Once upon a time, there was a beautiful young princess who blessed the lives of many in remarkable ways. Known far and wide for her feisty and fighting spirit, [she] was loving beyond her years….”
What might sound like the beginning of a fairy tale is actually the start of a life story about a young Kalamazoo girl who died at age 10 that was created by the staff of Life Story Network. The young girl had always wanted to be a princess, so the Life Story Network writer assigned to write her story made sure to make her a princess.
Personalized narratives such as this life story are just one of the customized funeral services provided by Life Story Network, a funeral-services business based in Kalamazoo. The company, started in 1997, also provides videos, memory books, eulogies, obituaries and visual boards that create a personalized funeral experience for grieving families.
“The traditional obituary is what we’re trying so hard to get away from,” says Jim Bauschke, who, with partner Herb Ayres, runs Life Story Network. “They’re kind of boring, ingenuine. Funerals too — a lot of them are all the same, all about death.”
It’s a successful business philosophy, and the partners attribute its success to the fact that more and more people want a different type of funeral experience than the traditional “centered on death” ritual. Instead, people want to celebrate life. Both Ayres and Bauschke are quick to point out that funeral home directors want to provide that unique experience too.
To create those custom, celebratory experiences for grieving families and friends, the Life Story Network provides meaningful, in-depth services such as its Life Panel, a chronological collage of the person being remembered; Life Story, a personally written biographical narrative; Life Story Memory Folder, handed out to all who attend a service, complete with photos and Life Story; Life Story Book, a hardcover book that includes a story and photos; Life Story Digital Film, an individualized video combining the digital and written work of Life Story; and a digital Memory Page, an end-of-service film and personalized thank-you cards, complete with the Life Panel, Life Story and images provided by the family.
“We’re trying to keep it real and authentic,” Bauschke says. “We want to really tell who this person was. We’re not afraid of going through the difficult times of a life either — it’s all in there. It’s all a part of what makes up a life.”
Life Story Network is not a funeral home, although both Ayres and Bauschke were once funeral home directors and the Life Story concept was born in a funeral home. The idea came from a funeral that Ayres and partner Jon Durham, a co-founder of Life Story Network, coordinated in 1996 while running a funeral home in Vicksburg.
A couple who owned a print company died tragically, and their staff put together a folder of photos, stories and memories for the funeral. It happened at a time when Durham and Ayres were already struggling with death-centered, expensive, impersonal services, Ayres says, so they decided to start incorporating the concepts the printing company’s employees used into funeral services for other clients.
It was an idea that resonated within the industry. The company has grown from an in-house operation to a company that employs 14 people and serves more than 55 funeral homes in Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin and New York.
The network serves only one funeral home in each local market, providing that home with access to the Life Story Network’s in-house graphic, web and writing services as well as training on how to interview friends and family to gather the personal information needed for the materials. Some funeral homes choose to use the Life Story trademark in their names, such as Betzler Life Story Funeral Home in Kalamazoo and Clock Life Story Funeral Home in Fruitport, Grand Haven and Muskegon, but some don’t.
And the Life Story Network materials serve as more than just remembrances for the visitation and funeral; they become heirlooms that can be handed down to grandchildren and great-grandchildren. That chance to pass down the materials is one of the benefits of Life Story that Ayres and Bauschke feel particularly connected to.
“Herb and I look at our own families and their connection to our ancestors,” Bauschke says. “My boys know very little about my parents and grandparents. They might see a photo, but they don’t know what they loved or what made them laugh. How are they going to know if we don’t tell them?”