Posts tagged ‘celebrations of life’

As seen in the Colorado Springs Gazette: More families opt to celebrate life with unique, personal services

This article by Stephanie Earls was recently published in the Colorado Springs Gazette:

Ruth Solazzi was born June 15, 1920. She was a dedicated teacher and opera singer who earned a master’s degree in music in the early 1940s, at a time when only about 6 percent of females pursued higher education. She raised four children, was grandmother to nine and took pride in the lush garden she kept at her Colorado Springs home after the family moved from Montana in 1978.

Snip20150126_20“She was very much a perfectionist. When she felt her voice was not at peak, she wouldn’t sing, and she stopped performing very early in life,” said her daughter Ann Baldrica, who lives in the Springs. “She was very much involved with her family. She took a lot of pleasure watching people have a good time in her surroundings.”

Solazzi was – like all of us – much more than the sum of her accomplishments, the highlight reel traditionally covered in official eulogies and obituaries. When she died in July 2010, the family chose to celebrate her life in a way befitting her lifestyle.

“We didn’t want to have a ‘traditional’ funeral. My mother had been a choir director and sang in choirs, but that was not her wish to involve a church or religious ceremony,” Baldrica said.

Instead of a funeral home, Baldrica turned to Forte Events, an international event planning company with which she’d worked both professionally and personally. Founded by Tami Forero in 2006, the Springs-based company coordinates “Celebrations of Life” for families seeking an alternative to traditional farewells.

“We have the luxury of spending a little more time with the family to get to know their loved one. It’s not just what their hobbies were, though that’s part. It’s about the feeling they want the family to have before and after the celebration,” said Forero, whose offices are based in her Rockrimmon home. “When someone calls us, we say, ‘What are your needs? How can we help your heart?’ We don’t even call it a service.”

An evolving trend

An alternative memorial or funeral no longer means having your ashes shot into space – though that remains an option. From funeral planning to service to disposition and beyond, more Americans are quietly going off-book for their final send-offs, at least in part.

“People today, particularly the younger generations, most of them don’t really like a traditional type service,” said Paul Wood, co-owner of The Springs Funeral Service. “They want the flexibility to include things that are very personalized and meaningful.”

The gradual shift in thinking can be seen in the terms used to describe the gatherings themselves, from “funeral” through the mid-20th century to “memorial service” by the 1980s, and now “celebrations of life,” said Paul Anderson, a retired U.S. Air Force chaplain who works with Forero.

Snip20150126_22“The culture is becoming less attached to religious services, more diverse, more pluralistic. People don’t know where to go when they lose a loved one,” said Anderson, director of Celebrations of Life by Forte Events. “That same loss is there, but they don’t have that traditional path to take or place to go.”

Though about 40 percent of Americans say they regularly attend church, head counts show actual turnout is closer to 20 percent. Surveys by the Pew Research Center found that, as of 2012, close to 20 percent of U.S. adults are agnostic, atheist or unaffiliated with any particular faith.

“We’re a nonreligious organization that’s sensitive to their loss and that wants to help them create a unique event that can help them grieve,” said Anderson, alluding to headlines made this month by a Denver-area church. An ongoing memorial service at New Hope Ministries in Lakewood was canceled after church officials refused to allow a video that included images of the woman kissing her female partner.

“The irony is that most of us (at Forte) happen to be people of faith,” Anderson said, “but we understand that, for all human beings, that need for acceptance and hope after a loss is great regardless.”

Healthy grieving

Between 1960 and 2012, U.S. cremation rates rose from just less than 4 percent to 43 percent, based on statistics from the National Funeral Directors Association. Colorado, at 65.5 percent, has the eighth highest rate.

“That (cremation) I think makes it easier because you have time to think about what you may want to do and you’re not rushed to get something done within three days,” said Baldrica, whose mother chose to be cremated.

If speed is needed, Forte can tap its network of planners and vendors to usher a celebration from concept to reality “within 24 hours, anywhere in the country,” Forero said.

“Do you want it indoors or outdoors, in a certain state, on a boat or a hot air balloon or a classic car museum? We can create an atmosphere that’s going to feel like that person,” said Forero, who first identified a need through her work coordinating a Miracle Party, the annual Denver charity gala for children battling cancer.

“I had a front-row seat to this, families not expecting their children to die, who weren’t prepared mentally or financially, and they’re trying to put something together in the worst moments of their life and they’re doing it alone,” Forero said. “I thought, with the network we have we could sweep in and be doing this in a few hours.”

That timing is crucial, Baldrica said.

Snip20150126_21“At that time point, when people are stressed out, to be able to turn all that over to someone else who can handle the details and make the concepts happen, it’s a huge relief,” she said. “You still need a funeral home that has to deal with the things such as the death certificate and the preparation of the body, but the rest of the pieces of the celebration can be done by someone other than a funeral director.”

Not that a funeral home couldn’t handle an elaborate customization.

“We’ve done services with motorcycles, with over 100 Corvettes. We had services in an outdoor arena, where the urn was brought in in saddle bags on the deceased’s horse,” Wood said. “The primary difference is we are full service and can take care of everything from the time of death. They focus on the services.”

Ultimately, it comes down to a family’s preference.

“Our whole position is that we want to do whatever we can to encourage families to have those services that are meaningful for remembering the person who died,” Wood said. “That is the key to a good grief process.”

Celebrating life

Since the company began offering alternative memorials in 2010, Forero, Anderson and Forte’s team of contractors have coordinated events across the nation, for gatherings of less than a dozen and those of several hundred. They chartered a three-story yacht in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., so the members of a large, extended family could all be present for the spreading of a beloved relative’s ashes. Last year, they organized a hike for a family that wanted to celebrate Mom’s life in the mountains of Colorado, even though she’d lived in Florida.

“She was a hiker and photographer, and Colorado was their favorite place,” said Forero, who suggested family members each write something brief about their mom – a meaningful word, thought or memory – on a rock to be left at the peak. She later discovered the ritual was more fitting than she could have imagined.

“It turns out, their mom had traveled the world and at the top of every mountain she wrote her children’s names on a rock. Even the kids didn’t know about that,” Forero said.

For her mother’s celebration, Baldrica wanted a setting that didn’t obligate gloom – and could handle a modest crowd.

“Anytime you have a death in the family, it’s difficult. When you’re 90 years old, it’s sad but it’s something you want to celebrate, too,” she said.

She chose a spot that had positive vibes: her mom’s garden. The theme: things you didn’t know about Ruth Solazzi.

A DJ played six decades worth of Solazzi’s favorite tunes and caterers served Italian. Each guest received a flowerpot to take home, as well as a seed packet and encouragement to spread the blooms.

“That would really have been something my mother would have loved, and it’s something I never would have come up with,” Baldrica said.

Forero even arranged for digital copies to be made of the sole original recording of Solazzi’s master’s recital, captured on vinyl roughly 70 years earlier. Each guest got a CD.

“To take an old vinyl record and make it usable, it was quite the feat,” Baldrica said. “It was the first time that most of the family members had ever heard it. Some of the family and friends had never heard her sing at all.”


How Can I Help You To Say Goodbye?

In 1995, Country Western Artist, Patty Loveless recorded a song entitled, “How Can I Help You To Say Goodbye.” It did not reach #1 but made an impact on country western music.   It is a heartbreaking tune about a woman’s relationships in life including re-location, divorce and caring for her elderly mother at a crucial time in her life.

collogoHere is an excerpt:

Sitting with Mama alone in her bedroom
She opened her eyes, and then squeezed my hand
She said, I have to go now, my time here is over
And with her final word, she tried to help me understand
Mama whispered softly, Time will ease your pain
Life’s about changing, nothing ever stays the same

And she said, How can I help you to say goodbye?
It’s OK to hurt, and it’s OK to cry
Come, let me hold you and I will try
How can I help you to say goodbye?

Saying “goodbye” is difficult no matter what the situation.  It is especially difficult when a loved one dies and there are strong feelings of sadness as well as sincere feelings of appreciation for the life shared. Finding small, personal, and unique ways to celebrate in the midst of the loss helps us move from hurt and grief to acceptance and hope. It’s a process.  As you go through that process, I encourage you to be kind, generous, and gentle with yourself.  Be flexible and accepting of the vast range of emotion that you are experiencing.  Seek support form others.

I particularly like the closing words; “It’s OK to hurt, and it’s OK to cry.  Come let me hold you and I will try.  How can I help you to say goodbye?”  Look for those people around you who are trying to convey that message or at least thinking it. They will be there.

What are your thoughts? Blog with me!


Our Experience Producing the Celebration of Life for Tim Abbott

Last week we had the honor of helping produce the Celebration of Life for Tim Abbott of Fun Productions. We specifically say help because the amount of involvement from the Denver event community was truly amazing.  One of the first things we did was to send word to our local ISES community letting them know what happened and if anyone wanted to join us in providing services or products.  In 24 hours, 30 companies contacted us to provide EVERYTHING for free (even though Tim’s wife Dawn wanted to pay for everything since she felt our industry is asked often to donate.)

The event took place at a beautiful venue in Castle Rock Colorado called Cielo at Castle Pines. The owners did not know the Abbotts but after hearing about the tragedy, they offered their venue for free.  Catering by Design provided all the food and staff for 300 attendees, All Well Rents provided the rentals, Splendor For Your Guests provided umbrellas and shawls (good thing- it rained!), All Digital Photography and Video provided photography and a video booth where guests could leave messages for the family, Pure Energy Events provided all the A/V, 5 Star Talent & Entertainment provided live musicians and singers, Star Parking provided valet service and Jay’s Valet provided rides for the family.  Patty Moser from Blue Eyes Consulting and Nicole Marsh from the Arrangers helped us find the right venue.  Paul Anderson from our team (retired Air Force Chaplain) did an awesome job officiating the service. Our Business Development lead Allison Freeman coordinated ALL the vendors and did most of the work pre-planning and setting up. Many other vendors are providing long-term support such as meals for the family and for their staff over the next few months….and there’s more help that we’re probably not even aware of…

14132_10151550460975064_2094301651_nWe want to share the reasons we all did this: One, we love Dawn and Tim and we couldn’t help but act since we are all “do-ers” by nature.  Two, I believe this is how our industry should be. When tragedy strikes, we should circle the wagons and take care of each other.  Our Denver community is not perfect but we are very tight knit competitors who want the best for clients and each other.  I speak often at industry groups nationwide and I sadly don’t see the spirit of cooperation that we enjoy in Denver.  I hope this story can be an example of what we can be.

We started planning celebrations of life after working for a cancer center for children.  We saw the need for planning services where families wanted a thematic & customized event to honor the child. We gladly take on the  burden of planning an event at one of the most difficult times in someone’s life. We were honored to be able to do this for the Abbott’s.

-Tami Forero


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Forté Events is a strategic event design and production firm specializing in celebrations of lifecorporatenon-profit, and social events worldwide. This award winning team also designs custom, experiential learning programs and corporate training sessions.

CEO of Forté Events, Tami Forero is a veteran of the special event industry having planned hundreds of strategic corporate, social and non-profit events.  She’s a sought after consultant and speaker with topics both on the event industry and business skills.