Regrets: You've had a few. But not so many that you're about to let your final sendoff be like all the others. More people are doing it...

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Regrets: You've had a few. But not so many that you're about to let your final sendoff be like all the others.

More people are doing it their way when it comes to memorial services, often prearranging celebratory events with distinct personal touches — musical and otherwise — that dispel the gloom and leave no question as to the star of this farewell tour.

Driven largely by make-your-own-way baby boomers and aided by advances in musical technology, memorial services have changed their tunes since the days of somber organ dirges and timeworn hymns. Half of those surveyed in a 2005 Harris poll conducted on behalf of the National Funeral Directors Association said they'd prefer a personalized funeral.

"People don't want a cookie-cutter ceremony, where the minister can just pencil in a person's name," says Dale Amundsen of Evergreen-Washelli Funeral Home and Cemetery.

But it's more than "The Big Chill," the landmark baby-boomer flick featuring a funeral capped off by an organist's rendition of "You Can't Always Get What You Want." Instead, these events feature pop or contemporary tunes that honor the deceased by stirring up memories or saying through lyrics what ordinary words can't.

"We don't even have an organ," says Scott Ruff of Columbia Funeral Home. "Look at the music churches are playing — big bands and everything. Some of the Baptist churches, they rock out. It's entertaining."

Personal pop-culture touches

While certain spirituals remain cross-generational classics, Bette Midler's "Wind Beneath My Wings" now dares to flutter where "On Eagle's Wings" once ruled. "We tell people, 'Bring in a CD. If it's meaningful to you, we'll play it,' " says Amundsen, who was there when children's entertainer Stan Boreson played "You Are My Sunshine" on accordion at a friend's memorial service.

He recalls another noteworthy event involving one of Evergreen-Washelli's primary shareholders. The late shareholder's wife was insistent: "I was told in no uncertain terms that we were hearing the theme song from 'The Rocky Horror Picture Show,' " Amundsen says. "Right out of the gate. It had everybody laughing, because they all knew that was his favorite thing."

And when local boating enthusiast Gary Lange realized his time was near, he decided to come up with a plan. A caring and protective father and a board member for an agency devoted to abused kids, Lange wrote his own obituary, but he made it clear he didn't want a funeral.

"He didn't want people to be sad," says son Chris.

Instead, the retired banker, who died of leukemia last December, devised a "celebration of life" to be held on his birthday 10 months later. It took place at the Seattle Yacht Club and included testimonials from many of the several hundred friends and family members who came.

The event was capped by a compilation of personal memories sung to the tunes of various songs Lange was fond of — mellow, made-for-cruising songs by the Eagles, Jimmy Buffett, Simon and Garfunkel.

At first, Chris Lange says, he wasn't sure about his father's idea. "Then, I thought: He would really like something like this. … It left us with a full heart, rather than a sad heart. And if you can do that — what a nice way to remember somebody."

Wake-ing with tradition

In a more itinerant society where people are less rooted to church-focused communities, the Northwest in particular is known for its detachment from spiritual centers.

"Probably 10 to 20 years ago, it was more common for people to be connected to church tradition," says Carol Sauers, of Ballard's Wiggen & Sons Mortuary. "But now their children are holding services, and their children's children… . They're not familiar with the hymns."

"There's a whole generation of people who haven't grown up with that stuff," says musician Ross Hauck, who composed the memorial medley for Gary Lange's Seattle Yacht Club celebration. "There's so many more genres today than there were 20 or 30 years ago, and there's a responsibility on our part to meet people where they're at."

Some songs do endure, despite the spiritual disconnect. "Amazing Grace" and "How Great Thou Art" maintain enough of a following to earn prominent placement on the CD shelf.

"Sometimes [people] choose a mix of the sacred and the secular," Sauers says. "They want the touch of the divine, I guess you could say, but at the same time they want to reflect the life of the deceased and what they really loved."

She loved this song.

Somehow, those lyrics just say everything we want to say.

We heard this song and it just choked us up — can we use it?

Memorable memorial music

In Britain, whose industry regularly polls funeral homes for their most popular musical selections, The Guardian newspaper last year reported these tunes among the top 10: Frank Sinatra's "My Way," Robbie Williams' "Angels," Celine Dion's "My Heart Will Go On," Whitney Houston's "I Will Always Love You" and Eva Cassidy's "Over The Rainbow."

Funeral homes need licensed permission to play copyrighted music, so industry groups such as the National Funeral Directors Association and the International Cemetery and Funeral Association often negotiate those rights on their behalf.

While no such data is collected here, Amundsen says soft ballads or country tunes are Evergreen-Washelli's most popular nontraditional selections — Celine Dion, Faith Hill or Josh Grobin, for example.

Another recent selection: Brad Paisley and Dolly Parton's "When I Get Where I'm Going," which he describes as a song "about loved ones who have left us, and when we get to heaven we'll hug that granddad we've been missing, that kind of thing."

Memorial services for those in the biker community provide some of the most common nontraditional settings. "They have more raucous-type songs than we're used to, and we're happy to have it," Sauers says.

A while back, Amundsen oversaw a service for a Corvette-driving man in his 50s who liked the Kentucky Headhunters' remake of the Norman Greenbaum classic "Spirit in the Sky."

"We closed the ceremony with that at the wife's suggestion," Amundsen says, "and asked that everybody close their eyes and imagine they were riding in the passenger seat, on a sunny day, in a Corvette with the top down. Here's how he sails off into the sunset, if you will."

Where does that leave all the organists and the soloists? Says Amundsen: "They're trying to get wedding gigs."

Marc Ramirez: 206-464-8102 or mramirez@seattletimes.com