The Tragic Story of the Generous Funeral Director
The following is a fictitious story based on all too real trends in the funeral industry.
I sit down in Larry’s office and do a quick look around before we start. Framed pictures of his three girls, a couple grandchildren and his wife are standing scattered on his desk. Golf clubs lie in the corner. A giant professionally drawn water color of the “Wellington Funeral Home” hangs on the north wall. And directly behind Larry’s desk a certificate is prominently displayed stating, “The State of New York Board of Funeral Directors hereby Licenses LARRY WELLINGTON to Practice as a Funeral Director.”
That photo, and others, are a couple weeks away from being removed. The “Wellington Funeral Home” had been the last of the family owned funeral homes in this town; that is, until Larry sold it to a corporation. And that’s why I was here. To cover the story for our county newspaper. An economically depressed region, Larry’s business represented one of the few success stories in our area. He was well loved by our town, respected by his business peers and his thundering golf swing had become a tall tale at the local courses.
Larry sat behind his dated metal desk and I in front of it, we know each other well enough that I bypassed the bull and got straight to the point, “Why are you selling?”
“I can’t do it any longer. After 30 years of service, it’s become a business. And I’m done with it.”
“Let’s start from the beginning,” I interrupted. “Why does a 20 year old Larry Wellington decide to become a funeral director?”
“Thirty some years ago my mother died.” Larry told me how his mom – a single mother (his dad was absent all throughout his life) – had been his rock. “She was everything to me” were his exact words. Worked two jobs as long as he could remember and sacrificed everything for Larry – her only child.
“When she died suddenly on that warm July evening – God, I can remember that phone call as clear as day — I had absolutely no idea what to do. Someone suggested that I call what used to be “Thomas Funeral Home” up in Hamilton County. So I called Dale Thomas and he guided me through the whole process of arranging the funeral, settling Mom’s accounts and he would even check up on me months after the funeral was over.”
“About six months after Mom’s death, I had her life savings in my name and I knew what I wanted to do. I wanted to be like Dale Thomas. I wanted to be a funeral director. And I used Mom’s money to go to the McAllister Institute of Funeral Service. I soon met my wife, I graduated McAllister and we moved here – Joan’s hometown – and I started a funeral home with the heart of an angel.”
At this point, Larry became reflective, his face relaxed in a pensive stare. He had been telling me his story like he was reading it out of a book … the facts of his life. And we had reached the point in his story where the facts began to blend with his current reality.
“I started this business with angel’s wings.” He waited, looking at nothing as though he was looking at a vision of himself that only he could see. “After years of being too generous, I’m tired.”
Slowing moving back to a fact teller, Larry explained how his lower prices both helped the success of the start up funeral home and laid the foundation for its demise.
“No professional service charge for children.
If they didn’t have money, I’d work with them.
If there was no insurance policy, I’d trust them.
Before I knew, I had a target on my back, “If you can’t pay, go to Wellingtons.”
At first, I didn’t mind getting beat out of a funeral. Over time — with nearly 7 percent of my customers not paying their bills — it started to wear on me. So, if I didn’t know the family, I’d ask them a litany of questions about payment and money. I then started asking people to pay all the cash advances up front. And even with the unpaid bills, I was still making a sustainable living, but my faith in humanity and my ability to tolerate deception was beginning to reach an unsustainable level.
About a year ago I buried a gentleman in his 50s who died in a car accident. Tragic. Very tragic. I didn’t know anyone in the family … they were from this side of Tioga county. The family – in their distress? – looked me in the eye, told me they had the money for the $10,000 funeral they wanted (real nice Maple casket, the best vault, etc. … they could’ve gone A LOT cheaper) and after the burial I never heard from them again.”
“I lost my wings after that” he said. “Oh, I had been beat before, but this was the one that broke me.”
Moving back to the reality that is, Larry looked at me intensely and said, “I came to a place where I’d been beat — unpaid — by so many people that I was going to have to charge them up front for their funeral. And I couldn’t do that. So I sold it to people who could.”
He continued, “I got in this line of work because I wanted to serve people, but I’ve become too jaded. Too many people are taking advantage of me. And I can’t force myself to take advantage of them.”
And with eyes that begged me for an answer, he asked, “What would you do? What would you have done?”
I didn’t have an answer. We looked at each other for a couple seconds and right before it started to feel awkward he continued, “_____ Funeral Corporation offered me enough for an early retirement and I took it.”
And the tragedy is this: It’s hard enough to run a business in this world. It’s nearly impossible to do so when you’re uncompromisingly generous. And yet, it’s the generous business people that we so desperately need.
Larry will be moving out of his funeral home and a new Funeral Corporation will be moving in. The funeral home name won’t change, but you won’t find Larry in his office. Instead, he tells me, you’ll find him on the greens, creating more tall tales on the local golf course with each long drive.