A casket rests under an awning as the graveside service is about to begin. Friends and family members gather, each holding a helium-filled balloon. Brightly colored balloons swaying in the breeze contrast with the somber faces of those holding them.
After the service, the balloons are released. As they float silently skyward, mourners reflect on the heavenly fate of their balloon and of the deceased they came to honor.
Previously associated with children’s birthday parties, fairs and the circus, balloons are found today at nearly all important life events - births, birthdays of all ages, graduations, anniversaries, retirements, weddings - and even funerals.
Beau K Florist has been in business for 26 years and has carried balloons the past six. Beau K sends about 10 single balloons each day to patients in nearby hospitals, and delivers about 15 balloon bouquets each week.
Mike Lydon, owner of Beau K, said they once delivered a balloon bouquet announcing to the recipient that he was going to be the father of twins. Another balloon bouquet went to a couple to tell them they were going to be grandparents.
Lydon has seen balloons at funerals, most often at the cemetery service.
“You’d see hundreds of balloons if you drove out to a cemetery right after Memorial Day,” he said. Balloons chosen to decorate a grave most often read “With Love” or “Thinking of You.”
Lydon said people choose balloons because they express their message in large visible words - a totally different impact from that of a small enclosure card.
Daisy’s Bloomers prepares about a dozen balloon bouquets each week. Often ordered for children’s birthdays, balloons are nearly as common for special adult birthdays, such as the 40th. Black balloons with a theme of “Rest in Peace” or “Over the Hill” are usually in order.
Spokane florists say that flower sales have not declined with the rising popularity of balloons. Balloons represent a new market rather than a replacement for the more traditional flowers. Often a customer will order a dozen roses, then as an afterthought ask the florist to add a balloon to the arrangement.
Balloons, because they’re less expensive than flowers, are popular with those on a limited budget. They make inexpensive decorations for large tables and impressive arches for a wedding reception.
A floral bouquet starts at around $20, but “you can send a bouquet of five latex balloons plus one Mylar for $6.50 plus delivery,” said Dan Duncan, owner of Party Palace.
Party Palace treats balloons to help preserve them. Duncan said a treated balloon bouquet easily lasts for a week.
He has made balloon sculptures of 11-foot-tall Santas, Christmas trees and a 12-foot-tall pirate. He was called on to create a balloon sculpture for an autograph-signing appearance at U-City Mall by Adam West, the original Batman. Duncan created a Bat Signal out of yellow and black balloons against a black backdrop.
Biodegradable balloons are used if they are going to be let go as part of a service. Once the balloons land, the heat, sun and weather cause them to disintegrate.
Delivering balloons to a retirement home is a rewarding part of his job, Duncan said. Residents are “just like little kids” when they receive balloons. One recipient was an 80-year-old woman whose family arranged a balloon delivery for her birthday party.
“I put a tiara on her head and made a sash that said ‘Happy Birthday’ that we wrapped around her. The whole dining room went nuts. She was queen for a day; she just ate it up.”
Duncan regularly delivers balloons to a man in a permanent vegetative state. His aunt in California sends him balloons for every holiday. The man doesn’t talk, but he opens his eyes and faces the balloons when they are brought into his room. Duncan says the man seems to try to focus on them.
Another customer is a child, about 8 years old, with cancer. She has been in and out of the hospital, taking chemotherapy and tolerating relapses. Balloons bring joy into her hospital room.
“You can see it in her face,” Duncan said. “I get choked up every time I go into the hospital.”
MEMO: Corliss Lovstad is a Spokane-based free-lance writer.