By Mike Flaim
This article first appeared in the Fall 2017 issue of Massachusetts Family Business magazine.
As difficult as the death of a loved one can be, the practicalities of bidding goodbye used to be considerably more challenging than they are today. Before the invention of the automobile, funerals were held in the deceased’s home. Families, friends and neighbors came together quickly to pay their respects, purchase a casket and bury the deceased (sometimes on their own property if a cemetery was too distant). If an undertaker lived nearby, a family could hire them to retrieve the deceased, embalm them, return them to the home for a wake, and then perform the burial.
Once cars became ubiquitous, though, funeral services were gradually removed from the home. In the 20th century, the “undertaker” – the dour cabinetmaker-turned-coffin-maker driving a hearse as black as his buckram suit – became the funeral director. Our relationship with death changed and continues to evolve thanks to modern-day funeral directors like Reid McHoul, Jim Delaney, Tim Keefe and the businesses started by their grandfathers. All three are now the third generation in their family’s businesses, whose respective legacies were built by intimately understanding the needs and desires of families coping with the death of a loved one.
The First Funeral Home
Despite the sign, the Sperry & McHoul Funeral Home is owned solely by the McHouls (Sperry was the original owner, and had the building constructed in 1921). Reid McHoul, whose father purchased the home from the Sperry estate in 1975, believes that it may be the oldest building in the country built specifically as a funeral home and not, as most are, converted from what was originally a private home.
Most funeral homes are Victorians, old houses with a multitude of rooms and sweeping, spacious parlors. Reid’s location in North Attleboro has all of those, but it doesn’t have an extensive upper floor like a house would.
The main entryway leads to a small chapel were services are held. The curved ceiling features a wan blue sky and cornsilk clouds populated with putti. An organ loft is situated behind and above the entryway. What used to be the embalming room is located toward the back of the building, with a decidedly less decorative but more practical pine floor in the event of spilled embalming chemicals. Guarded by burgundy carver chairs and a sliding door is the entranceway to an elevator – operated by pulling on ropes to move the counterweight of stacked bricks – built for the purpose of moving caskets from the basement to the viewing area.
McHoul’s grandfather was the first of the family to join the business. He had three sons, all of whom became funeral directors, and two of those three married funeral directors. Three of Reid’s cousins are also funeral directors, and two of their kids have followed in their parents’ footsteps. Given the extensive family connection and how common it is for the next generation to continue in the business in this profession, McHoul’s path wasn’t as narrow as one might expect.
“I studied economics,” he said. “I thought about getting into business management, but started taking classes I didn’t really like. The major is easy, but the emphasis on climbing the corporate ladder, of undercutting people, it was terrible. Family business is much better to get involved with.”
McHoul was free to pursue whatever interested him without any hint of pressure from his family, but his persona is such that to do anything else seems like a misstep. He realized this for himself as he was weighing a choice between becoming a funeral director’s apprentice or interning at the Federal Reserve during college. Today, he refers to his chosen path not as a career, but as a vocation.
“It’s not fun, necessarily, but it is rewarding,” he said.
When asked how he deals with the difficult days – and there certainly are difficult days – he begins to answer by saying, “No matter what your worst day is, [the family] is having a worse one.”
His role is to try, as best he can, to lead the decedent’s friends and family to a positive place. He spoke of a service he had last month; a very young woman had passed away after a battle with cancer.
“Meeting with parents who’ve lost their kids is definitely the toughest thing,” McHoul said, “but the girl loved horses, and wasn’t big on formal wear.” With that knowledge, Reid arranged for the casket to be carried to the cemetery in a horse-drawn carriage, and the family asked that people wear boots and jeans. McHoul understands that some may bristle at the thought of wearing anything less than formal attire to a funeral, but, he said, “to me, I serve the families. I don’t care what people think.”
A Personal Approach for Each Family
This devotion to the deceased and their family finds no greater champion than James Delaney of James H. Delaney & Son Funeral Home in Walpole.
“We’re a two-part profession: we’re here for the care of the deceased and the care of the family,” Delaney said. “And both are equally important. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Delaney is only 32 years old, but already has more than two decades of experience. Thanks to the influence of his grandfather and his father, he knew earlier that he wanted to join the family profession.
“Watching the two of them work together and do what they did to provide a wonderful service to the community, it intrigued me,” he said.
Recognizing his calling, he studied psychology in college not with the goal of entering into private practice or working in a counseling facility, but to augment his ability to guide a family through grief and ease their burden of loss.
But as comfortable as he was with his decision, Delaney said that being a funeral director demands malleability: “Even if you have the perfect cutout for this profession, it’s still a growing process.” Each family is unique, and the service provided by Delaney and his father, Jay, requires a personalized approach each time. In one instance, a woman had passed and the family revealed that their daughter was a Disney fanatic. With the help of his colleagues at Life Celebration, Delaney brainstormed a Disney-themed service. This entailed decorating his funeral home with Disney memorabilia; every available mantle and table space was occupied by framed photos of family vacations to Disneyland, heartfelt quotes, plush Mickey Mouse toys and princess wands. He even had Disneyland themed “tickets” that were handed to the family and their guests.
Whether it’s taking care of paperwork or taking the reins on planning a service that a family will cherish, there is no rubric for a director to follow, nor is there a schedule. He is always on-call.
“I look at it this way: if you’re calling me – especially at 3 in the morning – something’s wrong,” he said. “You don’t want to talk to someone who doesn’t know what’s going on, you don’t want to talk to an answering service; you want to talk to someone who knows what the next steps are.”
Always on Call
Tim Keefe of Keefe Funeral Homes echoes the “always on call” sentiment. Like the Delaneys, the Keefes rarely use an answering service. Keefe said it’s important that the person calling for his family’s expertise speaks to his family.
“We take a lot of pride in the fact then when a family calls the Keefe funeral home, they’re going to get a Keefe,” he said.
The odds of speaking to a Keefe are good; the family runs two funeral homes – one in Cambridge and one in Arlington – and there are a lot of Keefes to staff them. Keefe works alongside his older brother Chad, who is also a full-time funeral director. Tim’s twin brother Jeff is a full-time firefighter for the city of Cambridge and also devotes nearly 50 hours a week to the family business. Uncles Jack and Dan work there too, and their father Charlie, despite being retired, checks in every day. Keefe’s sister Christy – a registered social worker – is involved as well; she offers grief and counseling classes for grieving families.
They also have non-family staff, and Tim and his siblings have young families of their own.
“Our wives are very patient,” he said. “Our workday starts at 7 in the morning and we usually go well past five in the evening. You go home, you have some dinner, but if someone dies, you come back here, you put your suit on, and you go pick them up. And holidays – people still die on Christmas – so someone needs to be on call. If we’re out to dinner somewhere and a death call comes in, they [his family] understand that it’s time to get the check. I’ve been with my wife since the sixth grade, so she knew what she was getting into. You always anticipate that someone’s going to pass away and you have to be in your best frame of mind to show up to the house, be respectful, and pick someone up.”
Despite such responsibility, there’s no sign that their family business puts a negative stress on their own family dynamics. In a sentiment echoed by McHoul and Delaney, Keefe mentions that he didn’t experience pressure to continue in his father’s and grandfather’s footsteps. The father of daughters, he would be pleased if they entered the business (but no pressure).
“People keep saying, ‘You know, you’re going to have to have that boy to carry the name,’ but the females in this industry are just as good – if not better – than the males,” he said.
Though the profession will change, as will the people in it, more than likely another generation of Keefes, McHouls and Delaneys will be there, guiding families through grief and stewarding them through the passing of their loved ones.
Mike Flaim is associate editor at The Warren Group, publisher of Massachusetts Family Business magazine. He may be reached at email@example.com.