Funeral homes are becoming like event centers. This mortician wants a liquor license

Serenity Funeral Chapel owner Heidi Heil keeps her chapel though it is rarely used nowadays. “Nobody’s doing the traditional funeral,” she says.
Serenity Funeral Chapel owner Heidi Heil keeps her chapel though it is rarely used nowadays. “Nobody’s doing the traditional funeral,” she says. Times-News

Funeral homes are trying to shed their reputations as dark and somber places of the dead — by building party rooms where mourners can raise a glass, and their spirits, to celebrate the life of a loved one.

Cremations, which are also on the rise, are less expensive, giving families flexibility in planning a memorial. And even in Idaho, it all adds up to the decline of the traditional, dressed-in-black funeral.

“Ten-thousand-dollar funerals — nobody wants that anymore,” said Heidi Heil, mortician and owner of Serenity Funeral Chapel in Twin Falls.

For many of her clients, an expensive service just isn’t feasible. And many younger people don’t want to take part or be “held captive” in a religious service. So they host more casual tributes or open houses to honor the deceased.

In response to these changing times, funeral homes such as Heil’s are getting more flexible with what they offer.

“We are becoming more and more event planners,” Heil said. “Venues and event planners.”

Funeral home wine 5a862f798ab37.image
Serenity Funeral Chapel owner Heidi Heil hopes to acquire a liquor license so she can hold celebrations of life with alcohol. Drew Nash Times-News

But even Serenity Funeral Chapel, with its outdoor patio and indoor kitchen, can’t offer the same things an event center can. It’s part of why Heil put her business on the waiting list for a liquor license in 2013.

“People want to have alcohol at the events. A lot of people do,” she said. “I have families that will do something here and then they go to the Turf Club,” a Twin Falls event center.

Heil considers herself something of a visionary. She saw the writing on the wall and knew that in time, more people would turn to cremation, and the traditional church service or graveside funeral would be at thing of the past. Celebrations of life, tributes and open houses are becoming the norm for memorials.

Ninety-five percent of Heil’s business is cremation. But of those patrons, 75 percent won’t use her chapel for a service. Serenity Funeral Chapel has a chapel area mostly because of the perception it gives people about her business.

“Nobody’s doing the traditional funeral,” she said. “It needs to be something that’s going to draw meaning for people.”

So she got her name on Twin Falls’ waiting list early. In Idaho, liquor licenses are awarded based on population estimates — one license for every 1,500 in population. Cities with fewer than 1,500 people get two licenses. When all licenses are taken, you can either rent or buy a license — or get on the waiting list.

It could take years to get a license; Serenity Funeral Chapel is still fourth on the Twin Falls list. Heil knew her less expensive option would be to wait, but she probably has just a few years left, and the time to act is coming soon.

Funeral home image Times-News
Idaho mortician and Serenity Funeral Chapel owner Heidi Heil talks about the decline in traditional funerals, the rise in cheaper cremations and the need to build her business into event hosting. Drew Nash Times-News

Because liquor licensees must run their establishments a minimum number of hours per week, Heil’s plan is to open a bar as a part of an event center. She wants to host everything from baptism parties to funerals.

“My long-term goal was to get that event center,” she said. “It was something I was going to figure out as the time got closer.”

Heil recently began a GoFundMe campaign to get the ball rolling. She’s hoping to raise $400,000 so she can buy an old building in Twin Falls’ warehouse district, fix it up and use it to supplement her business.

Although she wants to have a partner to help manage the bar, Heil has some experience with liquor sales already: “I did a lot of bar tending in college.”

Most patrons still choose a traditional service, in a chapel with a program, said Dustin Godrey, funeral director at Rosenau Funeral Home & Crematory, also in Twin Falls. But more and more — and especially with the rise of cremation — people are hosting public gatherings. He’s seen open-mic events with food and casual attire.

“It’s less like a service and more like a reception, almost,” Godfrey said. “There’s a lot more laughter and remembering the good times. Those stories that weren’t ever supposed to come out.”