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More than a Mortuary

Hood River's only funeral home changes its name and the entire way it serves people

'As individual as a person's life'

Funerals are the only event where nobody's invited but everybody's welcome.

That motto has been driving Frank Akin since his first summer job at a funeral home at the age of 17. Since then, Akin has spent his entire working life -- nearly 30 years -- immersing himself in a business most of us don't like to think about.

"My purpose is taking care of families at the time of death," Akin says. "It's a really intense thing to do day in and day out." It nearly burned him out. Three years ago he decided to sell what was then Anderson's Funeral Home and find less consuming work. He was all but out of the business when the sale fell through and he found himself in demand. Death, after all, does not pause for business dealings. Being the only funeral director in town, Akin was needed by the community he'd served for nearly 20 years.

So he threw himself back into the job. He hired new help and began training them in the work he'd devoted his life to.

"As I got into it again and began teaching and training my employees, I found myself getting revitalized," Akin says. "I started studying the field, studying the trends and through that process I got excited about it again. I realized I wanted to serve people."

The fruits of Akin's labor are visible in the newly renamed Anderson's Tribute Center, located at 1401 Belmont. Along with the name, much about the business is different. An extensive renovation has changed the old chapel into an adaptable reception area. Skylights brighten the room and the pews have been replaced with comfortable, moveable chairs.

Another big change is the addition of a "resource center," which includes everything from a lending library with books on handling grief to stationery to flower arrangements people can order on the spot. In separate rooms nearby, it also contains the more forbidding but necessary commodities of death: caskets, urns and headstones. But these are displayed in a less intimidating setting than they once were.

Akin says he made the changes in order to create a more comfortable environment for family and friends to pay tribute to their loved ones, and also in answer to changing trends in -- well, the business of death.

"We've tried to create an ambience that doesn't make people feel like they're in a mortuary," Akin says. "This is a difficult time for people. If they're comfortable, the whole process becomes easier." The underlying goal at the new Anderson's Tribute Center, says Akin, is to provide "more personalized and meaningful events."

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Akin first noticed a change in the funeral paradigm about the time he was re-immersing himself in the business. He found that more and more people were seeking something other than "traditional" funeral services. He studied national and regional trends, and also looked closely at what was going on in the Hood River Valley.

"I found that 75 percent of people walking through the door were not `churched'," Akin says. People were beginning to request the funeral services of loved ones be held not in a church or in the funeral home chapel but in a banquet or reception facility.

"I found many people were focusing more on the celebration of life," Akin says. "They wanted to have a `remembrance reception' rather than a traditional funeral. They wanted to sit around afterward and visit" with friends and relatives they might not have seen for a long time. People, Akin found, were seeking to make funerals more personal.

"We've got the baby boomers coming up," he says simply. "They view death differently.

"I thought, `Is this where it's going? Well why can't I be helping more people right here?'"

So that's what he set out to do.

The changes at Anderson's make it more adaptable for people to customize their loved one's funeral.

The former chapel, now referred to as the tribute center, can still function like a chapel with formal rows of chairs. But with the old pews gone, the room can be made more intimate for smaller groups by removing chairs, or even arranging them in a semi-circle. It can also be changed altogether into a reception hall.

"Over 80 percent of people now follow ceremonies with receptions," Akin says. A new kitchen -- where the organ room used to be -- allows for catering and, with the removeable chairs, the center can be quickly changed from a chapel-like setting into a reception room filled with tables.

"We have to think outside the box," Akin says. "I haven't forgotten about families who want a traditional service. We can still do that. But we have to give people options.

"Being the only one in town," he adds, "I have to be everything to everybody."

Besides physical changes to the business, Akin has embraced an innovative trend in funeral directing: the "celebrant." Celebrants can be clergy, but are more often lay people who are trained to conduct non-religious funerals. The celebrant concept emerged in Australia and New Zealand, and has caught on in other places where people have less affiliation with churches. But it's just beginning to appear in this country.

"I started calling people about it, and everyone thought it was a wonderful idea," Akin says. He "hand-picked" a few community members who were interested in becoming certified celebrants and they -- along with Akin -- attended a recent three-day celebrant training course in Seattle.

"With 75 percent `non-church' people coming in," Akin says, "that's 75 percent of people who look at me and say, `Who's going to talk?'" Now, Akin can match those families with one of his certified celebrants.

Akin's changes at Anderson's attracted the attention of his former teacher William Malcom, director of funeral services education at Mt. Hood Community College -- one of only three funeral services degree programs on the West Coast. Malcom brought his current class of 21 students to Hood River to tour Anderson's earlier this month.

"What (Akin) has done at the facility incorporates several innovations that most funeral businesses have only talked about," Malcom says. Most, he adds, have not followed through because of "the anxiety of change."

Malcom points out that, in an era when a majority of funeral homes are part of large -- often distant -- corporations (out of 36 funeral homes in Portland, only four are privately owned) Akin has taken Anderson's in the opposite direction.

"It's not just the remodel job that is important," Malcom says, "but the desire on the part of (Akin and his staff) to help the families they serve discover and develop whatever sort of memorial plans and activities are right for them."

In the corporate climate of "cookie cutter" funerals, Malcom commends Akin for taking a personal stake in helping families through the difficulty of a death.

"Many people do not have experience with planning or deciding what to do," Malcom says. "They often don't belong to an organization that has customs to follow, and few people really want to plan or be involved in memorial gatherings." Akin's strength, he adds, is in "helping people understand their social, psychological and financial needs at such a time."

All this is what Akin calls "taking ownership."

"I really believe funerals are a time for people to come together to mourn and grieve, but it's also a time to celebrate a life," Akin says. "I want to help people do what's meaningful for them. It's as individual as a person's life."

Akin plans a few more additions to the new tribute center, including installing a fireplace in the main room. And he will continue to keep a close eye on the community and its diverse -- and evolving -- needs.

"I'm fortunate to be in a community where it's just good old folks, just good people," he says. "They memorialize. They pay tribute. We're going to be there to help them do that in whatever way is most meaningful for them."

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