get more out of it instead of sitting there and being preached at," she says, than adds with a salesperson's gift of timing, "We can do that too."

She wants people to walk in, look around and say things like "This was Mom, this was Dad, they would have loved this..."

One woman saw the country garden theme that was set up for another woman and changed her plans so she could have something similar for her sister.

Families still need some ceremony: "A few words, they need to hear they were important. When they're breaking bread is when the healing happens, sharing stories, passing the mic. That can go on for three or four hours."

They sing, they laugh, and they don't always cry. "We say 'It's OK, you don't have to cry.' There's times we don't even put Kleenex on the tables, we don't need them."

They've done pool parties and used golf courses, firefighter and the Blue Angels memorabilia. Sports teams are huge. So is Star Wars.

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Markers denote the cremated remains buried in the rose garden at Sunnyside Little Chapel of the Chimes.

Giving grief

Planning the event is a bit like wedding planning, she says, with some differences.

"It's like planning a wedding but I only have three days, not a year. And unlike weddings, where everyone has their fingers in the pot, when you're grieving you don't necessarily want to do it. It's more like 'I just want to go home and sleep....'"

If the point person can't function because they are so grief stricken, Barella takes over.

"I say, with your permission I'd like to make this an awesome celebration, and I'll just take care if it for you."

Placement

In Alison Bechdel's graphic novel "Fun Home" her father refers to the funeral home he runs the "fun home". The fact that he was depressed, led a secret life and killed himself is the revelation of the story. But the enduring conceit of the work is the stark suggestion that anything to do with funerals can be funny or fun.

But this is still a business. They take the model from weddings, offering design packages. You pay for the colored linens, the decorations, the photo and video work, and the food, as well as the traditional dealing with the corpse.

On a stroll through the property Barella shows off the choices. There's a section of laser-etched headstones favored by Russian and Hmong families. Others prefer to buy a boulder with a name plate. Several urns of ashes can be stored underneath them. High rollers can build a mausoleum.

"Options start $500 and go up to the hundreds of thousands if you want a private estate," she says. A more average placement figure is $9,000 to $36,000 depending on how many placements. A boulder for 16 urns would be around $9,000.

There are no rules about where you can sprinkle ashes in Oregon.

"I would highly not recommend you not scattering on (someone else's) private property. Just because you might get shot, depending where you're at," she says with a smile. When she toured the stadium in Wisconsin with her husband who is a fan of the Green Bay Packers, the guides made a big point of saying no one must attempt to scatter ashes on the hallowed turf.

Barella's argument against scattering to the winds is that it leaves no markers for later generations to visit.

Foundation Partners owns the Portland Memorial in Sellwood and Valley Memorial in Hillsboro, but the Little Chapel of the Chimes is its Oregon flagship. The mauve and blue walls from the 1980s were painted over in white, the one -time award-winning rose garden has been nursed back to life and the Carillon Tower out back now chimes every 15 minutes, as it used to.

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Barella at the funeral home's patio. The business offers less formal memorial services.

Barella, 35, is from Rickreall near Salem. She got into the industry at age 18, having left Dallas High School with a year of college already under her belt. She fell in love with the business and now oversees an apprentice who recently received her Associates Degree in Funeral Service. To become a licensed funeral director in Oregon means going to Mt. Hood Community College and studying chemistry, restorative art, embalming, the financials and the history of funeral services. Then there's a one-year apprenticeship and a board exam.

Technology as tool

She says she handles grief by getting people telling stories and making them laugh within 15 minutes of meeting. "If you walked into a room and saw some pasty old fart standing there, you think 'I'm coming to see the Addams Family.' We don't wear ties, we don't whisper. I don't have funeral music playing anymore, nobody wants that. If you make people comfortable and you are genuine with them, it puts them at ease."

The farther we get from the video screen the more I realized this is not really about technology. Usually, technology-as-a-tool stories overemphasize the strangeness of the tool. We are still wrestling with laptops and smart phones decades after they were introduced, still marveling at how they have changed our lives. But this video screen really is just a simple tool for blowing up pictures, one which allows something far grander to come through: sheer humanity.

Hearing Barella talk, I was amazed at the depth of her empathy. Part of her job is to literally sell rocks to people — like pet rocks, only you can't take them home. Metaphorically she's selling one grand, final memory: A party where people come together and say what was good about the dead person. When the bereaved go home, that's when the sadness begins.

"We love what we do, and we love to take something horrible in someone's life and help them celebrate the good. It doesn't matter if they are four or 90, every life has something to celebrate." She did a princess-themed service for an eleven-year old girl. "There were tiaras on the table and I wore my hot pink shoes with sparkles." When she says it, she means it.

That's the kind of empathy that is valued in the best medical professionals. Being able to know someone for a week and guide them through one of the lowest points of their life without making things worse, that's a human skill no software will ever come close to matching.

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - The reception area at the Sunnyside Little Chapel of the Chimes.

• • •

You Can't Take It With You

Barella says she's a dab hand at Amazon. But aren't we all? Test your skills at noon on Monday July 16,

the beginning of Prime Day (and a half). This is Amazon's attempt to

create a Black Friday-type shopping stampede in July. (If the Chinese could scare up billions in online sales with their annual gift buying bender in October called "Singles Day, which benefits mainly Alibaba, America should be able to catch up.) This is Amazon's day of elusive deals on Chromebooks and clothes, beauty products and books. Part silent auction, part rummage sale, it's shopping as sport. As the Amazon grip tightens on retail, there are tie-ins with Whole Foods — Icelandic cod fillets, sustainably wild caught, $8.99/lb. There's also a big push of its financial services: "Amazon Prime Rewards Visa cardmembers will also enjoy 10% Back when shopping at Whole Foods Market!"

Even John Mackey, Whole Foods' Co-Founder and Chief Executive Officer, has become a breathless pitchman, ramping up the fear of missing out.

"This is Whole Foods Market's first Prime Day and we're taking the shopping experience to the next level," said Market. "Between our exclusive deals and special Prime Day offers, you're not going to want to miss out on these savings."


Joseph Gallivan
Reporter, The Business Tribune
971-204-7874
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