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Saginaw funeral home opens a drive-thru window

Steve Carmody
Michigan Radio

Innovation is important for every business.

But you don’t think of funeral homes as places for ‘out of the box’ thinking.

During a funeral service earlier this month, dozens of mourners gathered in the main chapel of the Paradise funeral home in Saginaw.   The chapel filled with music, as the deceased was remembered.

The coffin sat where you would expect, near the front of the chapel.

But in a small room behind the chapel, the funeral home is trying something you wouldn’t expect:  a drive thru window.

“Basically what we have is a lowering device.  It’s a device that was specially made for Paradise,” says Ivan Phillips, the president of the Paradise Funeral Chapelin Saginaw.

Credit Steve Carmody / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
"We tilt (the coffin) far enough that the person in the privacy of their own vehicle can get the full view of the deceased," says Ivan Phillips

Phillips punches buttons on a hydraulic lift.   As the system buzzes, an empty white coffin is rising and falling, in front of a large window facing a parking lot.

“We don’t tilt it too far,” says Phillips, “But we tilt it far enough that the person in the privacy of their own vehicle can get the full view of the deceased individual.”

Paradise is Michigan’s first, and so far only, drive-thru funeral home.

Phillips says the drive thru is great for people who are afraid to enter a funeral home or for those who physically would have trouble getting around inside.

Phillips admits it’s an idea that’s difficult for some people to accept.

“I had a couple people to come out this week and took through the process,” says Phillips, “They were amazed because a person always thinks ‘This is crazy’.    But when you’re actually in your vehicle, it makes a big difference.”

Credit Steve Carmody / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
"A person always thinks ‘This is crazy’," says Ivan Phillips, "But when you’re actually in your vehicle, it makes a big difference.”

The drive thru is remote controlled.    As a car rolls into the drive thru, it activates the system to open the curtains and start playing music.  Sorry, no walk ups.   No bicycles or motorcycles either.   The system is keyed to the weight of a car or truck.   Three minutes later the music fades and curtains close.    The drive thru service would only be available for a few hours in the evening.

Phillips says he’s always looking for ways to innovate the funeral business.   He’s been webcasting funerals since 2008.   He says the drive thru is just another innovation.

When news started circulating around Saginaw this month that a local funeral home had a drive thru window, some people weren’t entirely sure what to think. 

Tiffany Toman admits she was confused at first, but the more she thought about she says it made sense.

“It’s more of a private experience that way,” says Toman, “So if that’s what works for those individuals, sometimes you got to think outside the box.”

But there has been criticism about adding a drive thru window, a service more associated with fast food than funerals.  Phillips says he's heard all the jokes. 

“Can I have French fries?” says Phillips. 

Phillips says he doesn’t read the local newspaper or pay attention to what people may write on Facebook.   Phillips says he stays focused on what he says is his “Vision is for the people.”

Undeterred by jokes and criticism, Ivan Phillips says he’s not only moving ahead with the drive thru and expanding it.

He says he will add a drive thru window to a funeral home he’s planning on building in Lansing. 

Steve Carmody has been a reporter for Michigan Public since 2005. Steve previously worked at public radio and television stations in Florida, Oklahoma and Kentucky, and also has extensive experience in commercial broadcasting.