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Season 2 Episode 116: What in the Hell

I had no clue which Goodwill tie I’d wear to my first day. June 26, 2010, I drove up to the sprawling building and parked in a random spot. Entering through the back door where florists drop deliveries, I took one last look at my gray pin striped suit I had purchased from Express. A grown up?! No. I felt like the new kid at the lunch table. 

I was working visitations for free before my official start date. In my father-in-law’s defense now, he had no clue. I never kept hours. I just wanted to learn. Learn everything. How to greet. The building’s layout. Where things went. Except for the trash bags. We will get to that. 

First days are so many things. What they aren’t is predictable. In passing, I had met some of the staff previously. Megan lived above the funeral home, and when my brothers and I would come visit and hang out, we would enter through the popular flower room entry, and one of the staff would be walking one way or another from the flower room and a quick hello would be exchanged. One of the directors was neighbors with Aaron, so I was familiar with them. The staff was made up of seasoned professionals, so of course glances of “who the hell is this” were flying at me right and left. I can’t blame them, really. Career funeral directors who’ve made a living and raised a family with this profession are now sharing the walls and halls they’ve made their own with some nobody who has no business being there. Only because of a friendship and persistence is he here. But in all reality, wasn’t it similar for these people shooting glares?

Each morning was coffee right at 8 am in the lounge. Not just 30 minutes either. Not a strategic meeting to discuss the plan and schedule for that days services. No. Just coffee. The veteran directors would talk about their favorite shows, politics, church and other matters I had no knowledge of. The median age was 66, and at 25 I just inserted myself. Nikki would be eating her crackers off to the side with a smile, Ken would fold the Messenger-Inquirer newspaper every way a paper could possibly be folded, and then start all over. I just sat after being introduced. Needless to say, the 2 hour coffee meeting adjourned quickly this day. I realized I wasn’t welcomed. A group of people who’ve devoted their lives to making people feel good, welcomed, honored, were not doing the best of job doing so for me. That’s for another episode.

The best and worst thing that ever happened to me was on this particular day, my first day. I was paired with a director I’ll call Stu. Stu was known to be kind, chummy and friendly to everyone. They were involved in every group and organization around town. Never once, and starting on day one, did I experience any of that. This man hated me. Still does. Just recently, I saw them at a visitation, and they can’t even look at me in the eyes. I’d be ashamed, too. Sure, I was an idiot. I was clueless. I had no idea about anything regarding funeral care, aside from the free labor I offered a few weeks prior and the couple of times my family needed the services of a funeral home. But, and a big But, I was so eager. I wanted to be the absolute best. I had age against me. I had lack of knowledge against me. I had the simple fact I was hired because of Megan against me. I was pretty doomed as far as making friends was concerned. The air was thick for me. 

I wish there was really cool ending to this hot June day. No. I went home after day one realizing the following:

The funeral home smelled funny

It was dated

There was a lot of sitting around and waiting (gosh, those days no longer exist)

Stu really doesn’t like me.

Ken is loyal

I only have one suit

Days and nights followed. Pivotal moments followed. Like the time a few months in, Stu told me to quit. Or, how Nikki was a really good embalmer and I’d just watch all the time and asked more questions than a 4 year old. We did a lot of things the weirdest of ways when it came to technology. We weren’t very busy either. We conducted a couple of funerals a week, and drank a ton of Maxwell House coffee. I started recognizing pretty quickly after becoming an apprentice we were just running through the motions of things. It was just a cookie cutter approach. Get it down, make sure there’s no disasters, and be done. Nothing magical. No sprinkles on top. Pretty casket. Neatly dressing. Nice positioning. Vacuum lines in the carpet. Candles. Framed photos. CD players and CDs for service music. CDS! Press record on the cassette tape recorder to capture the service. Drop it in a bag. Just a black bag. No name. Nothing. And it’s over. 

As an apprentice at this point, it’s essentially the state of Embalmers and FD’s saying you can operate under the licensure of another employee and they sign off as supervisor, I was taking mental note, and now voicing opinions, suggestions. You see, this whole thing of being ridiculed and dismissed for not being in the profession, or growing up in it, was actually my biggest advantage, and arguably what has gotten me where I am. That and genuinely, whole-heartedly never stopping my desire to learn and better myself and things. I looked through the eyes of a consumer. As a consumer, we pay for services we want. And never question paying for them. We choose services and items and places and cars and hotels based on experiences. Well, Haley had nothing overtly special to have people leave being wowed. The families were being served, but not the people coming to show those families love. The building was dated. Outdoor carpet indoors. Murals on the walls. Old, stained furniture. Grumpy staff. Yes, grumpy. Stu especially. I was put on his schedule. He wasn’t happy.

I had wanted to go on every death call. It’s where you go to the place of death, whether a residence, nursing facility and transfer them into your care and travel back to the funeral home to embalm. At this point, it’s just Megan, newly licensed on Ken’s schedule, as the embalmer. And me on the other schedule as the apprentice embalmer. I had to learn quick in the prep room. And quick, I did. Every death call. Every embalming. Every family I could, I did it. And I’d listen to the families. Do you offer this? Can we do this? The other funeral homes do. Well, crap. I don’t want to do it just because they do, but I want to do something even better. I’d come up with ideas and run them to Mike. I just wouldn’t stop pushing. We were the only home with no answering service. Meaning, we had to sit by a land line phone. No grocery trip. No ball game. Unless your partner covered for you. 

I remember the fight over a steak at Mike’s house when asking if we could please do an answering service. “we’ve always done it this way.” In Mike’s defense. He had done everything himself. Since 1962, he’s kept the ship sailing. Becoming president in 1978, answering to owners and stock holders. 36 stock holders to be exact. Buying them all out in ’98. Serving two terms as coroner. Waiting on every family. He earned his stripes. 

Years of doing something alone as a leader doesn’t offer too much extra time to work on the carpet, the flow, the experience. Printed materials. Value offerings. Vender relationships. Key people. Processes. Products. Grounds. 

By this time, I”m licensed. Megan and I are married. Mike has thrown up his hands after years of “hey, what about this” was said in his office. He gave Megan and I a shot at turning the ship around. A once premiere location, serving the majority of our community was now serving the least amount. People were not coming back. We became brutally honest with ourselves. We admitted so many mistakes to ourselves. 

Starting with our people, we created policy. We focuses on our words. Words mattered. We focused on the arrangement conference. That’s when the dreaded appointment of scheduling a funeral takes place. No one wants to do these, so how do we make them interactive with families. We did. We listened. We directed. Gave ideas. Included surprises for the family when they arrived for private family time. Favorite candies. Male staff wearing the loved one’s favorite color tie. Stopped just putting casket sprays on caskets. We made sprays out of their sunflower fields, tobacco fields, home grown gardens. We tackled phone etiquette. Did you know an absurd percentage of people will only have a personal experience with a funeral home employee via the phone until they need their services. We focused on phone experiences like crazy. We thanked people for trusting us. We started writing hand written letters to families who called upon us to serve them. We stayed in touch with them, long after the funeral. We remembered them. 

After the phones, it was being involved. Attending the bereavement meals after the funerals. It was actively educating families the value of pre planning. Educated people make educated decisions. We got involved with children and teenagers. We literally pulled back the curtain and developed a way to show what actually happens when someone calls upon us. We embraced technology. Funeral Service is one of the most set in their ways profession. What is technology? We were going to make technology a part of the service. More importantly, a part of how we served.