The Washington Post

Putting the ‘fun’ in ‘funeral’

In the 1980s, determined not to spend too much on his funeral, Al Zanner, of Gaithersburg, threw a party inviting friends to help him make his own coffin. It's now in his garage, holding his golf clubs. (John Kelly/THE WASHINGTON POST)

When you think about it, it’s a shame you have to be dead to have a funeral. The best funerals are like big parties, and who likes missing the party?

In a recent column encouraging people to get their wills done, I asked readers for interesting funeral arrangements they have made or experienced. Maryland lawyer Robert H. Haslinger said that years ago, a client insisted that her final wish was to be buried in her beloved Corvette.

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section. View Archive

“I could not convince her that this was a directive that was not likely to be honored upon her demise,” Robert wrote. “She insisted, so I put it in her will. I don’t know whether this has come to pass.”

Patricia Meinhold of Davidsonville knows what she wants to come to pass after she dies. “My husband, Mike, gets to go on ‘Patricia’s Great Excursion’ so that he can sprinkle my ashes in several bodies of water where I have spent time,” she wrote.

And what about when Mike goes? They’ve talked about his ashes going into a Reef Ball, those manmade structures that are sunk to give oysters and coral a place to latch onto.

“Or should I call it a Grief Ball?” mused Patricia.

Spencerville’s Ken Mackel wrote that before he allowed his son to get a motorcycle license he made him promise to practice his riding. The two set out riding together regularly on a route in Sunshine. It was a place, Ken wrote, with “open road, large pastures, horse farms and the fragrant aroma of manure that reminded me of growing up in Germany.”

Ken’s will stipulates that he will go on one final ride with his son: “He will scatter my ashes along the very route where we took our first ride together. I will always be in Sunshine!”

All you need to know about Roe Panella’s funeral plans is the name of the document outlining them on her computer: OpenCasketOpenBar.doc.

Barbara Petersen shared a nice poem that her mother, Esther Black, wrote shortly before her death in 1988:
There’s something you really should know:

We have all been “assigned to death row.”

Sooner or later, expected or not —

We may as well face it — it’s part of the plot.

So pay up your debts and be ready to leave —

Be thankful you’ve been loved — and no need to grieve.

Just count up your blessings and be well assured

They’re worth more than all the pains ever endured.

Just think of the wonders a freed soul might find

Released from a limited body and mind!

After he retired from dentistry, Gaithersburg’s Al Zanner started volunteering as a hospice caregiver. As part of his training, Al learned about how to prepare for one’s own funeral, “the premise being that one can gift their surviving loved ones by eliminating certain decisions for them at a time of acute stress,” he wrote. 

This resonated with Al, so he purchased a coffin kit at an unfurnished furniture store. He then addressed invitations to “friends of a spiritual understanding whom I judged to be up for a different kind of get-together.”

One Sunday after church his friends arrived for a party, each bringing a potluck dish.  Wrote Al: “After we dutifully screwed and glued the six-sided coffin (similar to what an Irish coffin looks like), we turned it over, put a table cloth on top and enjoyed our lunch.”

Today, Al’s coffin is in his garage, holding his golf clubs and awaiting its final use.  

James Tower of Harpers Ferry, W.Va., has everything planned for his funeral. Should he pass before his husband, John Sims, he wants everyone to treat his memorial the same way they do his birthday. Racy cards should be shared, and everyone will dine on James’s favorite birthday meal: filet mignon, creamed spinach and potatoes au gratin made with smoked Gouda cheese.

“I, of course, having already been cremated, will be attending in my simple yet tasteful bronze urn,” James wrote. “On the urn will be a plaque which states my name, the pertinent dates and the age-old question: ‘Does this urn make my ash look big?’ ”

The final countdown . . .

Brian Ditzler, a volunteer with the Funeral Consumers Alliance of Maryland & Environs, said there is a vast range when it comes to funeral costs in our area. The most expensive funeral homes may charge five times more than the cheapest for essentially the same services, he said.

Shopping around — before you’re dead, obviously — can save your grieving family money. You can find more information at

For previous columns, go to

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