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Funeral Directors View Profession As Vocation

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BROWN FUNERAL

HAMPSTEAD, Md. (AP) — Steve Eline can still remember a summer day when he was eight years old and his family had packed their car full with things they’d need for a week at the beach. They were just about pull out of the driveway when his dad, Jerry, got a phone call saying a local resident has passed away. Even as a young boy, Eline knew the call meant that his father, who owned Eline Funeral Home in Hampstead, would have to go to work and his family’s summer vacation would be put on hold for another year.

“We unpacked the car and unloaded everything after that,” Eline said. “We just didn’t go on vacation that year and that was that.”

That memory is a good way to sum up life for a funeral director and his or her family, Eline said.

It’s a life Eline is used to by now after becoming the fifth generation of his family to take over ownership of the funeral home in 1985.

Growing up, Eline said he had an interest in becoming a pilot but always knew he’d spend his working days at the funeral home.

“It’s something that’s not really a job, but a life’s calling,” Eline said. “It was just always a part of me.”

Eline grew up above the funeral home and frequently helped his father with funeral arrangements starting at an early age.

“As a 7-year-old, I had my own little suit and that’s how I spent time with my dad,” Eline said.

Eline said it was unique childhood that few people would understand or comprehend.

Dale Fletcher would count as one of those few.

He lived with his four sisters, mother and father above the Westminster funeral home his father started in 1968. He remembers cleaning the bathrooms, setting up flowers, vacuuming the funeral home floors and doing anything else to help his father prepare for a funeral or wake.

He was a licensed funeral director by the time he was 20-years-old and took over control of Fletcher Funeral Home just three years later when his father was killed in an automobile accident.

“I went from working with my father to being a 23-year-old running a funeral home,” Fletcher said. “It wasn’t easy at first.”

Fletcher, 54, said as a new young owner, his biggest challenge was building up trust in the community.

“When you see funeral directors on TV, they’re 50 or 60 or 70 -years-old and they’re wearing a black suit, white shirt and black tie so I had to work against that stereotype,” Fletcher said. “I just made sure to continue building on the trust that my dad had already worked for.”

He did so by networking, being active in the community and being a phone call away for any family that needed him, which didn’t mean just being available 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. during the week, he said.

“A funeral director’s job is 24/7, no holidays off, always being on call,” Fletcher said. “There have been plenty of times when I get home at 10 at night, take off the suit, watch TV and then hear the phone ring at 11 and I’m off to work again.”

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Offering more personalization

While Eline said the funeral business will always rely most heavily on the trust it has within the community, much about it is changing.

Not too long ago, a funeral director would meet with a family and tell them the options they had to choose from, Eline said. Nowadays, funeral directors are doing more of the listening than the telling, he said.

“It’s now turned into this customized process where the family comes in and they tell you exactly what they might want to have for the funeral,” Eline said. “Families are wanting so much more these days when it comes to personal touches and their own ideas.”

Families are now demanding personalization in every way imaginable, Eline said. In reaction to new requests they’ve heard from families over the last year or so, Eline Funeral Home has added funeral web casts, online casket selection and Thumbies, where the fingerprint of a loved one is imprinted on anything from a necklace or cuff links to a key chain or pocket knife.

The idea for the web casts came after Eline heard from numerous families that the economic downturn forced some out-of-town relatives or friends to miss the funeral of a loved one if travel expenses were too high.

“In today’s mobile society people are all over the place,” Eline said. “You may have someone with six kids who live in six different states and have friends all over, so this is a helpful option for situations like that.”

He said a recent family from Italy used the web casting option so that relatives in Florida, Canada and Italy could log onto their computers and watch the funeral happening live in Hampstead.

“This is something that’s getting popular and we think it will keep getting more popular once people realize they can do this,” Eline said.

Earl Canapp, a former president of the Maryland State Funeral Directors Association, said because web casting is one of the newest offerings for funeral homes, many don’t have it yet. He said as more people use a funeral web cast, others will see that it’s an option and may also want to use it for their family members. That’s how funeral trends come about, Canapp said.

“A little while ago, having memorial DVDs with photos and favorite music of the deceased was a new concept,” Canapp said. “But they quickly got popular and now are almost standard at funeral homes.”

He said in the majority of cases, it’s the younger funeral directors who are leading the way when it comes to new offerings.

“Younger directors are much more comfortable with computers and that helps them to be more progressive when it comes to these new options,” Canapp said. “Who knows what they’ll think of next.”

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Passing the business down

Fletcher said because the trust issue is so important for funeral homes, it’s a business that is typically passed down to younger family members.

Fletcher had always hoped one of his four children would show an interest in taking over the family business, but he said never pushed them to do so.

So it came as a shock when his son Tommy announced he was going to pursue his mortician’s license after getting his business degree from Salisbury University in 2005.

“I didn’t see that coming, but it was great when it did,” Fletcher said. “It made me very proud as a dad and it was a relief to know that we had our third generation now.”

Tommy said he made the decision with his college graduation looming with an uncertainty of what to do next.

“I thought about the success he was having and what he was getting out of it, and I knew he could use a hand with the business, so I went for it,” he said.

As a newly graduated college student, Tommy said he was still in the party mode and wasn’t quite ready for a job that required nights and weekends. But he soon found that the appreciation he received from the families he served made the long hours and days worth it.

“It’s nice to see the closure you can give them,” Tommy said.

In addition to the long hours, Tommy said one of the major challenges of the job is having to bury someone he knows. It’s something that’s impossible to get used to, his father said.

“I’ve buried a lot of good friends and close friends of my parents,” Dale Fletcher said. “It’s just very difficult to deal with your own emotions about it while also doing your job.”

Regardless, Tommy said it’s a job he’d love his nearly 2-year-old son to follow into.

“I’d be happy with whatever he wants to do, but it’d be great if he followed in our footsteps,” Tommy said. “I’d love to get the business continuing with him.”

Information from: Carroll County Times of Westminster, Md., http://www.carrollcounty.com/

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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