The Power of Funeral Home Visibility
“Behold I have set before you an open door . . . . “ Rev: 3:8
I have often wondered privately to myself the motivation for people in our profession to make comments such as “When people are done with the funeral home, they don’t want to come back.” Or, “I don’t believe in giving tours,” or “Open houses, seminars and that stuff, well I know my people and they just won’t go for such ideas.” Or “Oh, a seminar in the funeral home, oh yeah, we tried that and it didn’t work.”
I used to adhere to the same thinking. In fact, looking back, I well could have been the poster boy for such myopic thinking, such narrow vision, such basic disinterest in the power of making the funeral home more visible. That was until the summer of 1977 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
My employer during those early years was a stellar human being by the name of John B. Turner. He operated the John B. Turner & Son Mortuary, which was opened, I believe, in the same year that Moses died. The organization was truly amazing. We not only did about 55 percent of all the funerals in our market area, the Turner family also owned the Turner Porti-boy Embalming Machine Company. It is true. The story was that one of Turner’s longtime embalmers, a man by the name of John McNabney, had actually invented the electric injector in the 1930s.
I suspect that many readers of this anecdote—and that is all it is, folks, an anecdote—will jump on this claim of who invented the embalming machine and have other names of other claimants to such a distinct honor. All I know is that the Turner family invented and manufactured the Turner Porti-Boy Embalming Machine for decades, along with high quality microphones.
Now back to the story about visibility of the mortuary.
John Turner was not particularly progressive by today’s standards. I don’t believe many funeral directors in the 1970s can possibly be judged by the standards of success in 2012. However, even by today’s or yesterdays progressive standards, John was not progressive. In fact, he did not have to be progressive; he was doing 800 funeral a year, selling 500 embalming machines a year, and who knows how many Turner microphones ended up in funeral homes, churches, lodges, schools or government halls over the years.
So it came as a tremendous surprise to everybody on the funeral home staff when John boldly announced that he had set up a tour for a group of Webelos, which we discovered was a segment of the Boy Scouts of America.
I had been a Scout growing up, but I had never heard of the Webelos in my life, but I was soon not only going to learn about this extremely interesting group of 10-year-old boys, but one little 10-year-old was going to change the course of my career in short order.
When John made his stunning announcement, you can just imagine the grumbling that went on in the bowels of the mortuary. I was the leader of the complaints, because John had assigned me to give the tour. I had never given a tour in my life, and thought that other funeral directors who did give tours were kooks.
At the appointed hour, 72 Webelos arrived at the front door of the mortuary. The Webelos’ leader looked as stressed out as I think I have ever seen on a man’s face, and with good reason—he had 72 10-year-old boys irritating him at every turn. He told me that the group would be at the mortuary 20 minutes; they stayed 3 hours.
The Webelos were mighty curious about everything in the funeral home that I wanted them to leave alone. They were fascinated by our water cooler, and stood in line with their own Dixie cups to get a cup of water just to watch the bubble go up to the top of the water jug, and then after consuming all this water they formed a line to go to the little boy’s room. It was just a bloody damned mess, and it was not going to get any better.
The Webelos could have cared less about our magnificent chapel. The pipe organ bored them to tears. They were also not in the least interested in looking at the oil painting of the founder of the funeral home, which was painted by the famous Iowa artist Grant Wood with the impressive title “John B. Turner – Pioneer.” I loved the oil painting and was annoyed that my little band of Webelos could not have cared less.
The preparation room was off limits, but the Webelos did care; they just went back for more water. However, when I opened the door to our garage, in a New York second their very limited attention span moved immediately from the bubbles in the water fountain to our automobiles. I know this to be true: Little boys—and big boys—like automobiles.
The good news for the Webelos is that John B. Turner & Sons had some dandy automobiles. We had two Hess and Eisenhardt Victoria funeral coaches. We had two 64-inch Miller-Meteor high top ambulances, two limousines, and two flower vans. The Turner fleet was impressive, to say the least.
Immediately one of the Webelos, who was obviously courageous, asked me to open the back door of one of the funeral coaches. For 20 minutes, this little boy was spellbound by spinning the casket rollers back and forth. Soon most of his little Webelo associates were once again standing in line waiting for their turns. One thing was obvious: Somewhere along the line, the Webelos had been taught manners.
By 9:30 p.m. the tour from hell had ended. The Webelos, from all accounts, had had a marvelous time, because scores of them loudly announced to me as they left “We’ll see ya soon, we’ll be back!” All I could think was “Lord, give me strength.”
When I arrived home that evening feeling terribly sorry for myself for having to have endured this Webelo nightmare, I opened the bottle of Canadian Club and the bottle of Pepto Bismol and sat in a chair contemplating just how my life was going.
That is an account of the first public tour ever given by the John B. Turner & Son Mortuary.
The next morning I could not wait to give my grumbling associates the gruesome details of my Webelo ordeal. All my associates took pity on me, sympathized with my plight, and we all concluded that John Turner was slipping badly. I assured my grumbling associates that “next” time it would be their turn. They all unanimously said “no way, no way, man!”
I remember it was about 4 p.m. that same afternoon that Dr. Percy Harris, who was the Linn County medical examiner, called the funeral home and gave us the name and address of a man in his 30s who had dropped dead at his home.
House calls did not alarm me much. They concerned me, I knew we needed to respond quickly, but by this time in my career I had been on so many of them that I did not feel stressed, and when we got to the house nothing unusual was happening. The poor man was on the kitchen floor. The sheriff was there. The widow was in the living room absolutely an emotional disaster, and with good reason, and she was all alone.
I called her priest, who quickly arrived, and I made an appointment with her for 10 a.m. the next morning.
At the duly appointed arrangement hour, the widow, her parents and a couple of brothers and sisters arrived at the mortuary. Also in attendance was a little 10-year-old boy.
We used big impressive desks in those days to make funeral arrangements, kind of like the one you see in the Oval Office. I sat behind this big intimidating desk and began.
Out of the blue, this little 10-year-old boy marches right up to me and says, in all seriousness of purpose, “Do you remember me, mister?” I looked at this little chap and I could not remember ever laying eyes on him, and that is when his mother said to me, “Oh this is my son Roland, and he was with the Webelos on the tour last night.”
My heart hit the floor. I asked, “Is this your father?” Roland just nodded his head yes. The man who we removed on the house call was this little boy’s father. I did not have a clue as to what to say, how to act; I just froze.
At this point Roland’s mother looked off into space and said, “What am I supposed to do I don’t know what to do! My husband isn’t supposed to be dead at 39!” She began to sob and weep, and I got up to go over to try to help her, but Roland beat me to it.
Roland marched right over to his weeping mother, put his hands on her cheeks and said with all the manly conviction at 10-year-old can muster, “Don’t worry Mommy, I know what to do; you know I have been through this entire building.”
And so Roland took charge. He explained where everything was, and basically took on the role of his mother’s protector. Roland knew what was expected, he knew the lay of the land, and he was on familiar territory.
Later that same day John B. Turner came in and asked how the tour had gone. I told him the entire account of this unique experience, and John just quietly listened. Finally, after I was finished giving the play-by-play of this extraordinary happening, John walked over to the window, paused for a moment, and then said, “This might well be the most wonderful thing that has ever happened to this funeral home.”
Two weeks later, I received a letter from Roland’s mother. In essence she thanked the funeral home, she was very satisfied, we had done our job well, but then she added two remarks which have always stuck with me. First, she wrote that when she found out that the Webelos were going to tour, of all places, a mortuary, she did not want to let him go. She admitted she wanted to protect him, keep him from seeing aspects of life about which she herself was uncomfortable.
After sharing with me her true feelings, she ended with this thought, “But given what happened to my husband and Roland’s father, I believe the good Lord sent him over there that night. Because he got the right information, from the right people and he used it within 24 hours.”
Revelations 3:8 states in part “Behold I set before you an open door ... .”
I never looked at opening the door of the funeral home in the same negative way again. I never complained about giving a tour, ever again. It took a little 10-year-old Webelo to teach this old grumpy undertaker something about just what a powerful, life-affirming presence all funeral homes offer to every community.