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Funeral home’s move to sell liquor, catering packages part of a trend

Funeral home’s move to sell liquor, catering packages part of a trend

Source: Chicago Tribune

December 24th

Mourners visiting Kolssak Funeral Home in Wheeling will soon be able to share a champagne toast and nibble on hors d’oeuvres as they pay their last respects to loved ones.

The addition of liquor and catering packages at the northwest suburban business is at the forefront of a nationwide trend that finds funeral homes reinventing themselves as one-stop venues for visitations and celebrations alike.

“Families were coming to us and asking if they could have alcohol at their events, but we had to tell them we could not sponsor that type of thing,” said Jon Kolssak, owner of Kolssak Funeral Home, which was recently granted a liquor license by the village of Wheeling.

“The village was nice enough to give us the opportunity to have people celebrate life in our home, but in no way do we anticipate becoming a destination for people just wanting to drop by for a cocktail,” he said.

Kolssak said he believes his family-owned business, which began with his grandfather opening a funeral home on Chicago’s northwest side in 1930, is the first in the state to obtain a special use permit allowing it to serve alcohol on the premises.

Officials at the Brookfield, Wis.-based National Funeral Directors Association say Kolssak’s move to offer special packages to clients that include liquor and catered food is part of a broader trend in which funeral homes are remodeling their buildings to accommodate receptions held in conjunction with a wake, funeral or memorial service.

“It’s all about giving families more options, from being able to have hors d’oeuvres and refreshments during funeral and memorial services, to having a luncheon afterward,” said Jessica Koth, of the funeral directors association.

For example, Koth said that in 2011, 9.5 percent of the organization’s members reported having created a space in their funeral homes that can accommodate visitors gathering for refreshments or a meal.

“The nature of funerals and memorial services is changing . families are planning services that are very different than what has been done in the past,” Koth said.

Still, whether a funeral home is able to serve alcoholic beverages depends on state or local laws, Koth said, noting that Connecticut, New York and New Jersey are among the states which have prohibitions in place.

Though the prospect of sipping Chardonnay in the room with a body on display in a casket might seem inappropriate to some mourners, historian Russell Lewis says the melding of death with aspects of everyday life was the rule, rather than the exception, in 19th-century Chicago.

“With the high child mortality rates, so many women dying in childbirth and infectious diseases like typhoid, cholera and TB being pretty rampant, death was very much a part of life, and people knew it was inevitable,” said Lewis, the executive vice president and chief historian at the Chicago History Museum.

Russell said for most 19th-century Chicagoans, mourning a loved one’s death involved a visitation and funeral service in the parlor of the family’s home, also known as “the death room,” and what decades later would be called a “living room.”

Mourning traditions began evolving by the early 20th century, Russell said, when funeral home businesses began operating in neighborhood homes, with the owner’s family living on the second floor, the wake and funeral services held on the first floor, and the actual business of preparing the body for visitation taking place in the basement.

“There were Irish funeral homes, Bohemian, German . whatever funeral home represented the ethnicity of the family was where the event was held,” Lewis said.

While the old-timey Irish home wakes, where the deceased was remembered and honored with countless whiskey toasts until the wee hours of the morning, remain legendary, Lewis said mourners in the 19th century were unlikely to have viewed the occasions as festive.

“The whole relationship we have with death today is different, and this idea that wakes and memorial services are ‘celebrations of life’ did not exist in the 19th century,” Lewis said.

Indeed, given the tradition of holding a three-day visitation has been all but abandoned, and affordable options like cremation services are increasingly popular, Lewis said funeral homes today are likely trying to find creative ways to stay relevant and financially stable.

“I think that these funeral homes that offer liquor are being very entrepreneurial by realizing, ‘Why should our clients head over to a bar after the wake when we can provide the liquor here?'” Lewis said.

Wheeling Village President Dean Argiris also applauded Kolssak for “thinking ahead of the game.”

“I’ve worked at wakes and visitation services where you’re having to police the parking lot because there’s tailgating going on,” said Argiris, who abstained from the recent liquor license vote because he works in the funeral home industry and has worked for Kolssak.

“I think we’re seeing a generational change from this idea that wakes are bad and sad,” Argiris said. “More and more people are saying, ‘I don’t want all that crying . I want a party.'”

Kolssak said that though his business will not be allowed to prepare food on the premises, he hopes to offer clients the option to buy liquor and catering packages by early 2016.

“We have no desire to make a mockery of what should be a classy and dignified event,” Kolssak said. “But like a well-written novel, we want to create a final chapter for the family that tells the story of a wonderful life that was lived by their loved one.”