The Rush to Saturday

calendar saturdayIt’s been building for some time.  Gaining momentum.  And now exploding with impressive force.  Nope, I’m not talking about anything political or weather related.  I’m referring to a trend in the death occupation (I HATE the term “death industry”) that every funeral home is seeing, families choosing Saturday for the funeral or memorial service of their loved one.  Sure, Saturdays have always had plenty of funerals, but nothing like the increase we are currently experiencing.

Usually, families we serve will choose to have a ceremony two or three days after their loved one’s passing.  That gives plenty of time for the cemetery, florist, newspaper obituary, and minister to be prepared for the service.  Within the last five or ten years, though, families have decided that Saturday is the best day for a funeral, no matter WHEN the decedent died.  Reasons for this trend are myriad, with the biggest one being the convenience factor.  Obviously, a Saturday funeral or memorial service keeps most attendees from having to miss work or school.  It also allows out of town guests plenty of time to drive to and from the site of the rites.  In addition, most cemeteries in our region are not open for burials on Sunday.

Consequently, our average number of funerals Monday thru Friday is between three and four.  On Saturdays, however, we are averaging between five and six services.  And many of those ceremonies have been set for days or even weeks!

As I write these words on a Monday morning, we already have two funerals awaiting us this Saturday. Our firm can accommodate about eight funerals in a day, but anything over that begins to tax our facilities, motor equipment, and manpower.  We could probably have ten services in a day if they were all spread out so that our staff could “double” over on them.  That is, have the same crew work a 10 AM and a 2 PM ceremony.  Unfortunately, everyone seems to want their loved one’s final rites to be around noon, give or take an hour.

All funeral service professionals including myself certainly knew when we chose this occupation,  it meant plenty of nights, holidays, and weekends.  But trying to get off on a Saturday anymore would be equivalent to my great-grandfather trying to take a day off during the flu epidemic of 1918. My granddad told me countless times about how his father worked for four months without a day off.  So I guess I really have no reason to complain, do I?

Anyway, I’ve worked eight out of the past ten Saturdays, and desperately want to be off on Saturday, March 25th in order to attend a reunion of the cast of “The Waltons” television show in Schuyler, VA.  All but one of the “children” will be there, as well as the actress who portrayed the mother on the series.  That particular show rarely had cliffhangers, but it’ll certainly be one for me to see if I can sneak off on a Saturday in two weeks!

Little Pink Fences

Sammy Oakey

President, Oakey’s Funeral Service

There are certain occupations that one cannot excel in if they happen to be colorblind. These include aviation, electrician, and meteorologist. Since I’ve not had any desire to pursue these fields, I never gave a thought to the hindrances my colorblindness could cause when I entered the funeral profession.

Through a series of challenges during my school years, it should have become more apparent that my proclivity to see and identify colors was less than average. I can still remember being in Mrs. Geib’s first grade class at Mount Vernon Elementary School and getting my very first “F”. The teacher requested us to fold a piece of paper two times in order that the page be blocked off into four squares. Mrs. Geib then told us to get certain color crayons out and color the appropriate box as she instructed. Sounds easy, right? Well, not for yours truly. I made a mockery of the entire assignment, getting ZERO colors correct. Why I wasn’t diagnosed with colorblindness right then and there, I will never know.colored-pencils-168392__340

I really don’t remember too many other occurrences until I attended junior high school. There, in the seventh grade, I had to take a “mini unit”, which was a course lasting six weeks. The course: art. The teacher: Marie Hoal, a demanding artist who wanted things done RIGHT. She had assigned the class to work on pastels, and we had to create some kind of pastoral scene. While I knew I wasn’t much of an artist, I thought I was creating a pretty bucolic country piece. So you can imagine the jolt to my artistic side when Mrs. Hoal walked over and took one look at my masterpiece and let out a gasp as if she had been punched in the gut. “Sammy, why on EARTH would you decide to make that fence PINK?” she shrieked, not just to me but to the entire planet earth. When I told her I thought that I created a grey fence, she shook her head and informed me it was indeed pink. Adding another dimension of embarrassment, she held up a box of crayons and instructed me to take them home and learn my colors over the weekend. Oh man, I could’ve crawled up underneath my desk with shame! Realizing then that I had some challenges when it came to figuring out colors, I at least was aware of my shortcoming.

A few years later, when I began working at Oakey’s at the age of 16, I quickly learned that knowing ones colors was also pretty important when employed by a funeral home. My first taste of this came from working on the parking lot. This duty dictates the attendant separate cars entering the lot, placing the family in one area, the pallbearers in another, cars going to the cemetery in another, and so on.  On a large funeral, I told an entering automobile to simply park in the line behind the red car. I honestly thought it was red, too. That is, until the driver circled back a few minutes later, clearly exasperated. “There is no red car in that line”, he said rather impatiently. I pointed to the one I truly believed was red, and the driver very clearly told me that the car was brown, not red. My time parking cars at Oakey’s was marked several times by such mishaps, with me thinking each time that I would probably “grow out” of this problem.

Another occupational area that required proper color identification was applying cosmetics to decedents in our Care Center. I even wrote down which colors were which, but still proceeded to do makeup jobs where the corpses resembled clowns from Ringling Brothers instead of the way they should have looked. Thankfully, I had great mentors to correct my unintentionally botched jobs, but I felt as if I was letting down my colleagues by not working with restorative colors.

Yet another area I quickly realized I would not do well in was the placement of flowers in our chapel. While you might not realize it, lots of time and thought goes into putting the flowers up in our chapels. The idea is to balance out one yellow flower on the right side of the chapel with a yellow on the left. This would then be done with each color, so it created a perfect arc of colors and flower sizes. Ideally, that is. My colorblindness made it impossible to differentiate between blues/purples, reds/browns, reds/oranges, greens/browns, and yellows/oranges. You can imagine some of the jumbled up messes I created in our various chapels, which required my coworkers to go behind me and rectify the damage I had done.

At home, I’ve got it pretty well figured out: safety pins thru pairs of socks that match, asking my wife what clothes go together, and placing ties around the suits they match up with. Driving can be a bit of a problem, since the yellow and the red lights look alike and the green light looks white. I’ve always figured this shortcoming may help me get out of a ticket one day, assuming I don’t get killed in the ensuing wreck.

I’ve learned to laugh about this minor hindrance in my professional life, even when mischievous associates come up to me on a daily basis and try to convince me I have on the wrong color socks or tie to go with a suit. Or even when I look at a weather map and cannot match it up with the legend at the bottom of the screen. No wonder I’ve always hated the song by Chicago, “Color My World”!

Burial Blunder

imageWhile I’ve made some pretty good decisions in my career of forty years here at Oakey’s, I’d be lying if I said I haven’t had my fair share of mistakes. Heck, “mistakes” would be putting it mildly: I’ve made some moves that were so boneheaded I would’ve probably been fired (or, at the very least, disciplined) if I had been working anywhere else. One of the downsides in the funeral profession is when you make an error, it is often quite noticeable. And, unfortunately, it’s impossible to go back in time and retract the miscue.

One of my biggest screw-ups was in the late 1970’s, when I was serving my apprenticeship. As usual, I was on flower van duty. In other words, it was my job to ensure that the flowers from a funeral were packed up and transported to the cemetery at the conclusion of the service. More importantly, said floral pieces MUST arrive and be set up around the grave before the procession rolls into the gates.

While this may sound like a pretty easy task, I was filled with terror each time I zoomed off in the van full of flowers. “What if I don’t get there in time?”, “What if the flowers blow down?”, “What if cars are already parked in the cemetery and blocking the processional route?”

Yeah, I know, I was pretty paranoid about what seems like a simple duty. But I just wanted everything to go perfectly, and had no contingency plan in the event of a problem.

My mistake, and it was a doozy, occurred when I was on a funeral at our North Chapel. Upon the preacher’s “Amen,” I packed up the flower truck and tore down Peters Creek Road and Airport Road to Blue Ridge Memorial Gardens. I knew I had made good time and had hit mostly green lights, so was feeling pretty confident that afternoon. However, as I drove through the cemetery, I could not for the life of me locate the tent to signify where the graveside was located.

Getting a bit panicky, I pulled out the memorial record from my coat pocket and underneath “Interment” was “Fair View Cemetery.” Oh. My. Gosh. While I probably uttered something a bit more off-color than that, I immediately knew I had gone to the wrong cemetery. My heart was pumping blood like crazy and I had a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. I even had trouble trying to figure out how to get to the proper cemetery, a place I had been to dozens of times!

As you might know, Blue Ridge Memorial Gardens is located right next door to one of the runways of the Roanoke Regional Airport, and no plane ever executed a better takeoff than me flying out of tha cemetery at supersonic speed. Executing NASCAR-like turns back onto Airport and Peters Creek Roads, I neared Melrose Avenue to see a sobering sight: the last car in the funeral cortege which I was supposed to guide into Fair View.

I thought about trying to pass the whole line of cars, but chickened out and meekly followed the last car as it traveled toward the cemetery at the customary 20 MPH. You can imagine how bad I felt about my boneheaded move. After the graveside service, lead director Joe Jamison asked me why there were no flowers (or Sammy) as he arrived at the grave. I told one huge lie, and told him the van had broken down on the way to the cemetery. “Boy, he scolded me, don’t you think I would’ve passed you on the side of the road with the procession if you were broken down? You went to the wrong cemetery, didn’t you?” Realizing I couldn’t even LIE well on that particular day, I admitted my goof and took the mental lashes I deserved. “Look at that family and look at that grave, boy. This family had to sit in those chairs and not have a single flower surrounding the casket. You need to remember that.” And almost forty years later, I still do.

Study Group

StudyGroupSince completing my formal education many years ago, I’ve had an aversion to the word “study”.  It brings back far too many memories of cramming knowledge from a book into my brain just a few hours before being tested on said knowledge.  As if you couldn’t tell, I was certainly never an honors student during any part of my education.  In fact, I was pretty satisfied with the C’s and B’s I accumulated, and was just never self-motivated to do much better.

So when I was approached about five years ago in Richmond and asked to consider joining a study group of my peers, my first thought was “No way!”  While I love to read and learn more about my profession and myriad of other things in life, I immediately had visions of book reports, being forced to memorize facts and figures, and being tested on what I had absorbed.  I also thought there was “way too much on my plate” to join such a group.  But I’m one of those easy touches that find it hard to say “no”, so I told peers, Richard and Carey I would join their group, which they had dubbed the “Discovery” group.  I’ve made a lot of decisions in my life, but few were any better than becoming associated with my study group members.

While we may be few (about 14) in number, the knowledge I’ve accumulated from these funeral professionals is too vast to put into words.  I consider these colleagues to be “the best of the best” in the funeral world.  They are progressive, caring, honest, motivated, and dedicated to their craft.  Just listening to them talk about successes, failures, and new ideas makes me want to be a better funeral service provider.  It’s easy to get burned out or stagnant in our business, but hanging around these fourteen people rejuvenates me in a huge way.  Our members come from every area of the country, but our commonality is to make our funeral homes better each and every day.

A wonderful by-product of joining Discovery Group is that these guys (and a gal!) have become some of my very best friends.  While we may only get together once or twice a year, the e-mails, texts, and letters we exchange on a regular basis have cemented our loyalty and trust with each other.  Sometimes there is “tough love” involved; especially if they find an area of my business they think is not being properly addressed.  I appreciate and know I need such constructive criticism, and it makes me a better person AND mortician.  I have confided things to these fourteen professionals that I would probably not feel comfortable telling anyone else, so I guess you could say that they’re all pretty good therapists or counselors, too!

Our meetings consist of analyzing numbers and data from our businesses, sharing best practices/critical issues, and trying to figure out where our profession is heading.  It helps us all to know we are going through the same challenges and problems, and some of the sage wisdom shared has helped me deal with many a rough patch of highway.  And while there is a lengthy amount of time we have to prepare for our meetings (and we actually DID have to do a book report one time!), I always take away a proportional amount of knowledge to the time I put into preparing.  Unfortunately, getting so many new ideas in just a three day period is like trying to drink water from an open fire hydrant.  But I have come to appreciate our open exchange of knowledge, and (more importantly) have conquered my fear of the words “study” and “group”.

Our FIRST 150 Years

img_1169536238_14943_119738946011When I was six years old, I distinctly remember my dad and grandfather chatting about the “centennial”.  While I did not really understand what it meant, I knew it was a pretty big deal when I received some new Oakey’s Funeral Home pencils that had “Over a Century of Service” emblazoned on them, right next to our dear old phone number of DI-34451.  In succeeding years, I learned that 1966 was the year our firm celebrated 100 years of serving the Roanoke Valley. In the fifty years hence, my respect and gratitude for my forefathers has increased exponentially.  As Roanoke’s oldest business, I look at my role as one who is the current “Keeper of the Flame,” and it’s my duty to turn the business over to my son in even better condition than I found it when I first took the reins.  Hey, I certainly don’t FEEL 150 years old; I know enough not to ask if I LOOK that old!

Our organization has lots of events planned in 2016 to celebrate our big anniversary: seminars, a new facility, banquets, parties, a contest, and publication of a book.  But the greatest thing we can do to commemorate a century and a half of service is to recommit ourselves to retaining the ideals and work ethic of my ancestors.  Those many Oakeys that came before me are the ones with the work ethic and foresight to position our firm as the valley’s leader in funeral service.  Everything we do this year to celebrate our 150th will be to honor those that toiled during those many years.

One of my faults is not being the biggest fan of change.  Heck, we would probably still be driving horse drawn funeral coaches if I had been in charge for the past 100 years!   Thank goodness my son, who joined the business a year ago upon his graduation from college, is much more progressive and willing to “shake things up.”  Working alongside him has been a dream come true, and I’m looking forward to many more years with him learning from the incredible roster of talent we are blessed with.  My only regret is that my father passed away in 1998, and is not around to see his grandson thriving in our family trade.

img_1169536238_14942_1197388926[1]
Oakey’s first Roanoke location, 124 Campbell Ave., SW

Another of the original John Oakey’s heirs, Debbie Moss, great granddaughter of Oakey’s founder, John M. Oakey, joined our company in 2015 and has shown that she has what might be the biggest heart in southwest Virginia!  Debbie has taken our Aftercare program to new levels, and is constantly coming up with new ideas and concepts. When we say we’re a “family firm,” we’re not kidding!

While it’s all nice to honor our past, I need to make sure the focus remains on our future. When firms begin to rest on their laurels, rot and decay can quickly set in.  It’s a changing profession we find ourselves in, and Oakey’s must stay relevant in order to provide our families with the best service and products possible.  I’m hopeful that our NEXT 150 years will be even grander than our first 150, and that Oakey family members not even born yet will continue to help valley residents during their most difficult times.

Here Comes the Bride??

imageI’ve been aware for several years now of a trend that seems to have begun where trends often seem to: on the west coast. While very slowly working its way east, this phenomenon seems to be losing a bit of steam and I’m not sure it will ever truly take off.

What I speaketh of is the practice of renting out funeral chapels to couples who are looking for a site to conduct their wedding.  Yeah, I was a bit bowled over when I first heard about this one, too.  But since I have been asked about it a few times (always by curious folks, not once by someone who is truly interested in getting married in a funeral home), I thought I would toss out a few random thoughts about this topic.

To be completely honest, we have used our Downtown Roanoke chapel for a wedding on two separate occasions.  The first was when a young woman lost her grandmother only a few weeks before she was due to get married.  The bride-to-be was adamant that she wanted her grandmother to be at her wedding, and came up with an idea:  “What about conducting a wedding in your chapel after my grandmother’s visitation is over on the night before the funeral?”  We, of course, replied that Oakey’s would be agreeable to such a function in our chapel, and the couple did indeed get married with her grandmother’s casketed body right alongside of them in our main chapel.  Of course it was only open to immediate family, and they still got married a few weeks later in a public ceremony at a church.  And while some may find such a scene in our mortuary to be appalling, our rule has always been to (when possible) tell a family that we will do all in our power to accommodate their requests.

The second time our chapel was used for a wedding was when one of our staff members and his wife asked if they could use it in such a manner.  Since they scheduled their wedding on a Saturday evening (a time of the week when we have the fewest visitations because of the lack of Sunday funerals), I told them to proceed with their plans and get married in our chapel. I attended the wedding and have to admit that it was a beautiful event!  The bride and groom used a church next door to our facility for their reception, and years later are happily married with two cute kids!

There was another occasion where there was ALMOST a wedding at our downtown facility.  About ten years ago, a couple thought our building was a church and came inside asking if they could get married there.  When we informed them that Oakey’s was a funeral home and not a church, they looked so heartbroken that I made a few calls and took them up to West End United Methodist Church, where Rev. Bernard Via performed their nuptials.  We took some of Oakey’s specialty items up to the church and gave out flashlights, letter openers, and ink pens to the newly betrothed couple!

And while before my time, the area where the Oakey’s front reception desk now sits saw a NUMBER of weddings performed prior to 1938.  That’s because before it was Oakey’s, it was the manse for a Presbyterian church that was located on the site where WSLS-TV 10 now stands. The manse was where the ministers lived, kind of like a parsonage is now. When I first came to work at our firm back in the mid-70’s, I had older couples tell me that they had eloped in the middle of the night and knocked on the door of the parsonage to have the preacher (I’m guessing garbed in pajamas/bathrobe with a night cap on his head!) marry them. The older couples would point right to the location near our front desk where they stood, too.  So 318 West Church Avenue is no stranger to weddings!

But I do not foresee weddings figuring prominently as a revenue stream for our organization. I certainly have no plans to market our funeral home as such, and the abundance of houses of worship and reception halls in our valley tells me that there are plenty of sites for brides and grooms to say “I do”. More importantly, I’m pretty sure that our housekeeper (Norma) would spaz out if she had to clean up birdseed or rice every Sunday morning!!

Convention(AL) Wisdom

Well, it’s back again. And chances are, you don’t even know about it. Nope, it’s not the Fair. And it’s too early for the Miss Virginia Pageant. And Festival in the Park has been over with for weeks. The big event I speak of is the Virginia Funeral Directors Association convention and annual meeting. While this is probably not a big deal to you, it certainly is for the many exhibitors, speakers, and funeral directors attending each and every summer.

In previous decades, this event was calling Roanoke home every third year, with Richmond and Virginia Beach being the other locales. Now however, our community only sees the VFDA assemble in Roanoke every five or six years. And while we used to use the Roanoke Civic Center (I refuse to call it “Berglund Center”, just as I still call Macy’s “Thalheimer’s” and Billy’s “Billy’s Ritz”) as the site of the exhibits, the convention has downsized considerably and is able to squeeze everything into Hotel Roanoke.

A casual passerby on Wells Avenue may have thought there was a mass casualty nearby: hearses, embalming fluid trucks, and morticians from all over the state were teaming around the hotel. Inside, vendors had register books of any size, shape and color. Want a purple and gold urn? No problem! How about a limousine the size of a bus? Got one right here, sir!

Sure there are classes, seminars, exhibitions, and banquets at this gathering. But many will agree that the best part of the VFDA Annual Meeting is the fellowship and renewal of friendships every June. Seeing colleagues you respect and admire is always an uplifting time, and when you’ve known many of these men and women for over thirty years, it makes the reunion seem that much more special.

My forefathers at Oakey’s did a wonderful job fostering good relations with funeral homes across the state, and I consider it my duty to continue the legacy and pass it along to MY son. I have always enjoyed attending meetings of VFDA, IFHV (Independent Funeral Homes of Virginia), SIFH (Selected Independent Funeral Homes), a study group I am a member of, and the local Blue Ridge Funeral Directors Association. I consider every person in these organizations a friend.

Looking back over my first conventions in the 1970’s, I can honestly say that my goal was to “hit” every exhibitor’s booth and take away as many of the free novelties and advertising specialties as I could lay my greedy little hands upon. This was made much easier by the exhibitors who gave out large bags to tote around all the freebies! And while I still enjoy reaping the dividends of the cool handouts which funeral-related businesses give out, I now know there are more important things to do than to see how many flashlights, ink pens, and yardsticks I can accumulate.

The joy of seeing the faces of colleagues I truly love surely trumps obtaining another note pad! The only “down” part of convention week is remembering the funeral folks that have either retired, passed away, or are no longer in our profession. I was able to chat with a vendor yesterday that was the fifth generation of his family to sell funeral items!

Sam Oakey attending the June 2015 VFDA Annual Meeting in Roanoke, VA
Sam Oakey attending the June 2015 VFDA Annual Meeting in Roanoke, VA

Having a son who graduated from college just six weeks ago and has begun his apprenticeship (nope, I won’t call it by its updated term, “internship”) made this week’s convention even more special. Sunday night we dined with a funeral home owner and her apprentice at a downtown eatery, and then Monday night we were the guests at the supper of a casket supplier. Young Sam even played in the VFDA golf tournament earlier in the week. So strolling with him through the Exhibit Hall and introducing him to folks who were friends of MY father and grandfather was a pretty special moment. And no, I didn’t cry!

Extra, Extra…Read All About It!

DeerparkWhile I’m not one to brag, there comes a point where being modest does not highlight the areas in which Oakey’s goes above and beyond the call of duty. And without knocking other funeral homes in our region, there are many “extras” our firm provides that families need to be aware of. While we have always used the mantra of treating each decedent “as if it were our own father or mother,” there are a myriad of concrete practices we have long implemented showing we are not just all about talk. Some of them are rarely seen by the loved ones who call upon us, but are meaningful to us in our quest to offer the utmost in care and service to our families.

For decades, we have offered blankets to family members for use at graveside funerals on cold days. I like to think this act is representative of how we attempt to cloak the family with care in the duration of the time we are helping them. While a blanket at a cemetery might seem like a small act, families tell us it is extremely meaningful on days when the wind chill is hovering near zero!

Back in the nineties, we began to brainstorm about acts of caring that we could utilize in the summertime. It was decided we would begin carrying coolers full of iced down Deer Park bottled water to graveside services, and hand out the bottles after the funeral. I know of no other cemetery or funeral home doing this when Oakey’s instituted it, and since that time we have given out 100,000 bottles of water to thirsty mourners. Again, a small act deeply appreciated by those who it touches.

When death comes, it is not always between 8 am and 5 pm on weekdays. Nights, weekends, and holidays are all open to the possibility our telephone may ring with word someone has passed away. We feel strongly that the decedent deserves to be PROMPTLY removed from the hospital, nursing home, or home where they took their last breath.

I know for a fact some funeral homes have a policy that they will leave the deceased in a hospital for the duration of the night, and then pick them up the next day. This is completely contrary to our way of thinking, and we back up the belief by bringing the decedent back into our care as soon as they have been released by the appropriate authorities. This goes for 2 am as well as 2 pm. In addition, while most other mortuaries only send one person to retrieve the body, we find always sending at least two of our Oakey’s staff members makes for a more dignified and safe removal.

It is a known fact that the sooner a deceased is embalmed, the better the results will be. Our licensees all agree that beginning the preparation and embalming as quickly as possible enables this operation to be a more successful one. Even if a family opts for cremation and does not need their loved one embalmed, I firmly believe that ethical protocol dictates bringing the recently departed man or woman into our care immediately.

For ten years now, Oakey’s has offered families served a complimentary dove release at the cemetery. This final tribute is an awesome psychological boost to all of those present. Instead of leaving the cemetery looking down at the grave or ground, folks leave looking skyward. While not every family wants this free option to be carried out, we have never had a family tell us they regretted the white bird release. Most times, the dove (technically, a snow white pigeon) will circle around the cemetery once or twice, then take off back to its home. I have even had families request that “I’ll Fly Away” be sung or played as this takes place.

This year, we began gifting all families selecting Oakey’s for a visitation and/or service with a framed collage of photographs representing the life of their loved one. We call it our “Meaningful Memories” presentation, and it has been a huge success with all who have seen it. Such a tangible item in the visitation room or chapel helps take the focus off of the decedent’s death and puts it back onto their life. Families are then able to take it home with them as a reminder of a life well lived.

For decades now, we have provided each family with a laminated obituary of their loved one, which can be used as a bookmark. This may be a small gift, but I know it means a lot due to families showing me such items many years after we presented it to them. The laminated obits are often handed down from one generation to the next, acting as a bridge between the years of family members.

Very few things irk me more than going out of town to a funeral Oakey’s is not involved with, and seeing no hostess manning the register book. Our firm has for many years believed there should be an attendant in the vicinity of the guest register to hand out memorial records and to make sure visitors remember to sign the book. Often folks think they do not need to sign the register if they did it the night before at the visitation. Our books have separate areas, so visitors can record their name for each event. Hostesses also have tissues, and can supply information if they receive questions from attendees. And it goes without saying…you will NEVER walk into an Oakey’s location that is without a host or hostess to greet you.

Last year, we began placing a rose on the pillow of any decedent we remove from a hospital, home, or retirement community bed. This simple act has gotten us a huge amount of appreciation from those we serve. Just another touch that distinguishes us from many other mortuaries.

Our pledge to never turn down a family that needs us, no matter if they have little or no financial assets with which to pay us. The ONLY time we will refuse to pick up a decedent is when the authorities cannot provide us with any responsible family member. Such cases become legal quagmires, and put us in a weak litigious position no matter what we opt to do with the decedent.

Oakey’s has a huge commitment to the valley that we live in, and has become known as a major benefactor for a myriad of charities, churches, and other organizations. Whether it is through one of our television public service announcements we donate, or a financial gift to a good cause, we consider it an honor to plow our profits back into the community that has supported us.

Our holiday services of remembrance at each Oakey chapel. We send handwritten invitations to each family we have served over the previous twelve months inviting them to a memorial service honoring their loved one. During November and December we conduct these events to help grieving people learn how they can better make it through the upcoming holiday season. Each service includes music, a memorial message, a candle lighting ceremony for everyone to take part in, a delicious meal, and a balloon release. The hundreds of family members that attend always tell us how meaningful such a service was to them.

Having a full-time aftercare coordinator, as well as two full- time pre-need counselors gives us the depth we need to serve families both before AND after a death. There is no charge for families to utilize either department, and we would never even dream of “jobbing” this out to a company not located in our area.

I am sure that everyone has noticed the proliferation of conglomerate giants in the banking industry, as well as in other professions. The funeral business is also seeing huge corporations buying up funeral homes, leaving the family name on the funeral home, and then running the business from a headquarters often located thousands of miles away. Oakey’s is family owned and locally operated, which enables us to concentrate more on helping bereaved families than improving a stock price on the Dow Jones index.

I know that I have overstayed my welcome on this blog entry, but I wanted to point out just a few of the “extras” we may or may not be known for. And here’s the kicker: each item I have listed above is complimentary and at no charge. I guess you can sense my passion and pride in the firm my great-great grandfather founded 148 years ago. Thanks for being indulgent, and letting me expand on areas that I feel have made us the valley’s premier funeral service.

 

No Parking, Except Sometimes

I finally got around to moving my office down to the first floor of our main chapel this summer. While I hated to leave my cozy enclave of over fifteen years, the addition of an I.T. manager to our staff necessitated another round of “Musical Offices” and I could clearly see the handwriting on the wall.

NO PARKING

To be honest, I LOVE my new office digs! The new room is bigger and has a much larger desk already in place. There’s a restroom right down the hallway, very convenient after downing my morning ritual of a Starbucks Vente’ decaf. I’m away from the hustle-bustle of our dispatch area, and conversations are a bit more private and easier to have. I can (and already have) actually meet families in my new office and make funeral arrangements in there, something I could never do before. And whereas my old office had one window that faced a brick wall, my new area has TWO windows that give me a great view to the west and south.

Herein lies the rub of having such wonderful views: I can see our parking lot perfectly out of my west-facing window. That may not seem like much of a “rub”, but it has enabled me to view all of the scofflaws that ignore our “no parking” signs and zip into our firm’s parking lot for non-funeral business. This has always been a problem for us, but I guess since I rarely saw the infractions it didn’t seem to be worth thinking about. Now though, when out of the corner of my eye I see a car turn off of Church Avenue into our lot, I eyeball the vehicle until I see where its occupants are going. If they don’t come thru our front door, some wannabe policeman inside me causes me to confront the offending party and inquire as to where they are going and why they parked on our lot. The ones who can’t outrun me usually admit they are going to the courthouse, which is right across from our facility. “We won’t be long” is their normal battle cry, followed closely by the second most utilized phrase: “Mr. Oakey told me that I could park here anytime I want to.” Since there have been over a dozen “Mr. Oakeys” working here (and most of them are no longer with us), I have a hard time weeding out the truth tellers from the non-truth tellers on this one. I had a lady just two weeks ago tell me that MINOR Oakey told her she could park here anytime; I hadn’t the heart to tell her that Minor died back in the 1990’s!

Many times, we have no visitations or funerals and it is actually ok for folks to use our lot. The problem here is when we DO have services and need every parking space we can find, the ones who have been parking on the lot during slack times begin to think they have “squatter’s rights”. “Well, I’ve been parking here all week and no one has said anything to me. Why are you picking on me now?” is one I’ve heard a lot lately. “You buried my mother last year and I’ve got jury duty this month” is another remark that I had a hard time figuring out a comeback for. Heck, a few years ago we had a guy who had to serve time in jail (also across the street) park his car in our lot and then walk into the jailhouse to begin serving his sentence!

On Sundays, we allow all of the many surrounding churches to use our lot, and if anyone actually ASKS if they can park there during the week, we almost always reply in the affirmative. The ones who don’t ask are usually the ones dumping their cigarette butts on our lot, tossing fast food wrappers and cups out of their car windows, or (and I swear this is true) changing baby diapers inside the car and then leaving the dirty disposable diaper on our parking lot. Yeah, our cleaning staff here could tell some pretty good stories about other unmentionable items they have had the privilege of removing from the pavement.

Our maintenance man just put some “towing enforced” signs alongside the “Oakey’s parking only” signs which have been up for years. So why do I have this feeling in the pit of my stomach that they will do no good at all?

Hey, is it too late to get my old office back?

To be (at a memorial service) or not to be

Image                                          

It’s funny how questions about my profession have changed over the years,
and the change reflects the growing preference for cremation as a
means of final disposition. A question I used to get was “What’s the
difference between a casket and a coffin?” With casket usage dropping and
many families selecting cremation, I now am frequently asked “What is the
difference between a funeral and a memorial service?” On the surface, the
question is easily answerable by the stock reply that a funeral has the
body present, while a memorial service does not. But what about when the
urn containing the ashes is present; does that not constitute a “body” and
therefore call for the term “funeral” to be utilized?

While it’s easy to get caught up in the semantics of what label to give a
ceremony, one thing I have found is NOT easy concerns the presence of
our personnel on memorial services at area churches. Many families tell us
our presence is not required for a memorial service, and that the
church will take care of all of their needs during the ceremony. These
“needs” include reserving pews for the family to sit in, the placement of
flowers/photos/mementos in the sanctuary, reserving adequate parking for
family members, delivery of the urn (if applicable) to the church, ushering
the family into and out of the sanctuary at the proper time and to/from the
proper location, placement of/collection of register book(s) at entrances
to the church, the handing out of memorial records/church bulletins to
those attending, making sure doors are closed once the memorial service
begins so outside noises and visual distractions are minimized, making
sure  the family receives the register book and any flower cards, and
the dispersal of floral tributes after the ceremony. As you can see,
there’s quite a lot that goes into a memorial service, even when it is NOT
a funeral with a casket present.

I’ll be the first to admit that several places of worship in our valley
have proven they have the personnel and/or volunteer corps to
successfully “pull off” the litany of duties involved in such an
event. But for every church that IS able to provide the comfort and
logistical assistance to families on the day of a memorial service, there
are others that have difficulty in this area.

Our funeral directors are trained to offer assistance at memorial taking place away from
our chapel, but of course we do have to include a charge for our
personnel, equipment, and vehicles. Often, family members tell us (in a
polite way) that Oakey’s staff members will not be needed at the church
when the memorial service takes place. Our response is to politely accept
this explanation and not attempt to push our involvement into the family
member’s face. When things at the church go properly, I rarely hear back
from attendees about the service. However, if problems manifest themselves
at the service, I often receive a call or visit from a family member,
clergy person, or simply a friend of the family present for the
memorial service.

Only recently, a pastor who I know and respect complained to me that
Oakey’s should have been at the memorial service. He stated a hallway
door did not get closed and created a problem during the service and
everyone in the sanctuary saw people going down the hallway during the
funeral. He also said a front door was left open and traffic permeated the solemn atmosphere. Nobody knew what to do with the
flowers afterwards, he said, and handicapped folks could not sign the “self
serve” register book. When I explained to him that the family turned down
our offer of help at the church, he merely shook his head and replied
he was a minister and not a funeral director!

I have a problem with our people not being at many of the church memorial
services, as well. Everyone who reads an obituary knows what funeral home
is in charge of the arrangements. If obvious snafus occur before, during,
or after the service, the funeral home mentioned in the obit takes
a hit to their reputation. “Why didn’t you have people in the parking lot
at (name) church last week, Sammy? That “funeral” was HUGE” was just one
comment I got two months ago when a family said they did not require our
help at the church.

So what’s the answer? I really don’t know. I DO know other funeral
homes are wrestling with the same problem, and are as confounded as I am
about a solution. So now you know the difference between a memorial service
and a funeral. I only wish the answer to MY problem was as cut and dried!