Allison Copening has a thick binder full of Las Vegas-area funeral information in the small conference room of her Summerlin office. Among other things, it lists casket prices—at one mortuary, a “Venetian Bronze” costs more than $20,000; at another funeral home, a “Silverado Stainless Steel” is $5,000.
Copening, sporting a smart black suit and engaging smile, has the friendly demeanor of, say, a TV newscaster, or perhaps a winning politician. That’s because she’s been both—a reporter at KLAS Channel 8, and a Democratic state senator from Clark County District 6. Now, at 49, she’s taken on what she believes was her calling all along: She’s become a funeral planner.
Planner doesn’t really tell the whole story, though. To understand her new business, Seasons Funeral Planning Services, which opened in July, you have to know a little about the competitive and often confusing funeral industry. Copening’s been studying it for more than a decade and even went to work at Palm Mortuary after her term in the Senate in order to learn the business.
Here’s something you don’t hear someone say every day: “I’ve been saving articles about the funeral business for years. I’ve had it in my mind that this was my calling since back in 2000.”
Odd? Morbid? Not to her. Instead, it’s less about joining the field than redefining it. She wants to take the fear and confusion out of the process of planning a funeral—and ultimately change the way people think about death. Too many times, she says, shocked and grieving survivors are in too vulnerable a place to make sound funeral decisions.
People can comb the Internet comparing casket prices and reading up on embalming laws, but more often, when a loved one dies, survivors are apt to need professional help navigating a serious set of expenses—complete funeral expenses can cost more than $40,000.
Copening knows firsthand. Her brother died of melanoma that turned into a brain tumor in 2008. “I jumped in there and became the person who orchestrated the service,” she says, “because I’m an event planner by nature. But I was in a daze, too.”
Ideally, funerals should be celebrations of a person’s life, Copening says, and she sees the baby boomer generation and younger generations embracing the idea of multimedia funerals, personalized celebrations and receptions, and unique services—“If someone was an Elvis fan and the family wants wall-to-wall Elvis posters, they should have it.”
She and her business partners offer first-step “companion” consultant services to help the bereaved make the first, practical decisions after a death. Thus, the thick binder—she has information on every local mortuary. Beyond that initial consultation, her company sells complete funeral planning and reception planning.
Her business model works something like this: The bereaved pay fees for services; but oftentimes, because Copening has developed relationships with local mortuaries and cemeteries, she may guide consumers to deals that ultimately save them money. In pre-planning, she may also bring a client to a funeral home, which will then discount the price because of the new business. For someone with Copening’s experience, it’s Networking 101.
National funeral analysts call this type of consulting a “new wrinkle” in the industry—one not always welcome by existing full-service funeral homes until consultants start bringing new business their way.
Copening takes to heart the opportunity to celebrate a person’s life. She recently completed courses to become an official “celebrant”—who can officiate at the ceremony, and write and deliver the eulogy after designing it with family and friends. For her, the very reason she got into public service as a lawmaker—to do what she can to improve peoples’ lives—translates to end-of-life celebrations.
“I just want to help people. It’s just an honor, such an honor.”