4 Tips on Creating a Thoughtful Gift

tributegiftguideA friend of mine reached out to me recently because she wants to give her grandmother something meaningful for her 98th birthday. My friend’s grandmother is an amazing, independent woman who works out on a recumbent bike and loves dessert and vodka martinis. (The secret to life, apparently!)

My friend considered spa treatments and jewelry (which of course are always great), but she really wanted give something her grandmother could treasure. So we decided to do a book, where everyone in her family will write something lovely, funny or poetic about her, with photographs interspersed. It’s basically part love letter, part photo album, part scrapbook.

Here at Tribute, we love creating these kinds of gifts that celebrate family members, especially while they are here to enjoy it.

If you are looking to create a meaningful gift for your loved one, here are 4 tips:

  • Write a wedding toast: Some of the best wedding toasts start with a funny anecdote, followed by some warm words about the bride or groom, followed by well wishes. This model translates well for a book or video tribute because the tone is just right. It’s more thought out and personal than just saying “Happy birthday I love you,” but not a lengthy, emotionally charged memoir, either.
  • Think Creatively: On one book I worked on, a family member created a personalized word search puzzle with great adjectives that described her grandparent.
  • Family Portrait: In a world of selfies and digital photo albums, taking the time to pose as a family for a portrait that is then printed and framed is a rare and beautiful thing.
  • T-shirts/mementos: When presenting your book/video/photo tribute, embrace the schmaltzy-ness of the moment. Get t-shirts made for everyone that says the date and occasion and make them wear it!  You can also get customized candy, key-chains, picture frames, etc. for everyone to remember the gathering. Have fun with it all!

Reasons for the Rise of Green Funerals

ecofuneralsOn Sunday, the New York Times ran a prominent story on the rise of green funerals and baby boomer’s increasing desire for individualized, meaningful funerals.

The article’s main subject is Amy Cunningham, who is a funeral director at Greenwood Heights in Brooklyn, New York. Greenwood Heights prepares all kinds of funerals but it specializes in green funerals, which typically consists of a simple and natural burial in a biodegradable casket or shroud, or a cremation with the remains placed in an ecofriendly urn.

Green funerals can be less expensive than a traditional funeral and, in addition to environmental interests some are comforted by the idea of being naturally reunited with the earth and soil. Similarly with cremation, the term “ashes to ashes” means going back to the earth.

All of these are really important reasons but I think the overriding principle is that people want their sendoff to have meaning, to do good and to represent who they were.

Ms. Cunningham entered the funeral profession after she and her siblings planned “the most glorious memorial service” for their father, which included a jazz band. Though devastated by the loss, she articulated beautifully the reason for a personalized, meaningful farewell, in that she felt “elated about what we had built as a family.”

Obituaries of the Week: Comedic Legend, Provocative Columnist, Poetry Slam Movement’s Star, and Prominent Businessman and Philanthropist



This week, we pay tribute to a comedic legend, newspaper columnist, poet and philanthropist.

Sid Caesar was a legendary comedian and TV visionary. He paved the way for fellow funny people Mel Brooks, Woody Allen and Neil Simon, who all wrote for Caesar’s sketch-comedy program Your Show of Shows. He also helped inspire Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner’s “Two Thousand Year Old Man” routine and was a mentor to dozens of other comedians. As Mel Brooks put it, “No Sid Caesar, no Mel Brooks.”

Gregory Kane, a former newspaper columnist for The Baltimore Sun, was a provocative writer who described himself as “a lifelong Baltimore resident, liberal on some issues, conservative on others, a veritable fascist on the topic of crime.” ‘He challenged a lot of traditional political thought in the African-American community,” said talk-show radio host Anthony McCarthy. ‘When I’d have him as a guest on my show, he’d say to me, ‘I’m your token conservative.’ He was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize with reporter Gilbert Lewthwaite in 1997 on a three-part series about slavery in Sudan.,0,3008962.story#ixzz2ttaXhhHB

Maggie Estep was a novelist and poet who brought spoken-word poetry mainstream in the 1990’s. The Los Angeles Times says “Estep was a sassy, slightly twisted New Yorker who wrote and performed humorous, biting pieces that merged poetry with stand-up comedy.” She rose to fame by performing in HBO’s “Def Poetry Jam,” Woodstock ’94 and Lollapalooza.–maggie-estep-20140214,0,6984728.story#ixzz2tteqREwv

Stewart W. Bainum Sr. arrived in Washington D.C. in 1936 with three dollars in his pocket. He went on the found the nursing home and hospitality chains now known as HCR Manor Care and Choice Hotels International, which includes brands such as Comfort Inn, Quality Inn, Clarion, Econo Lodge and Sleep Inn. He and his wife founded the Commonweal Foundation in 1968 to support the education of underprivileged youths. In 1988, Mr. Bainum promised 67 seventh-graders at Kramer Junior High School in Southeast Washington that he would finance their college educations if they graduated from high school. He remained in touch with some of those students until his death, his son told the Washington Post.



Obits of the Week: A Folk Legend, Heroic Veteran, Cartoonist, Marlboro Man and Rodeo Clown










We stated it in an earlier post on The Finale and we’ll state it again: a well-written obituary—whether it be for a movie star, rodeo clown (see below) or your next door neighbor—can be fascinating, funny, evocative and an opportunity to learn about some interesting people who aren’t necessarily being profiled in major publications.

Each week, The Finale will highlight a few of the many, many interesting obituaries from the week, honoring a handful of the countless magnificent people who left this world better than they found it. The fist installment includes a folk legend, heroic veteran, cartoonist, Marlboro man and rodeo clown.

Pete Seeger, the legendary folk singer and activist who “sang for the labor movement in the 1940s and 1950s, for civil rights marches and anti-Vietnam War rallies in the 1960s, and for environmental and antiwar causes in the 1970s and beyond. ‘We Shall Overcome,’ which Mr. Seeger adapted from old spirituals, became a civil rights anthem.”

James David Addis, a WWII hero who, as a teenager, served with the 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 82nd Airbone Division. Jim saw combat in Sicily, Holland and Germany, where he fought in the Battle of the Bulge. After being captured and then released by German soldiers, Addis helped liberate Auschwitz.

Morrie Turner was one of the first mainstream black cartoonists and was most famous for the comic strip “Wee Pals,” which Ebony called “the first truly integrated strip.” Mr. Turner said he wanted the strip to promote tolerance and understanding, or “rainbow power.” He once wrote that of wanting “to portray a world without prejudice, a world in which people’s differences — race, religion, gender and physical and mental ability — are cherished, not scorned.”

Eric Lawson, the actor who portrayed The Marlboro Man in the 1970’s, also had bit parts in “Baretta,” “Charlie’s Angels,” and “Dynasty.” He is the fifth “Marlboro Man” to lose his life due to a smoking-related illness. Lawson was later featured in an anti-smoking ad and an Entertainment Tonight segment about the dangers of smoking.

Quail Dobbs was a rodeo clown for 35 years, and was inducted into the ProRodeo Cowboy Hall of Fame in 2002. He retired in 1998 to become a West Texas judge.



The Socialite Who Killed a Nazi With Her Bare Hands and What We Can Learn From Other Amazing Obituaries



In an ideal world I’d read the newspaper everyday cover-to-cover but on those frequent time crunched mornings, I’ll scan the major headlines and then go straight to the obituary page. I see the obit page as a mini non-fiction book where I can learn about so many extraordinary people in such a short amount of time.

In 2012 The New York Times ran 30 obituaries on the front page, more than double over the year before. William McDonald, the Times Obituary editor said, “Obituaries are essentially journalistic profiles that open windows onto the recent past.” Well-written obituaries are so popular that The New York Times releases a book each year containing its best recent obits. Last year’s book was brilliantly titled “The Socialite Who Killed A Nazi With Her Bare Hands and 143 Other Fascinating People Who Died This Past Year: The Best of the New York Times Obituaries, 2013.” (Read about that socialite here.) 

So what makes a great obituary? (Hint: Nazi-hunters, nuclear physicists and popular celebrities aren’t the only ones to receive well-written obits.)

  • Colorful details: An obituary for a Mississippi man named Harry Stamps went viral last spring because his daughter, who wrote the piece, decided to forgo the traditional obit and write something that paints a touching and funny picture of her dad. Stamps loved a “martini glass filled with buttermilk, garnished with a chunk of cornbread” and “his signature everyday look was all his: A plain pocketed T-shirt designed by the fashion house Fruit of the Loom.” I didn’t know Harry, but I think I would have liked him.
  • More feelings, Less Facts: The recent death of former New York Observer editor Peter Kaplan prompted many poignant tributes including one from his friend and colleague Phillip Weiss who wrote, “The feeling he cultivated in everyone he worked with was that we needed him, that he saw the very best inside us. He would close the door and make you feel like the most important person in the world.” These shorter tributes to Kaplan on Twitter were also all about feeling, less about fact.
  • Everyone is interesting and everyone has a story: Maclean’s, the Canadian magazine, has a regular section called The End, which features obituaries for everyday, extraordinary people who may have lived quieter or less well-known lives but are nonetheless fascinating to read about. I’d love to see more features like this in national publications. 
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7 Steps to a Successful Oral History


StoryCorps, the non-profit organization that facilitates the ability to record, share and preserve the story of our lives is celebrating its 10th anniversary. StoryCorps is one of the largest oral history projects and has inspired millions of people to feel more connected both to their loved ones and to strangers. Everyone has an interesting story to tell!

Tribute shares StoryCorps’ values in the importance of capturing people’s character, stories, humor, etc. It is incredibly rewarding to create lasting legacies with books and video tributes, but sometimes a simple audio recording is all you need.

Here are 7 tips for a successful oral history interview:

  • Provide context: Before you start the interview, introduce yourself, the interviewee and provide the date, location and other essentials so in 100 years, the audience will know the context.
  • Don’t stop and start: Keep the recording device or video camera on throughout the interview (unless asked to turn it off). You often get the best answers from the “outtakes.”
  • Don’t interrupt: Try not to interrupt the interviewee and let them take the discussion where they want. Sometimes this can lead to fascinating discoveries. Also, don’t be afraid of pauses. Sometimes it takes a few moments to conjure up memories so allow a few moments of silence in between questions to be sure your interviewee has completed his or her thought.
  •  Follow-up: Use follow questions to invite more information on interesting subjects, such as, “When did that happen?” “Can you give me an example of this happening?” “How did you feel about that?”
  • Stay Engaged: The interviewee feels more comfortable knowing you are paying attention rather than looking at your notes or recording device.
  • Get personal: Personal questions about first love, divorce, embarrassing moments, etc. are hard to ask but they often elicit some of the best stories you’ve never heard.
  • Accept no for an answer: If you ask something that your interviewee doesn’t want to answer, don’t push it. If you want to try asking the controversial questions, do it towards the end of the interview.

Make sure the share the recording with your family and friends! It is a gift they will treasure and sharing will surely amplify the legacy of your loved one.

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Found at The National Funeral Directors Association Meeting

I recently attended the National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA) meeting in Austin, Texas. It was a great opportunity to learn about new trends in the industry as well as meet some amazing people who are passionate about helping families grieve and remember loved ones.


Some of the highlights include:


  • Urns: Though I saw many beautifully designed caskets and urns, my overall favorite was “Souvenair” an urn by 33 Design Labs. This simply designed, modern wind chime has just the softest ring that can make you feel like your loved one is with you when you hear the wind blow.

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  • Memory Books: Funeral Directors can create printed books using photos, obituaries and well wishes from family and friends via software from digital guestbooks.


  • Video: Video solutions are in-demand in the funeral industry. I spoke with multiple vendors and funeral directors who agree that families like slideshows and videos played at services. Funeral Directors are also offering videos of the service—livestream and DVD—both for guests who are not able to attend in-person and the family who want to remember the tribute to their loved one.


  • Personalization: You don’t have to be Richard Branson to be buried in space—Moon Memorials is a company that will launch your loved one’s ashes to the moon. Also, hearses driven by motorcycles, gemstones made with hair or ashes, and pet funerals are just a few examples of how the funeral industry is responding to a greater demand for customization.


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