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For the certain uncertainty

Funeral services planner shares his thoughts and experiences with helping people plan their own fune

Posted: January 26, 2014 2:00 a.m.
Updated: January 26, 2014 2:00 a.m.

Mortuary Supervisor Steven Mahrle shows various choices for caskets, including wood or steel, in the main offices of Eternal Valley Memorial Park and Mortuary in Newhall on Tuesday.

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Smooth winds blew across the highest hilltop garden in Eternal Valley Memorial Park and Mortuary on a clear Tuesday morning.

Below, nearly 30,000 graves dotted the rolling hills, flower-speckled lawns and serene gardens spread throughout the 50-acre park.

A sense of calm and peace was as ubiquitous as death in the memorial gardens. Represented by the vast number of bouquets adorning most graves, many people visit the gardens each day to pay tribute to lost loved ones.

Touring the property is a normal part of the process for a family or individual who has decided to preplan a funeral.

It helps alleviate the sense of fear or uncertainty that accompanies a first visit to the cemetery.

“It’s a big step for someone to drive into this place,” said Rick Payner, family service counselor for the park.

Payner is in charge of preplanning services, which allow an individual to plan a burial method and memorial service, choose a plot of land for a final resting place and pay for the service over time.

The goal of the entire program is to alleviate the emotional and financial burden of planning a service while a family is trying to grieve, Payner said.

The burial

Generally, the three-hour preplanning experience starts with a tour of the grounds, so the individual and family can choose a specific garden or burial space.

“For an older family member who has trouble walking, I may help them find a space close to the curb, so they can easily visit the site,” Payner explained.

Of the 20 gardens on site, each one is slightly different. There is a garden for Catholics, a garden with a miles-long view, a garden for cremation, a garden for family plots and more. Some are vast, open lawns, and other are gated with benches, fountains or stone pathways.

Once a specific space is selected, Payner brings the family back to the main office, to ease an often difficult conversation.

“Normally I start by asking, ‘Would you prefer cremation or a traditional burial?” he said. “I find out more about them through observation and open-ended questions.”

At this point in the process, many people struggle with basic, human fears. Some fear the fire of cremation, while others fear the confinement of being buried underground.

“The whole idea of death is a very strange concept,” Payner said. “Death is a taboo subject in our culture, but people will tell you what they want if you just listen.”

The service

Throughout the conversation, Payner will suggest ideas, sometimes getting creative with what he can offer, to craft a service that truly celebrates the deceased.

Walking into the showroom, he pointed out all the options families have to personalize the service and match their budgets.

The row of caskets was ominous at first, though the resting places became less threatening the more Payner spoke about the different choices available.

For a traditional burial, there are wood, metal, pink, embroidered and embellished caskets. A top-of-the-line one would have a memory drawer inside, for family members to place keepsakes.

The same selection was available for urns and even grave markers.

If a family wanted to memorialize a lost loved one with photos rather than words, an artist can render a handful of photos in bronze to represent the life in images, Payner explained.

Services also were as diverse, from a graveside funeral to a church memorial to an open-casket visitation with family and friends.

“We customize the service, so it’s something they never forget,” he said.

One family had the coffin pushed into the chapel 15 minutes after the service started, continuing the trend for someone who was notoriously late for an entire lifetime.

The sheer number of choices somehow makes the preplanning process more practical than emotional, easing the experience, Payner said.

Finding relief

Though the process becomes easier when a family preplans, the difference between planning ahead and “at-need” services after a person has passed, is night and day, Payner said.

“It’s one of the worst days of your life,” Payner said. “Your head is going to be spinning, and you’re not going to make the right decisions.”

Final arrangements are a huge emotional and financial responsibility, and it’s best to only focus on the grieving process, if possible, he said.

“Emotions are all over the board (during an at-need planning),” he said. “But (preplanning) takes away a lot of the anguish.”

Preplanning also avoids emotional family discussions, and sometimes arguments, when the deceased left little word of his or her preferences.

“Who knows best what they want?” Payner said of the deceased.

Regardless of the situation, Payner uses his calm demeanor and characteristic patience to provide whatever comfort is possible.

“It breaks my heart sometimes,” he said of more difficult experiences, like the loss of a young person. “I have to be the rock in the room.”

But the task has always been a calling for Payner.

“My parents passed away six weeks apart, and it was a very sobering experience,” he said. “So here I am.”

And he learns from the families he assists, as well.

“We’re meeting the world,” Payner said of him and his staff. “If you listen to people, they will tell you the story of their life.”

With a knock at the door, Payner left to show a client around the grounds. From the hilltop gardens to the chapel at the property’s foot, all was peaceful but the winds.

“Most people think cemeteries are for the dead, but they’re not,” Payner said. “They’re for the living to celebrate and memorialize the dead.”


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