Merchant of Grief

THE BLACK MERCEDES sweeps into the parking lot under signage reading "Bradshaw: Creating Meaningful Events That Celebrate Life." Tall and chesty in his herringbone jacket, Jim Bradshaw rushes into the building. A piece of his trim hair hovers out over his forehead like a wisp of gray cotton candy. His eyes are small on his broad, ruddy face, which is shaved to a shine. Though he is the picture of tradition, the suggestion makes him cringe.

"I think what's probably nontraditional," Bradshaw says, "is I don't accept things as they are." Including death, one might add. In the Twins Cities and Stillwater, Bradshaw owns and operates six mortuaries incorporated under the title "Bradshaw Family of Funeral Homes." But the word "funeral" was plucked out of the signage at each location last spring, and replaced with the new Meaningful Events logo. In the 34 years he's been in the funeral business, Bradshaw has taken heat from his competitors for things like embracing cremation and advertising his business on TV. But that's old hat considering what he's up to these days.

Each of his six locations features a particular aspect of his grand new vision, from prearranged funerals and prepayment plans, to grief groups for survivors and death education for health care professionals. This spring, construction will begin on a multipurpose facility in Stillwater that will be available not only for funerals, but for art exhibits and concerts. The grounds will include a Peace Garden for both interring and scattering ashes. Bradshaw beams, his voice hushed, as he imagines the place, full of light and overlooking a pond. "You'll be able to feel nature in the building," he says.

At 52, Bradshaw can't imagine retiring from his $4 million-a-year business. "The work I do is an expression of who I am," he says, "so it's not work. It's my life." Part dreaming dervish, part ritualist, he sleeps five or six hours a night, rising early, rain or shine, for his two-mile walk with his collie, Abbey. It may have been on one of these walks that the idea of a grief gift shop broke the ground of his consciousness. He lost barely a step before forming two focus groups, 24 people in all, to find out the kind of thing future mourners might buy. Greeting cards, for example. From the focus groups Bradshaw learned that rather than "In Sympathy," people prefer the sentiment "We Care." The focus groups also came up with the shop's name, Heal the Heart. For the time being it's located at the South Minneapolis funeral home.

Heal the Heart eventually will sell T-shirts, sweatshirts, and mugs inscribed with the shop's logo. And the name of the deceased, perhaps? "The sky's the limit to what people enjoy," Bradshaw says. And, apparently, to what they will buy. In addition to books such as Getting Past Christmas, and a One Day at a Time Workbook that is accompanied by a teddy bear wearing the motto on his T-shirt, you can buy brass broaches dangling the letters M-E-M-O-R-I-E-S, soft sacks of polished pink rocks called healing crystals, and a guardian angel plaque, gift wrapped with organdy ribbon for $10.95. For that hard-to-buy-for griever, consider a variety of prepackaged seeds, from the $7.95 "Forget-Me-Not Starter Garden" to the $19 "Heavenly Morning." Available but not displayed are urns with space for lasering the image of the deceased, and lockets for wearing a pinch of the deceased's ashes around your neck.

Unlike the traditional mortician, Bradshaw's lineage is not a family of funeral directors. His parents lost their first child in infancy, however. "I don't want to say they never got over it," Bradshaw says. He doesn't have to. The family's mortician, Winston, remained a close family friend. When Bradshaw was about 7, Winston's daughter, Marsha, of the same age, died. And Bradshaw was a child pallbearer for still another child, who was killed getting off a school bus. By age 17 he had his first job in a funeral home, Listoe-Wold, in St. Paul. On his way home at the end of the day, his meticulous boss would run a handkerchief over the hood of the hearse, checking for dust. This attention to detail, Bradshaw says, was the best experience a young man could have had. In his case, it was a kind of basic training for the future.

Bradshaw has not only cornered the local death market, he's created it. At each of his six mortuaries he and his fleet of 50 morticians specialize in individualizing funerals and cremations. The upshot has been everything from bagpipes to doves. The family of an Australian-born woman decided that her coffin should arrive at the cemetery on a horse-drawn hearse. A woman who drove her husband everywhere during his life, drove the hearse to the cemetery herself. The word around the Bradshaw Family of Funeral Homes is that there are "no stoppers," nothing they can't or won't do. It was Bradshaw who choreographed the funerals, not only for Minneapolis and St. Paul police officers Jerry Haaf and Tim Jones, killed in the line of duty, but also for Jones's dog Lazer. "Having dogs at the ceremony, and police dogs lining the steps up to the cathedral, was an expression of who Lazer was," Bradshaw says.

The aging of the baby boomers and the overall decline in dedicated church membership guarantee substantial growth for the funeral industry over the next 10 or 15 years. Large corporations have spotted the economic opportunity in these demographics and bought up privately owned funeral homes world wide. Bradshaw maintains that the bottom line limits these corporate enterprises: They can't individualize for their customers and still turn the profit their shareholders expect. The result is, in his view, an impersonal, cookie-cutter approach to funerals. Bradshaw was all too happy to put his whirligig mind to work on outsmarting the smart. "We're trying to distinguish ourselves as being different from everyone else," he says, "[to] step out in the future and see if we can be more relevant to, not only where society is, but also where we see it going."

To Bradshaw, that future is now. As we browse around Heal the Heart, a beleaguered man and woman pass by after planning a funeral with their personal director. Bradshaw muses that they will arrive home expecting to rest after their three-day vigil leading up to the death. His cheeks flush, his eyes squint as though he's trying to slow down his thoughts. "I have a vision of one day having a little care vehicle," he says, his voice dropping. "We arrive with a coffee pot and chairs. We clean and manicure the lawn. We provide security for the home while the family is away at the funeral. All these are necessities."

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