American Funeral Home Revolution: I’m Opening My Own Funeral Home

Funeral director, Order member and past contributor Sarah Wambold on her decision to OPEN A FUNERAL HOME.

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Hi Order readers and kindred spirits. My name is Sarah Wambold, an Order Member and funeral director located in Austin, Texas.

I have to confess something. I feel like a bit of a fraud saying I’m a funeral director, because even though I’m a licensed funeral director in Texas, I am not currently employed as one. I really want this to change; I really, really want to work as a funeral director again. Trouble is, I am pretty idealistic about where I work as a director. I want to work for a funeral home that offers the “alternative” options — green burial, cremation — as regular options, and puts a percentage of its revenue into grants for artists. I want the funeral home I work in to look more like an art gallery or library or concert hall than Grandma’s parlor. I want the memorial items to be original pieces by working artists instead of mass-produced items selected from a catalogue. I also want to be in charge.

This is why I am opening my own funeral home.

Not into this.

I’ve been talking about this for a little over a year and I’m ready to start getting serious about doing it. Obviously, I have spent a good many months trying to avoid this at all costs. It’s pretty scary going unleashed into the world of funeral service — especially after one current funeral home owner told me he wouldn’t even consider opening his own funeral home today. Too risky. Too expensive. Not enough good help. But after going through yet another lackluster interview with a funeral firm that I had no interest in working for, I knew I had to give this my best shot, even if failure is my destiny. I mean, I am a funeral director, I think I know the worst thing that could happen. I’ve never owned my own business before, but I am still as excited today as I was the moment I decided this is what I want to do. I know I am ready for this challenge.

Okay, I am kind of into this…probably because it’s ART. Photo by Corey Hendrickson.

Here’s the basic idea: My funeral home will operate independently; hell, it will even call itself “small” — typically a despised business term for funeral homes (I’m looking at you, SCI ) [Mortician’s Note: SCI is Service Corporation International, the largest death-care conglomerate in the world with the most corporate-y scrubbed-of-death-acceptance name ever — they probably already own your local mom and pop funeral home. More on this another time…] and it will offer services that are art based, such as handmade memorial items, setting up a loan program in which families can house a work of art for a period of time as a memorial of their loved one, offering the funeral home as a space to hold art education classes, readings, film screenings and performances. If families do not want to participate in any of that, that’s OK, too. But they will know that just by coming to my funeral home they will be helping to fund working artists and supporting creativity on a larger scale.

Welcome!

I’ve never understood why more funeral homes don’t market themselves through their philanthropy, or at least make their philanthropy known. People are always grumbling about how much money the funeral industry makes, how expensive funerals are, etc. The only answer the industry seems to give is that overhead is high. Or they may offer a low-cost option, but then exclude the importance of the ritual. Why not offer options that are affordable and work doubly as a service and community investment? I see a similarity in the way people approach art and death: they know each exists but may feel intimidated to try and understand them. It does not have to be this way. People can be introduced to the idea of art and supporting artists as a way to honor their loved one’s memory, as a way to see the life of that individual continued through original work.

A not-so-subtle depiction of my idea.

For working artists, time and money are the scarcest of resources. If a funeral home in the community consistently provided these things, think of how much more art could be made and how many more people could be exposed to it, as well as be a part of its long-term investment. My funeral home will support the continuum of memory and creativity to help cope with life after loss. People use art to comfort themselves even when they don’t realize it, by putting a flower by a casket or selecting a song to be played at the memorial. It would serve all families more in terms of understanding their own grief if they knew that these choices were helping support art that may provide comfort or inspiration to someone at a deeply important time.

I am going to be dropping in here over the next few weeks with updates and musings about how things are going. I hope you’ll check back and let me know your thoughts or offer suggestions about this project. I’d like to know if any of you have started your own businesses — funeral homes, maybe? I’m excited!

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Corey Hendrickson’s website

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  • Na_Mairbh

    I love your ideas, Sarah. Way to be innovative in an industry that (at least in the US and Canada as far as I know), has been relatively untouched in the “creative and different” department for quite some time. 

    • Sarah Wambold

      Thanks, Na_Mairbh!
      I appreciate your support of being ‘creative and different’ in funeral service, but if you read this blog, of course you do! :)

  • Bob

    Too bad I don’t live around there – I’d be a regular customer. I mean as far as the art gallery goes. There’s only so many relatives I can bury. Good luck and it’s a beautiful idea.

    • Sarah Wambold

      Thanks Bob!!  I am glad to see I could potentially acquire ‘regulars’!!

  • juneadelle

    I am an Austinite, and I wish that I could have been able to use your services when my grandpa passed away in 2010. He had a very “nice” funeral (in DFW), and by “nice” I mean “expensive” and “clinical.” It was like being in a movie of what a funeral should be. Except it was my own grandpa and I was wishing it was different. I hope that our community will support your amazing idea for A Better Way.

    • Sarah Wambold

      Thanks for sharing, Juneadelle. I am sure your grandpa was happy to have his family remember him the way that you did. 
      I think the feeling of “being in a movie” is a good description of how planning a funeral can seem-like it’s not you in the moment.
      Using art to as a timepiece can be helpful. We can consider how our emotions have grown and changed in relation to an event, eventually helping us make sense of it. 

  • jonesie

    Love the sound of what your trying to do…..hope you are really successful and people in other places….like the Cleveland Ohio area will do the same!

    • Sarah Wambold

      Thank you, Jonesie! Who knows, maybe one day I’ll have a Far North location in Ohio!

      • http://www.eFuneral.com/ Mike Belsito

        First, I 2nd Jonesie’s sentiments about Cleveland, OH — that’s where I’m from as well!

        Second, I think it’s fantastic that you’re *thinking differently* than others.  I’m not sure why most people assume that the funeral home that existed in 1962 is the same one people *want* 50 years later.  I’m not sure I’d want the same place that existed in 1992 or 2002, for that matter.  

        Keep it up, and let me know if I can be helpful in any way.

        • Sarah Wambold

          Thanks, Mike! I think eFuneral is a great concept as well and will certainly be in touch in the future! 

  • http://www.coreyhendrickson.com/ Corey Hendrickson

    Thank you for the link and great idea! I’d love to chat with you more about this, please drop me an email when you have a minute. 

  • E T

    Wishing you the best of luck! I would think many of your ideas will be popular.

    I wonder what you mean when you write: “your grandpa was happy to have his family remember him the way that you did.”. Do you think grandpa has an interest in his own funeral?

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100401288 Tricia Rosetty

    From your description of what you want to build, Austin will be the perfect place to do it! After being somewhat traumatized by my first interaction with funeral directors (in New Jersey), I’m all for better ways of mourning the dead.

  • Bethlat

    Wonderful!  I am so glad to see this conversation happening.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=753033236 Melinda Moyer

    I love this idea, absolutely and completely. I live in San Antonio but would happily drive up for events or to volunteer to help make this happen. I hope everything works out, and I am sure you’ll have community support – I’ve sent this to a couple friends who’ve had to go through that process, and the idea of a funeral home that can help evolve the death of a loved one into enriching the lives of the living is fantastic.

    If there’s any way someone who lives an hour away but is enamored with this idea can help, let me know. 

    • Sarah Wambold

      Hi, Melinda! Thank you for your message and support. I love being so close to San Antonio, with it’s wonderful San Antonio Museum of Art. Their Latin American collection has some exquisite death iconography among other things. Please check back in to see what is happening-maybe we’ll see you in Austin!

  • Jene G.

    Hi Sarah –

    I live in Austin as well and am very interested in helping you with this in any way you may need, besides financially (womp womp).  I’m not sure if you’re interested or need this sort of help, but felt I had to reach out to you as soon as I read this because I am very interested in the way our modern world treats death and its relationship to art.

    • Sarah Wambold

      Hi Jene! Thanks for your message, your interest and support are absolutely what we need right now. Watch this blog and other local listing for more on what is going on and how you can help. Can’t wait to meet you!

      • Jene G.

        I feel like you’d be interested in this fantastic magazine, also available in print: 
        http://www.deathmag.com/A/index.html
        Could have them for sale at your funeral home or something…?

  • Charlescowling

    Best wishes from the Other Side (of the Atlantic). You sound brilliant. 

  • Flo

    Not anywhere near Texas, but in terms of the art and death connection I have a friend who’s an artist in the UK who has been working for several years now on a series of portraits of the dead and dying, she’s been working with people in hospice care among other places and deals a lot personally with family members, her blog about it is here: http://www.agracefuldeath.blogspot.com/ 

  • Susan Brinkley

    OOOH my gosh, Sarah, this is amazing!! As a current mortuary student, your shiny new funeral home to be, is exactly the sort of place I hope to land when I’m done with school! You should absolutely expect to see my application float across your desk in a year or so… ;)

  • Scarson

    I’m Texas born and bred. Spent several years in Austin while in school. Yes, it is the perfect place to start your dream. It will be well received in a city’s whose motto is “Keep Austin Weird!”.

  • http://twitter.com/LDMatters Katherine Murray

    Way to go!  I am a Canadian. Living in Victoria. Hospice Palliative Care Nurse and Thanatologist.  Love your ideas.  Keep moving ahead.  I would like to connect you with an artist in NY NY who teaches about the use of masks as part of grief therapy.  She would be intersetedin what you are doing.
     Meanwhile, I am teaching an online course (in our online program “Life and Death Matters Online – LDM Online) in September.  It is called “Death and Dying in the 21st century”.  I will raise your new project as part of classroom discussion!
    All the best,
    Kath

  • CP

    Although we may share different visions of what we would like our funeral home to portray we share the same goal. I wish you the very best in your endeavors. You have inspired me to keep on working to make my dreams of becoming a female owned and operated funeral home a reality!

  • http://www.facebook.com/roadsparrow Rachael Shores

    Good!  You need to open this in Asheville, NC.  This isn’t weird or far fetched at all in this community.  I am so serious.  Asheville is a huge art community with alternative beliefs on death and custom.  It’s a very green minded place and full of very successful people that would be happy to support this endeavor as well as the ones that you want to help out.  I saw an episode on greener funerals and now that’s what I want.  Hopefully I won’t be a customer any time soon but PLEASE research Asheville.  I think you’d really find your place here.  I see you’re in Austin so you’ll probably be quite welcome there too.   I wish you’d come here. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/marianne.stone.5 Marianne Stone

    Fantastic idea! I would love to see your concept grow in popularity and give people an alternative to the mundane funeral home.

  • flight

    Why don’t you do a kickstart page? I would fund you!

  • flight

    Oh, and stay in Los Angeles! We need everything you’re thinking about offering. Watch out Forest Lawn!

  • http://www.facebook.com/catherine.bourgeois.750 Catherine Mayfield

    I am a licensed director and embalmer in Houston, TX and I have experienced unfortunate happenings with both corporate and independent funeral homes so much so that I too aspire to open my own one day . This is a great idea and I look forward to reading more about your progress, I wish you much success!

  • Currer Bell

    nice blog buddy best of luck for you
    Funeral homes

  • http://www.facebook.com/DWL275 Dale Leonard

    Hi Sarah. Saw you on Huffpostlive and love your ideas. Would love to meeyou face to face. To bad I am in in Ohio

  • Mainyday

    Thanks for sharing your wonderful ideas Sarah. I’m thinking of going into that line of work myself. Not actually opening a Funeral Home, but offering to conduct an alternative service to the family of the loved one who has passed on or to the individual who wants to plan their own Funeral. I find that here in Ireland many people don’t want a religious ceremony any more as they no longer believe in organised religion, times have changed and I feel it’s an area I would enjoy working in. I’m not sure if I need to take a business course first or just go with the flow? I would appreciate your thoughts on this.
    Meanwhile, I wish you every success with your plans.

    Kind regards.
    Frances Buchanan
    Dublin, Ireland.

  • Olmono

    I’d rather die than …. nevermind.

  • April L Polk

    Hi Sarah. I’m totally inspired by your story. Being a southern girl and from an area where most of the funeral homes are family owned, it’s hard getting into the business that I’ve dreamt about since I was young. I have a love for art and consider myself somewhat of an artist. I want to, one day, own my own funeral home and would love some pointers of getting started. ayepeep@yahoo.com

  • Sarah O’Co

    Love this. Love this. Love this. I would travel all the way from Australia to help you set this up if you haven’t already!

    • Bob Caron

      Sarah & Sarah – I love the sound of it.

  • Megan

    Hey I am so excited to read this! I am going to do almost the same thing as you, except way up here in Colorado!

  • Sgay

    This idea makes me hopeful for the future :)
    Please come to Boston, MA!