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Celebration of life becomes face of funeral industry

The funeral home business is going through some generational shifts, and a Sarasota-based company looks to stay ahead of the trends.


Robert Toale, left, and his son Jeff in the Celebration of Life center. The Toales did away with traditional pews and set up round tables instead.
Robert Toale, left, and his son Jeff in the Celebration of Life center. The Toales did away with traditional pews and set up round tables instead.
File photo
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The future of death is upon us. 

By some accounts, the traditional funeral home is receding to make way for what the industry calls celebration of life centers.These centers are designed to be inviting, well-lit spaces to provide for a better grieving experience. 

One big local example of the trend stems from when Robert Toale and his sons Jason and Jeff left the family business Toale Brothers Funeral Home in 2018. It wasn’t because of any animosity. “We had a difference in vision of where funeral services were going,” Jeff Toale says, of the prominent Sarasota-based business. 

The trio partnered with Dignity Memorial, a funeral services and cemetery offerings provider, and created three Robert Toale & Sons Funeral Home locations. 

“We partnered with them because we were more forward thinking in our thoughts and becoming adaptive to the changing landscape in the funeral industry,” Jeff Toale says. “Our visions aligned to a celebration aspect in funeral services.” 

Last May, they officially opened Robert Toale & Sons' Celebration of Life Center in Lakewood Ranch. “It’s a dedicated facility that’s meant to enhance the celebration of life aspect and create a more uplifting celebration for loved ones,” Toale says.  

The facility is a standalone, he says, meaning it’s not connected to a cemetery like two of their other funeral homes. “Our building design is a lot different than what you would imagine in a traditional funeral home,” he says. 

Higher ceilings, more natural light and wood floors are some of the big differences. The center also features round tables rather than pews and catering has been incorporated. 

The goal is to make it a comfortable space. This allows the Toales to host many different events. That's another example of the industry moving into a not your grandfather's funeral home kind of moment. How much is it different from the old way of thinking about funeral homes?  The center is host to monthly garden and quilting clubs. A formal ballroom dance company even used the space for a two-day event. 

“We wanted a more dedicated space where we could do multi-functional events in the community,” Toale says of the 7,800-square-foot space. Because of the space’s flexibility, Toale notes the expenses to have it built were higher than that of a traditional funeral home He declined  to elaborate on specific costs.  

Even the actual celebration of life is a bit different. 

The space is personalized so that the focus is toward the center of the room, instead of at the front like typical funeral services. 

“That’s where a lot of the sharing and memories come from,” Toale says. “The family is able to work their way throughout the room during the gathering aspect. It really helps the family grieve in a different way.” 


Jeff Toale says the center is designed to create an uplifting celebration for families.
File photo

'A semantics thing'

Across town in Sarasota, Dean Maloney says this industry shift has been happening for a little while. 

The owner of Maloney Funeral Home has been in the industry for 26 years. He says the new facility isn’t really a new concept. 

“It’s a semantics thing,” he says. A funeral, he adds, features a casket where the body is present. A memorial service features a minister and singing, but a body isn’t present. A celebration of life, he says, is the same thing. “They’re interchangeable.

“Most people want to call it (a celebration of life) because that’s what we're doing.”  

Like the Toales, Maloney has turned to events at his facility. He’s hosted bible studies, gag birthday parties, graduation parties and even had networking events at the funeral home.

“Our intention is to make this not feel like a funeral home,” he says, an echoed sentiment of what the Toales are doing. 

Maloney explains his funeral home looks like a farmhouse on the inside. “You’d think you were in a Hobby Lobby store,” he adds. “It’s comfortable, and I think people like that.” 

Despite Maloney's attempts of keeping up with a changing atmosphere, he's kept the funeral home name a part of his brand, noting that the Lakewood Ranch center is a great example of drawing in a crowd. 

“Their new center is appealing to that demographic in Lakewood Ranch,” he says, which is something he doesn't necessarily need to do for his business. “They market to a higher end clientele.” 


Bring new to old

Since opening the Celebration of Life center, the other funeral home locations owned by Robert Toale and Sons have received a touch up. 

All three have been revitalized to provide a platform for celebration of life services. 

“We’ve retrofitted the old traditional funeral homes to come up with the modern as best we can without tearing down and rebuilding,” Toale says.  

Now, none of the locations feature pews. Instead, guests are seated at round tables. And they’re walking on wood floors now too, after carpeting was removed. Specifically at the their Palms location in Sarasota, a porch was added that comes off of the event spaces there. 

The response to the Lakewood Ranch center has been going well — albeit somewhat slow. 

“I can remember one of the first gatherings we hosted for a family, the guests taking a step into the lobby and saying, ‘I think we’re in the wrong place. We’re looking for the funeral home,’” he says. “The families that we’re serving are just loving what we’re offering them.” 

People stop by from time to time to see the place, though Toale would like to see growth come quicker. “The biggest challenge I face is the marketing aspect of getting our information out and what we’re able to offer,” he says. “That’s just a process that takes time to overcome with the market.”

The business’s main revenue comes from celebration of life ceremonies, as the additional events are being offered for free to nonprofits. That deal will remain through the first 12 months the center is open. In May, Toale says they’ll revisit that to see if it’s worth keeping in place. 


Loosey-goosey

When the Celebration of Life center opened, the Toales, with a heady entrepreneurial streak, ignored many of the industry’s rules. That strategy is paying off. “There’s no structure,” Toale says, in the industry. 

He hopes to keep pushing the industry forward. 

Up until last May, when the center opened, there was a common structure of what a funeral, memorial service or even celebration of life was supposed to look like. The Toale family is challenging that construct.

“The next five years for me and my team is to see what we can do outside of the box,” he says. “So if that means setting up a tent outside and trying to coordinate different interests of a loved ones’ life, then the sky’s the limit as long as it’s legal.”

The center’s goal is to push the edge of what a celebration of life means to each family that is served there. That’s why the Toale and his family challenge themselves to never say no to a request from a family.  

That very notion took off when they hosted a softball player’s celebration of life. The team came together and played one more softball game as the Toales and their team cooked hot dogs and hamburgers. 

 

author

Amanda Postma

Amanda Postma is a business reporter covering Sarasota and Manatee counties. After graduating from the University of Missouri School of Journalism in 2018, Amanda was a reporter for a small-town newspaper in Missouri before becoming a marketing associate for a career resource startup in St. Louis.

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