Published September 01. 2012 4:00AM
AKRON, Ohio - Meet Don Pucak, his big red Harley-Davidson and his motorcycle hearse.
The funeral director at Schlup-Pucak Funeral Home in Akron first saw a motorcycle hearse at a National Funeral Directors Association convention. The idea stuck with him.
He and his wife, Susy "wanted to do something different," said Pucak, who has been in the funeral business for more than 40 years. But it's in the past 10 years that he says he's seen the most change.
According to the Cremation Association of North America, the U.S. cremation rate jumped from 26 percent in 2000 to 41 percent in 2010, a figure that's only expected to increase. In addition, Pucak explained, families often want to make a loved one's final sendoff more personal.
With the help of funeral home staff, including retired secretary Judy Heasley of Uniontown, Ohio, and neighbor Larry Pierson of Green, Ohio, the hearse was designed and hand-built.
"It was a labor of love," Pucak said, grinning. "I wanted it to be in the Old Western style." But instead of the antique-looking hearse that once was pulled by horses, "we pull it with a Harley."
The motorcycle hearse, which was put in service about three years ago, is the only one of its kind owned by a funeral home in Akron - perhaps the state. That has prompted funeral homes from throughout Ohio to call on him, though no one in Akron has requested it yet.
Jeff Spence of Spence-Miller Funeral Home in Grove City, Ohio, telephoned Pucak after learning he would be holding a service for a motorcycle enthusiast.
The man, who died last fall in a motorcycle accident, loved the time he and his friends spent on their Harleys. There were some 150 bikes in his funeral procession.
When Pucak pulled the motorcycle hearse up to the doors of the funeral home, family members, who didn't know that such arrangements had been made, were overwhelmed.
"It was great," Spence said. "People still talk about seeing us that day. People tell me 'I want that' - and there's nobody here in the Columbus market that has ever done anything like that.
"It was a 'wow' experience."
Traditional calling hours, which can be spread over a couple of days, are popular among older generations. But Pucak noted that busy young people and baby boomers, who are known to do things their own way, don't always want to go through the formality of multiple calling hours.
Ohio funeral director Eric Anthony said the makeup of services is changing.
"Many are getting away from the traditional religious service," he said. "We are seeing a lot more remembrance services."
In that kind of ceremony, the funeral director explains to those present that the family would like friends to share a memory or story about the deceased.
"It just snowballs," he said. "We get more positive feedback from that than any other type of service that we do."
And some families are opting for direct burials in which the deceased is prepared, placed in a casket and taken directly to the cemetery, with no viewing or traditional service. A party or gathering of some kind is held afterward.
"We had a cremation in which the family had a party at Menches Brothers (Restaurant) on a Sunday afternoon. The American Legion even went out and performed the duties that they normally do," he said.
Families are doing other things differently too. There's an app that reads QR codes on small ceramic medallions attached to tombstones. The app might display a biography, a library of photos and even family tree information for the deceased.
Facebook accounts are set up in which a loved one is memorialized with pictures, poems and comments.
Last year, a procession of wreckers was arranged to pay tribute to a tow truck operator for his funeral at Akron's Dunn-Quigley Funeral Home.
Pucak, a compassionate man with a bit of a mischievous streak, has been in the business long enough not to be surprised by unexpected requests. But the motorcycle hearse is bringing some new surprises.
One woman who recently lost her husband dismissed the notion of riding in a car during her sweetheart's procession, opting instead to sit behind Pucak on his Harley.
For Pucak, it's whatever makes a special memory for a grieving family.
Schlup-Pucak Funeral Home's website mentions that families might want to consider memorializing a biking enthusiast by honoring him with a "last run."
Complete with a motorcycle hearse, a Harley and a funeral director in a do-rag.