5 Mistakes I Made Running My Funeral Home (And How You Can Avoid Them)

mistakes-funeral-home

Who knew that this blog post would be such an exercise in self-reflection?  

It’s weird to calm my brain down for a few minutes and pause to think about mistakes and mis-steps I’ve made since the inception of my business, Grace Funeral & Cremation Services,  in June of 2009.  

I spend so much time in the day-to-day operations of the business that there’s little time to look back at the last five years and determine what – if anything – went wrong, and where it did.  But I’m all about moving on, and not looking back and wallowing in the past.  With that said, here are the highlights:

Lesson #1: It’s hard to say “no”

As a profession, funeral directors are generally people pleasers.  We want to make people happy, or as happy as they can be in the difficult situations they come to us with.  It took a while for me to realize that I am not going to make everyone happy.  There are times when people have demands that just aren’t feasible.  We can’t provide a traditional, full-service funeral for the price of a simple cremation.  We can’t extend payment terms to consumers that don’t have the financial means to pay for their services.  We can, however, refer them to local lenders, and help them plan a service that meets their financial means.  There are times when “no” is the only answer possible.    

There are policies in place that help the business succeed in the long run.  There’s always going to be someone, whether it’s a hospice social worker, a grieving family member, or a local charity who will ask for a free funeral, reduced price, payment plan or charitable donation that we aren’t willing to offer.  I’ve learned that saying no is hard initially. However, having clearly defined expectations and policies that benefit all the families we serve fairly are good for the business and the families.

Lesson #2: My time has value

When we opened our doors in 2009, we were inundated with every media salesperson, insurance representative, multi-level marketing person, and office supply company within 100 miles of our business.  It’s a great idea to be friendly and respectful but a poor idea to agree to an appointment with everyone that wants 30 minutes of my time.   I learned quickly that my time could be easily squandered if I didn’t learn to say no, with emphasis.  I also learned the hard way that it’s really easy to get overcommitted and over extended.  In an effort to meet as many people as possible, to make connections and to grow our business, I committed to networking groups and committees that I didn’t really have the time to give enough focus to. In the end, I realized that over-committing myself would end in a negative way – if not for me, for my friends, my families, and my own family.

Lesson #3: Spend money on things that make life easier

My husband (the co-owner of our funeral home) and I wanted to borrow as little money as possible in order to open our doors.  So, we decided not to purchase some things that we really wanted, but didn’t necessarily need.  We opted not to purchase a software program designed specifically for funeral service, scaled back the number of dressing tables, the upgraded body lift, and we hauled flowers one at a time rather than investing in flower trays.  But as the volume of our business grew, it made sense to invest the money in products that would make the day-to-day operation of our business more efficient and easier for us.  Looking back, I wish I had splurged on the operating software from the outset, which is a mistake I won’t make again as our business grows.  

Lesson #4 : Make the right connections

We’ve formed initial relationships with more pre-need companies than I care to remember.  It took five years and a random Google search to find a company that is a great match for our funeral home. And when we did, I was so happy that I didn’t have to settle for mediocrity anymore.  By making the right connections, we were able to find a company that shares our approach to the families we serve, provides phenomenal marketing advice and really seems to genuinely care about our ability to grow our business.  On a side note, our sales representative actually answers her phone when we call, and is always providing consistent help.  I can say with confidence that by focusing on these connections, we finally have the training and resources that we need to build our advanced planning program.   

Lesson #5: Don’t waste mind space on petty people

People are complicated.  Some people didn’t get hugged by their parents enough.  We shot a lovely commercial with customer testimonials, which had a small grammatical error.  We were oblivious to the error for months, until it was kindly pointed out to us in a series of emails from several people in our community.  The retired librarian was kind. The other folks…not so much.  Apparently, during the Olympics, I single handedly ruined a man’s patriotic experience of watching the games and was called a moron to boot.

There’s another story I like to tell about petty people that occurred when we first opened our funeral home. Contrary to popular belief, if you open a funeral home in a community where there are already 20 or so other funeral homes, many other providers in the area will not welcome you with a gift basket, a red carpet and a hug.  They will, however, drive their Cadillac through the parking lot, scowl, peer in your windows, loudly curse, and send unsigned hate mail.  The boldest ones will stop in, often with a recently hired employee in tow and tell you, to your face that your business will be a monstrous failure and that no one will ever choose to utilize your services.  Touché.  

I’ve been guilty of allowing negative people and comments to filter into my mind space; it’s even easier since we’ve made it to our five year milestone.  It’s important to roll with the punches, and let go what can’t be controlled.

Mistakes are the greatest teachers

“A life spent making mistakes is not only more honorable, but more useful than a life spent doing nothing.”

George Bernard Shaw

Although I’ve made a fair amount of mistakes during my first five years as a funeral home owner, I’ve learned that it’s important to allow them to teach you. Not only have these missteps taught me, but they’ve also allowed me to grow as a person and a business owner.  I’m sure that I’ll make my share of mistakes in the future, and I look forward to the insight that the next five years of running my funeral home will bring.   


What mistakes did you make during your first years as a funeral home owner? Tell us in the comments below!


kristan-mcnamesABOUT THE AUTHOR: Kristan I. McNames, CFSP, graduated with a Bachelor Degree from the Mortuary Science and Funeral Service Program at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale. After working for two corporate funeral providers, most recently as the General Manager; she decided to open her own funeral home in June of 2009, with her husband Bob McNames. Grace Funeral & Cremation Services is located in Rockford, Illinois, and has served over 240  families since opening.

 

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  1. Ron Harper

    Finally, someone who is real and tells it like it is. From a leadership/management perspective this is valuable information especially relating to the competition aspect. It’s hard to do a start up business without first talking about needs and wants but it seems like you’ve handled that pretty well. Nice job!

  2. Paul Decker

    We are 9 months into our first year of taking over a small rural funeral home in upstate NY, your are absolutely spot on, especially with the software, thank goodness we have had a few successful months and have been able to afford adding a software program to our tool chest. Thanks for the insight into your first year.

    I have been lucky to have two friends purchase funeral homes around the same time as I have and we have been able to share our successes and mistakes with each other over the past few months.

    Thanks again

    Paul Decker
    Hall & Peet Funeral Home
    Delhi, NY

  3. Len Cabana

    Very glad to see you stood up and are on the right way to become recognised.
    Trust of your families yhat you servr are the answer to your success.
    Bravo…

    Len Cabana Director

  4. Tom Sproles

    Great post Kristan! I started our funeral home in 2006 and can identify with your experiences. Wishing you continued success! Tom

  5. worth cremation services

    Nice article also visit for Affordable Cremation service in Florida
    http://worthcremationservice.com/

  6. Eric Daniels

    Thank you so much for your insight and the courage to openly admit your mistakes so people like me can grow. I am currently trying hard to open my own now after 20 years of being and FD and Manager for a corp as well. Is it possible for my wife or I to call you and pick your brain? I know you are busy, but just in case, my wife, Denise can be reached at [EDITED] and I can be reached at [EDITED]. I don’t assume you will call, I only give our #’s so as not to bother you if you don’t want to wish to be called. I am passionate and ready, just trying get the funding. I published a book in 2004 titled, “The Greatest People I Never Knew”. Thanks again, and hope to be able to speak with you.

  7. Rilee Chastain

    Eric, thanks so much for your message! We have passed it along to Kristan 🙂

  8. Clifford

    I am currently in the process of taking over a funeral service in Detroit Michigan. I am not familiar with how to run and operate one, but I know how to utilize my resources. I would love to start a networking system with any and all who would be interested in sharing their negatives and positives about the business.

  9. John

    A really good article and well written
    I’m UK based, working for a company I don’t like and toying with starting up on my own.
    I’m late 40s and it is daunting, so it’s good to read these sort of accounts

  10. Jerome

    Very beneficial reading. Have experience as a youth but such awhile ago. Would love to network.

  11. Chris Houston

    what is or was your startup cost and I seen you have a degree in the field is a degree or working for funeral home necessary to start up

  12. Angie

    I am curious what your grammatical error was during the olympic games? Just have to ask.

  13. CHARLES J.JORDAN

    i’m getting ready to start school in January 2016 I’ve been working in the funeral home business for over 13 years .I have seen the good and the bad, with families and FD’s, its a shame how most seasoned FD’s don’t want to welcome you in the business. I just hope and pray that I can find some FD’s that would love to share info. without thinking I want their business,i have my own ideas and style.

  14. Michelle Blash

    Hello. I am seriously interested in looking into starting this business. I have the perfect location and there is a need. My dad passed away @9 years ago and when it came time to select a funeral parlor near our home there were, surprisingly, very little options. In all this time, absolutely nothing has changed. I live in an community where there are many large family homes and retirement communities. I really think this would be a successful business.

    There’s just one small problem–actually it’s huge! Neither my husband or I have any experience with this type of business at all. I am an accountant and he is a salesman.

    I would love to know your thoughts.

    Thank you.
    Michelle

  15. Bonnie Price

    I am interested in opening a funeral home business. Do I need a specific charts of accounts for a funeral home? If so, would you send me an example of one. Thank you for posting the article.

  16. chris bartolone

    I worked part-time for a large funeral home here in Milwaukee. I really enjoyed the feeling of helping others. I have thrown around the idea of opening my own place for a number of years. I would love to pick your brain at some point.

  17. Rhea

    I really enjoyed this advice!

  18. Rilee Chastain

    Thanks for the comment, Rhea! We’re so happy you enjoyed the post!

  19. Debra

    This blog gives me hope as a female funeral director. I would also like to get information or maybe you could do another blog, seeing as there are quite a few of us that want to pick your brain. Again very informative, and definitely interesting.

  20. Rilee Chastain

    Hi Debra! Thanks so much for your comment. We would be happy to share more tips for managing a successful funeral home. Is there any topic in particular you would like to learn more about? Thanks for your kind feedback!

  21. Lesa

    I have recently sent out resumes to several funeral homes for a funeral director’s apprenticeship. I want to own and operate a funeral parlor close to my neighborhood. The decision to change careers is due to experiences good and bad with recent deaths of family members and a close mentor. I believe in my heart I have found my calling.
    Would some if not all of you share any advice for me as far as start up cost and do’s and dont’s, funding?

  22. Richard Chege

    I would like to do the same in my country. I am in kenya which is in east africa. I will get a list of questions and as you said on lesson 2 “your time has value” i will make it short and precise. i would like to try to make is affordable to rest your loved ones in dignity. we primarily bury people in kenya.there are not a lot of cremations as the kenyan-indians handle their own funerals. is this something you will be interested to advice on?

  23. Ben M

    For anyone asking about the start up cost – just conservatively guessing.

    In the outskirts of Cleveland Ohio (dirt cheap housing) a nice home is gonna cost 200k.
    Add yearly taxes, gas bill, electric, garbage etc. For the year

    A brand new caddilac hurst – just gonna guess a number. 80-100k

    Quality Caskets, earns, embalming equipment, Etc etc etc

    Just a really conservative start up guess in poor old Cleveland Ohio, half a million clams.

  24. Tiffany

    This was a very interesting read! Thank you so much! I’m planning on going to school for funeral directing and embalming and I want to open up my own funeral home one day.

    Thank you for sharing!

  25. Raynell Record

    Thank you, I’m interested in opening up a funeral home in my area. It’s not very many at all. I have 16 years exp as a CPA but currently my husband and I both team drive a big rig across country. I’ve always shown interest in this field and I’ve actually been the go to person for my family and friends when it’s time to plan. I totally understand death and think it’s very important for the family to know this when making final arrangements. I was looking into different programs and schools do you have any recommendations? I figured I would handle the embalming and the administration. Do that sound like it’s to much for 1 person to handle? My husband is very supportive of my idea but not to interested in the actual hands on, lol… I’m sure in time he will adjust.

  26. Jordan H

    Hi Kristan,

    Thank you so much for your insights. If you have a moment, I would love to connect with you via phone or email for more insights on this process. I appreciate you taking the time and look forward to hearing from you. My email jordan663@gmail.com thanks again!

  27. Maisana Tebatso and Mamogobo Ophney

    I Maisana and Mamogobo we want to start a funeral home and we have big plans for the business but the problem is we are still student at a secondary school and we are in Grade 11 so we have problem with finance but we need all the help we can gets so that we can start the business.Our contact is 0823458452 Maisana and Mamogobo 0768213452.

  28. Esme Fourie

    Hi my name is Esme, and I live in a very small town in the Upper Karoo in the Northern Cape. I would like to start my own funeral home I have the experience and qualifications in managing a bussiness, but I need funding to start a businees.Can anyone please assist me in fnding funding,sponsorships or donors

  29. jeannette ortiz

    Im in a minority area of new rochelle , ny currently theres no network between hispanics and a caring funeral director, im looking at opening my own business to target all markets in the funeral industry. Could you share any ideas that could enhance this dream, i too am hispanic lic funeral dir..having the hardest time finding a firm and im also willing to work as an admin as i am lic in IT…please let me know im on every job site, linked in, and sci .JO

  30. Monica

    Hi Clifford, curious how did the first couple years go after buying into a funeral Home?

  31. Ophney

    I need help for starting a funeral please help me.

  32. Derek Horner

    I enjoyed reading your article. My brother and I actually own Unger-Horner in Rochelle. My father and I stopped in to visit you when you first opened. Not in a negative way. It was just interesting to see your business starting from scratch. Honestly, your far enough away from us we do not consider you competition. We just had to check out your business. I am guessing you wouldn’t remember us and thats just fine. I could tell the minuet we meet you, that you and your husband were passionate about the funeral industry. I hope you still are filled with that desire to serve and can continue to help people in need. I just had to comment since I randomly read your article off of a yahoo search and found that I knew who you were in the end.

  33. Kristan McNames

    Thanks for commenting! I do remember your visit with your dad. It’s been a fun ride so far. We do love funeral service and are continually blessed by the families who choose our funeral home. Wishing you and your family continued success.

  34. St Peter

    I got the idea on how to manage and run a funeral home. This is a new information for me. Really cool!

  35. Margaret Annette Nelson

    Kristian

    I’m thinking about starting a Funeral Home Business in my area. I don’t have any education in the area, but thinking about it. I have this problem with being jittery and nervous about it even though it’s something I want to do to help people. I’n 67 years of age, in good health, and a christian minister and singer. It’ s hard for me to find someone to work with me, everybody seem to be only for themselves. What advice can you offer for the nervous and jittery feelings. I live in Lakeland, Fl

    Sincerely

    Margaret Nelson

  36. F. knight

    Hi.
    I am so inspired by your post. I currently work with seniors and enjoy every aspect of aging. I am interested in opening up a furneral business myself. Just pray the best for you and hope you can accomplish your goal!