Several years ago, I received an interesting call from a prospective client- Eric Trimble, owner of Trimble Funeral Home & Crematory. He told me that he and his family were building a new funeral home, crematory and event center. They had decided (his wife, son and daughter were all very involved in all design decisions) they wanted a facility that did not look like a funeral home! An interesting and yet possibly risky approach, but one that is slowly gaining ground in the industry. While certainly not a huge trend (yet), it bears notice that more and more families are resisting the look and feel of the “traditional” dark and draped funeral home with furniture that looks like it belongs in their grandparents’ living room.

As new generations of children are planning funerals for their loved ones, first impressions and interior spaces that are welcoming with high quality finishes and plenty of daylight are high on their list. Many are looking for flexible spaces, areas for casual gatherings, rooms for celebrations of lives well lived as well as areas for quiet reflection, food and drink service and safe, fun spaces for children.

When considering the interior design for a funeral home, we can divide the space into two categories:

Public spaces: entrances, lobbies, chapels, restrooms, arrangement rooms, display rooms, food and beverage service areas, elevators and stairways.

Work areas: offices, workrooms, floral delivery, prep room, music room, garage, storage, kitchen or kitchenette, janitor closet, etc.

Each of these areas has a clear purpose and function. The interior space plan and finish plan must be appropriate for each specific area. Non-public areas do not need the same high level of finish that the public area should have. Work areas most importantly need to be efficient and highly functional. Storage areas should be easily accessible and well organized. Public areas should be welcoming, uncluttered, clean and attractive. They must emit a feeling of comfort and calm.

Often the challenge for an interior design for a funeral home is flexibility. Chapel size typically must provide space for a wide range of visitors, from very small intimate visitations on up to literally hundreds of friends and families coming together to pay their respects and to attend a funeral service. This challenge can be met in a number of clever ways, but simply adding a divider wall, without considering the look and feel of the space when divided or fully open, is not the best approach. The location of the viewing area, the seating of the family, the backgrounds, lighting and finishes should all make sense in both the small room setting and in the fully open large chapel arrangement.

Some funeral homes are eliminating the visitation line completely and allowing for a more free flowing circulation for friends and family to visit in a more relaxed way. Many people are uncomfortable greeting family members they don’t know in the traditional visitation line. Providing moveable lounge furniture for flexible conversational groupings, rather than fixed seats all in a row is one way to consider the numerous ways to use the space.

Technology has added a new aspect to funeral home design. Large TV monitors and iPad registration require design attention. Details should be considered for not only location of monitors, but the appearance when the screen is black. Can they be incorporated into cabinets with hydraulic lifts that allow for flexibility in location and disappear when not in use? Registration can cause bottle necks at entrances to chapels. Can technology help reduce the line and simplify the process? What about those who are not “tech savvy”? Is there another option for them? What about cards and memorials? Flower display? Music? Is there a piano, organ or sound system? How are they accessed? Does there need to be visual contact with the person presiding over the service? What happens to the supporting equipment for all of this if it is not in use?

Simplification is also an important consideration in all aspects of interior design. Scale and appropriateness of art and accessories can make the difference between a great interior and one that feels busy and uncomfortable or blank and institutional. Simple window coverings as opposed to heavy dark draperies are becoming the norm. Daylight and decorative lighting add friendliness and comfort to the space.

Restrooms are often times overlooked as an important area for design attention. Not only should restrooms be spotlessly clean, but finishes must be visually appealing. Because these spaces are generally the smallest rooms in the facility, using higher end finishes is generally not terribly costly, yet the first impressions created with gorgeous restrooms cannot be under estimated. Natural stone or quartz counter tops, porcelain tile floors, framed mirrors and decorative lighting are well worth the investment.

Food and beverage service as an additional amenity is becoming increasingly popular in funeral homes. Long hours at a visitation is not only hard on the family, but visitors as well. Providing an area with food and drink that can be accessed by all visitors offers another option today’s family members want. Of course with food and drink comes the concern for stains and clean ability. Today’s fabrics and flooring options offer multitudes of choices for the appropriate durability and clean ability of materials.

The public areas of today’s funeral homes are much more than a place to wrap up the last chapter of a loved one’s life. These spaces are trending to a design much more like that of a hotel lobby. They are places to greet, meet, weep and laugh. Friendly and welcoming, offering comfort and respite, the interior design of these spaces in particular is an important aspect in the overall funeral package offered to a family.

While the trends mentioned may appeal to some, they are certainly not for all. The job of the professional interior designer is first and foremost to listen to the client and completely understand their expectations and wishes and vision. While some designers may have a “look”, the best solution for one client is not the best solution for another. As was noted at the start of this article, Mr. Trimble took a risk to go a very different direction for his funeral home. (In his case, the risk has paid off and the funeral home is wildly successful).

As designers, our responsibility is to listen, communicate, ask hundreds of questions, to offer options recommendations and possible solutions, and to give the very best advice based on our expertise. At the end of the day, a successfully completed project must be one for which our client is not just happy, but thrilled with the final result. But it must be the expression of his or her vision, not ours. FBA

Dana has 40 years of experience as an interior designer and small business owner. After graduating from college and beginning her career with a design firm in Chicago, she started Paragon in the Quad Cities in 1983. In addition to her interior design business, she works as an interior design consultant with Behrens Design and Development, Inc. With a staff of 15 professionals, she has worked on projects throughout the US, Canada and Mexico, as well as India and Russia. Dana graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in interior design from Iowa State University. She can be reached at 563-529-4043, or by email: [email protected]