MEMPHIS, Tenn. — When Ryan Bernard bought an old bank building in southeast Memphis, he found an unusual use for the drive-thru window.
Bernard, owner of R. Bernard Funeral Services, offers grieving loved ones the chance to pay their last respects conveniently from their car. Guests drive up and view the body through a bullet-proof window. The drive-thru visitation service is a mobile spin on the traditional wake.
"I got the idea a couple of years back when I was out in California. It caught my attention. I thought it was neat and thought I could bring it back to Memphis and this area," said Bernard. "Being in Memphis, we are surrounded by a lot of big-name funeral homes that have been around for 100 years, so being the new kid on the block, so to speak, I needed something unique to make me stand apart."
In addition to novelty, Bernard said that the drive-thru viewings offer accessibility and convenience.
"It helps out those that lack (physical) mobility, those who don't feel like the hassle of parking cars and getting out or those who are scared to come into a funeral home,” said Bernard. “A lot of funeral homes creep people out.”
The drive-thru visitation is not a new concept, but the business in Memphis' Orange Mound neighborhood is one of the first to offer the service in the mid-South. A few funeral homes outside of the Memphis also offer the service. On the West Coast, Robert L. Adams Mortuary in Compton, Calif., also advertises drive-thru viewings.
In the Midwest, Paradise Funeral Chapel in Saginaw, Mich., began offering drive-thru visitations in 2014.
"When we first started it, everybody was talking about it and it was a big deal," said Ivan Phillips, owner of Paradise Funeral Chapel. "Things have now calmed down, and we use the service two to three times a week."
Bernard said since he opened his funeral home in January, six families have selected the drive-thru option. The service is part of the funeral packages and offered at no additional charge.
"We still have traditional visitation services," Bernard said. "The drive-thru is just an added bonus for your family member. It is up to the family to decide if they want this option."
The drive-thru service typically lasts one hour. A black-and-gold sign that reads “Drive Thru Viewing” directs visitors to a driveway where they are greeted by an employee holding an iPad. The iPad serves as an electronic update to the pen-and-paper guestbook. The employee also collects condolence cards and gifts for the family.
After the check-in, the visitor drives through a gated area. The flat concrete overhang offers shade and privacy as guests peer into the window to pay their final respects. Each car gets approximately three minutes alone with the body in the window, before the next carload of visitors come through.
Bernard said reaction has been mostly positive, but others have said they find it disrespectful. Bob Arrington, a funeral home owner in Jackson, Tenn., falls in the latter camp.
"In my opinion, I don't think the body should be put on display like a new car," said Arrington, who also is the former president of the National Funeral Directors Association.
"I think if it was to catch on, so to speak, it would be geographical," Arrington said. " I think one of the last ones to do it would be in the South because we are so traditional and so tightly wrapped to the Bible Belt."
The Memphis funeral home director said that drive-thru visitation is simply one of the many innovations that he hopes to bring to R. Bernard Funeral Services and the Memphis market. He has already added live streaming of funerals and in the next few months cremation will be offered.
"The funeral industry is always changing every year. I keep the old traditional funeral stuff and try to add new stuff to it,” Bernard said. "I am 41 years old. I am not out just to market to the grandmas and grandpas, I am trying to get the millennials and the Baby Boomers too.”