When I was a new pastor I imagined that I was breaking new ground, doing things differently than older colleagues. Funerals, for example—folks liked it when funerals were called “celebrations of life” and involved lots of personal stories about the deceased. “Your service was so personal,” a friend of the widow might gush. “I’ve been to so many that were impersonal.” The likelihood that this personal approach had been around forever, and was trite in its own way, hadn’t yet set in. But an enterprising funeral home director liked what he saw and offered me a spot on his payroll if I would show him how to gather and tell these “personal” stories. Was there a template for it?

Well, yes and no. It was really just about listening. I’d get the family together and let them talk about their loved one, then ask questions chronologically and encourage them to ramble. It took some time to put the stories in order, flesh out the themes, apply a little rouge to the cheeks and present the result.

The funeral director wanted speed. It was his idea that “personal” services would transform the industry when matched with rapid production methods. His staff began using a formula—a few personal details larded with references to the Depression or World War II or the 1960s, and juicy memories of family meals. Eventually he built a franchise. In addition to personalized video tributes, his staff offered decorative attachments for caskets—fishing emblems for fishermen, poker baize for poker players and insert panels celebrating a favorite sports team.