The LATE Show

“If you’re not here in the next sixty seconds, I’m leaving without y’all!” As I texted those words to two of my friends on Saturday, I (and probably they) knew that I was bluffing. But we had tickets to see guitarist Laurence Juber in Northern Virginia that evening and I knew that our schedule was going to be tight. Several minutes later, my pals showed up and we headed up the dreaded I-81 to catch an incredible concert.

Everybody in my circle of family and friends knows that I am a true stickler for punctuality. If we agree on a certain time, I expect you to be present and ready at the appointed hour. Whether it’s for a concert, going out to eat, a sporting event, or simply a walk on the greenway, BE ON TIME! This mantra drives my wife and son crazy, but it’s now an inherent part of my DNA and I’m too old to change. Heck, I’m the one on time, so why should it be ME that’s expected to change?

My dad was like this too, and I can remember him pacing and stewing as my mom was still getting ready to go out for a function. Since I obviously “got” this trait honestly, I’ve been aware of it for decades. Not only do I have to be on time, I feel that if I’m not early, I’m actually tardy! While it may be a hereditary thing, I also feel as if my chosen vocation of funeral service may have played a huge part in my propensity to live by the clock. Almost everything we do at Oakey’s has to do with time. What TIME is the funeral? What TIME is the family coming in to make arrangements? How much TIME do we have left to get the obituary in the newspaper? Is it TIME to gather the relatives into the family room and close the casket? While I know there have been times we started funerals late, I take it as a personal failure if the clergy does not begin the service at the exact minute the attendees expect it to start. Kin of the decedent can probably see my stress level rise as they tell me “We’re going to have to begin the funeral late because (insert name of the family member here) isn’t here yet.” It certainly doesn’t help when they find out that the late relative is still 25 minutes away from Roanoke!

And there are times when someone will ask me a time-related question that I have no idea how to answer. When calling the police department for an escort to the cemetery, the dispatcher invariably will ask “What time will the funeral be over?” Well, I’m certainly not going to ask the preacher “How long are you going to go today?” and I’ve seen services last anywhere from five minutes to two hours! I’ve been on church funerals where the reception committee hosts a luncheon after the cemetery committal and they will ask me what time I think friends and family will be getting back to the church for the meal. That’s impossible to pinpoint, although I will give them a guesstimate.

Talk about stress levels rising: we schedule our services at 10 AM, noon and 2 PM at our chapels in order to keep them from running into each other. Since the average time of a funeral is about 40 minutes, this works out well 99.5% of the time. But remember earlier when I mentioned funerals that can last two hours? Can you imagine clock-obsessed Sammy sweating bullets on a 10 AM service that is approaching 90 minutes, as attendees for the noon service begin to filter into the building? Heck, I get a queasy feeling in my stomach just THINKING about it! I’ve even heard stories about my great-grandfather walking into the back of the chapel and giving the hand-across-the-throat motion to the minister, to let him know that it was time to begin wrapping up his remarks! Pretty sure that wouldn’t happen today!

I know “stuff happens” and delays can occur. Flat tires, traffic jams, sudden illnesses, accidents, and emergencies are part of life. But habitual lateness drives me batty, as everyone who knows me well can attest to. So blame my dad, blame the funeral profession or blame my OCD tendencies. But just know that there’s no such thing as “fashionably late” in my vocabulary.

New Help Fur You

With 42 years under my belt and a reputation for being somewhat reluctant to change, you can imagine my reaction in 2016 when my son acquired a dog he pronounced would one day be a “grief therapy dog” at Oakey’s. Heck, I wasn’t even sure what a grief therapy dog WAS, so I sure as heck wasn’t immediately keen on the idea of allowing a canine to mix with our grieving families.

Sam spent the next couple of years at mortuary school in Nashville, and I figured by the time he returned to work in Roanoke he would have shelved the idea of his English Golden Retriever coming to work every day at our family firm.  Wrong!  And that wasn’t all I was wrong about:  Sam’s dog, Ragnar has been an incredible success with every family requesting him!

A member of my funeral study group from Columbus, Ohio related his experiences at Schoedinger Funeral Home with their grief therapy dog, and how the idea had caught on in a massive way. So I was willing to give “Rags” a shot here to show me he could actually help families at their hardest time. It didn’t take long before I was telling young Sam how wrong I had been to approach the idea of a grief therapy dog with such skepticism. Ragnar is now being requested multiple times a week and has been a calming influence on dozens of our families.

The idea is actually quite simple: our funeral directors make families aware of the availability of Ragnar and ask if each family would want Ragnar to be present for a visitation or service. We explain that the presence of a grief therapy dog can be beneficial to all in the immediate area, and that stroking a dog can lower blood pressure rates, stress, and ease respiration. Not just any dog can do this; my own border collie mix Stella would probably spaz out everyone in the building with her nervous energy!

Ragnar is actually still in training to receive his official certification as a grief therapy dog, but is getting plenty of practice until then. While I have not heard one negative thing about the concept, Rags has received tons of compliments, kind letters, and even gifts from grateful relatives of decedents. All of our staff members have fallen in love with this big, white creature who has one of the best dispositions of any animal I have ever seen. He seems to know just what to do when he is on the job, and has a particular affinity for kids. But Rags is equally adept at putting a smile on the faces of seniors and those with special needs.

To say that the entire concept has bowled me over would be an understatement. I have gone from rolling my eyeballs at the thought of a dog in the funeral home to being one of Ragnar’s biggest proponents. Having Ragnar at a visitation or funeral is a complimentary service we offer at Oakey’s, but the demand is beginning to outweigh his availability. We may one day have to acquire a second dog to help those going through grief, bereavement, and mourning. But no matter how cute, smart, and sweet that second dog might be, he could never win over the hearts of those at Oakey’s like Ragnar has!

Decision Fatigue

A member of my study group recently came up with a theory, one I feel has a lot of merit. His hypothesis is that we, as funeral service professionals, are attempting to offer families we serve TOO MANY options.  At first, this sounds ridiculous. Shouldn’t we pride ourselves in giving consumers the highest number of alternatives in which they can memorialize their loved ones? Isn’t this a classic case of “the more, the better”?

Well, my former Rotary Club had an informal motto we used whenever a speaker would ask us the length of their speech: “Less is More.”

And I now think this too could be used to describe the length of a family’s arrangement conference, which I have seen go from an average of 50 minutes to more than twice that.  Let’s face it: families do NOT want to be in a funeral home planning the details of a funeral or memorial service for someone they loved. They would rather be at home, answering the phone, greeting visitors who are bringing food to the house, or simply resting up from a serious lack of sleep over the past few days. But they are forced to enter a strange building and answer a myriad of questions about death certificate information, the obituary, and details about what type of event should be planned to honor their recently departed relative. We at Oakey’s know their duties will NOT be over when they finish with us, as most families still have to go sign papers at the cemetery, make floral selections at a flower shop, and then meet with a member of the clergy to go over service content.

Already suffering from a lack of sleep and the trauma of losing their loved one, they are then presented with so many options that their eyeballs are practically rolling around in their sockets. Want a bagpipe to be playing at the cemetery? How about a dove release? Maybe a balloon release? Perhaps a butterfly release? What kind of music is desired? Organ? Piano? Want some secular music to be downloaded and played? How about a YouTube video the decedent enjoyed? Maybe some jewelry the cremated remains can be placed in? Should we take a fingerprint of your loved one that can be turned into a locket? Metal casket or wooden casket? Do you know how big the niche is in the columbarium where the urn will be placed? Anyone going to give a eulogy? What should we do with the flowers after the memorial service? As you can see from this small sampling of inquiries, Oakey’s attempts to help a grieving member of our community can easily numb the sharpest of minds.

When my friend Richard Tetrick, who I truly believe is the greatest living funeral director in the country, said he thought we were bombarding families with too many questions, it took me a few days to realize he was exactly right. But how can we make sure those same families are given all available choices at their disposal to craft a ceremony for their loved one? This is where a good funeral director comes in. I thank God our firm is blessed with true professionals who can meet with a family and decide what options to offer them, based on what they are able to extract from the relative he or she meets with. Eliminating questions our director does not feel would be appreciated can keep arrangement conferences from ballooning into three hour marathons. Of course, the best scenario is when the decedent has pre-planned their own funeral details. Assuming their family members agree to honor these requests, it can make a difficult time enormously easier. And allow a family to return to the comfort of their own home in a reasonable amount of time. It may be the last gift that one can give to their loved ones, and also one of the best.

“Why did your people call me in the middle of the night after the death in my family?”

“Why did your people call me in the middle of the night after the death in my family?”

That comment, or a variation of it, is probably the single biggest question or complaint I get at Oakey’s. It comes in the grocery store, in church, and on the comment sheets that families use to respond to me about our quality of service. It comes in phone calls, letters, or personal interactions on the the Roanoke Greenway or at hockey games. I can certainly understand why a family might be curious or even annoyed about this topic. Someone they love has just passed away, and a stranger is on the other end of their phone expressing their condolences and asking about embalming permission. The answer is one I am proud to recite as it showcases yet another example of the high level of service Oakey’s is known for.

Many (probably MOST) funeral homes these days do not have an on-duty staff at night; if a death occurs at a hospital, the funeral home will simply leave the decedent in the morgue overnight and send an employee to pick up the body the next day. These funeral homes use “on call” staff members only to go to a home or nursing facility when they are notified about a death there. Some even contract out body removals to a third-party agency.

At Oakey’s, we do things very differently. With no disrespect intended toward the fine hospitals in our region, I would not want my loved one to be taken to one of their morgues and left overnight. A morgue is cold, dark, and usually has other bodies in close proximity to one another. Having a contingent of our associates working all night long gives us at Oakey’s the ability to respond with swiftness and dignity to each and every death in which we are notified. Whereas many other funeral homes only send one employee on a “removal,” our firm sends a minimum of two to carefully bring the decedent back into our care. Again, our family believes that dignity is a key ingredient to everything we do. This certainly includes the manner in which we physically take custody of a recently deceased individual.

I know I have not even begun to answer the aforementioned question yet, but I feel the average person needs a primer in order to have a full understanding of what happens when we receive a phone call informing us that our services are needed. Our policy is to contact a family as soon as we are notified by a hospital, hospice worker, or nursing/retirement community about a death. The main reason for this initial call is to establish whether or not the next of kin wishes for their loved one to be embalmed. It’s a fact that the sooner a body is embalmed, the better the results will be. However, if a family is considering cremation or anatomical donation, embalming would simply be an unnecessary expense. This is the crux of that first call we make to a family, in addition to expressing our sympathy for their loss. Unfortunately, we are often notified about a death by a hospital several hours AFTER the person has breathed their last breath. In the middle of the night, this often results in our making a call to a family right as they are attempting to go back to sleep after learning about a death. Needless to say, this has upset a number of folks in our community, and they have certainly let me know about their strong feelings.

Thankfully, their queries allow me to explain exactly WHY we make the call that can sometimes come in the middle of the night. After hearing “the rest of the story,” families have a better understanding of our reason for calling, but they also go away reinforced they received the superior service that our company has provided for 152 years now.

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.

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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!!