How John McQueen Turned Funerals Into A Lifelong Passion (And Success)

Earlier this month, the funeralOne team was down in Nashville, Tennessee for the annual International Cemetery, Cremation and Funeral Association (ICCFA) conference!

Not only is ICCFA one of our favorite events of the year because we get to meet with amazing funeral professionals from all over the world, but it also brings together some of the brightest and most innovative funeral minds together under one roof to talk about the future of funerals. And to make sure you, at home, get in on the insights, we’re recapping some of our favorite conversations here on our funeralOne blog… enjoy!

There is nothing we love more than sitting down with innovative, creative people in the funeral profession and picking their brain on their entire funeral story… How did they get started? Where did their passion for funerals come from? What are they doing to make sure their families have the best possible experience when entering their funeral home?

So when we had an opportunity to sit down with John McQueen, President and Owner of Anderson-McQueen funeral home, we jumped at the chance to dive deeper into his lifelong career in the funeral profession, which includes highlights like graduating valedictorian from Gupton-Jones College of Funeral Service in Atlanta, GA., past president of the Florida Funeral Directors Association, current past president on the Board of Trustees for the Academy of Professional Funeral Service Practice, and founding and managing partner of FuneralReview.com, which was sold to NFDA.

So how does John manage to stay passionate about the funeral profession throughout a busy schedule, a growing funeral business and a lifelong career in the profession? Find out for yourself…

funeralOne: Let’s start from the beginning… how did you first get started in the funeral profession?

John McQueen: “My father started our funeral home in 1952 along with John Anderson. When Mr. Anderson died in 1970, my dad bought out his half of the business. I started working at the funeral home when I was 15, probably like every next generation… mowing the lawn, washing cars, pulling weeds. And as I got old enough to drive, I began driving on funerals, and slowly working my way into the embalming side. I’ve pretty much done everything. Unfortunately, my dad died at a relatively young age of 66 in 1987, so I took over running the funeral home at 22. My sister was in the business side and she ran our administrative department, and my brother was in law school at the time.”

f1: That’s pretty young to take on that kind of responsibility. Is that when you decided that funerals were going to be your career, or was it even before then?

McQueen: “When we were young children, my dad obviously was building a business. So if you wanted to see dad, you went to the funeral home. So my mom took us by there one day and my dad was walking me and my siblings around the funeral home. He showed my sister the secretary’s office at the time and said, ‘Hey, this is gonna be yours someday.’ Then he showed my brother an office upstairs, and said, “this is gonna be yours someday.” And then he turned to me, and I was the youngest… probably about five at the time, and he said, ‘Well, I’m sorry, son. We’re all out of offices.’ And so I said, because I got cocky sometimes, ‘That’s okay, dad. I’ll just take yours.’ From that day on, I always said I was going to be a funeral director. In high school, you know, they have career day? They tell you, ‘Put down your top three choices for who you want to come in and speak’ and I put ‘funeral director, funeral director, funeral director.’

f1: It sounds like you did a little bit of everything in the funeral home growing up. What was it that ultimately gave you the spark for serving families? When did it go from, ‘I’m going to help dad’ to this is my passion?

McQueen: “I think probably when I got to interact more with families and I got to be on the people side. I’m sort of a talker, if you haven’t noticed. I like to interact with people and get to know them. When I came back from college, I had an opportunity to work closely with my dad for a couple of years before he died. In that time that I got to spend with him, I got to start really dealing more with families, and that’s probably when my interest sparked.

“Also, my entire life, I’ve always been an idea guy. I get it from my mom. She was the type of person that could do anything. So never met a project that she couldn’t do, and I’ve never really met a task I’m not willing to try to tackle. So after my dad died, my brother, sister and I said, ‘Hey, you know, we need to do things a little differently than dad.’ That’s really when we began trying out new things, and getting more involved with our cemetery. But mostly, I’ve always just been a lifelong learner. I love learning and trying out new thing. One of the thing that’s probably been most successful for us is looking at other industries — coffee shops, hotels, cruise lines — and study what they’re doing. I don’t really compare us to other funeral homes in the marketplace, because most of them probably aren’t going to be doing what I want to do.”

f1: What kind of insights have you taken from other customer service professions and put into your funeral homes?

McQueen: “We have these rooms called Legacy Cafes. They’re modeled after Starbucks, and we even serve Starbucks coffee. It’s got curvy track lighting and funky colors that you wouldn’t typically find in a funeral home. But you know, the way I look at it is, we all frequent nice restaurants, we all frequent nice hotels, we frequent the coffee houses, things like that. So to me, being able to bring things in things to our funeral home that people are more familiar with and used to, it will help to put them at ease and make them more comfortable… lower the barriers and allow us to be able to help them better through the funeral process.

Me and my wife are big cruisers, and so I asked someone at Royal Caribbean one day, ‘You get all these [employees] from all of the world. They don’t even speak the same languages. How do you get them all to deliver the same customer service and be so outstanding?’ And they told me about something they call their GOLD standard: ‘Greet and smile. Own the guest experience. Look the part. Deliver the wow.’ And I was like, ‘hey, I’ve got to write that down,’ and now it’s a motto that we train all of our staff on.

f1: What is your funeral home doing in order to deliver that wow experience to the customers that you serve?

McQueen: “We do a couple of things… well, actually a lot of things. But a few come to mind right away. I always tell my funeral directors to start their day by walking through their funeral home backwards. A friend of mine, Dr. Pine, told me that if you walk through a room backwards, it actually causes your brain to see things you don’t normally see. Our brain takes in so many things at one time that there are certain things that we just shut out and it considers irrelevant. So if you walk through in reverse, your brain will pick up new things like, ‘Oh, I’ve got cobwebs in the corner’ It allows you to really look at your facility.

“You see, when people come in and they see that, and then you tell them it’s gonna be a $10,000 funeral, people go, ‘Holy crap. What’s he doing with all the money? Is he putting it in his pocket or something? Because he sure isn’t investing it here.’ So we always make sure that our experience at our Anderson-McQueen brand begins from the moment you drive in the driveway.”

f1: How important do you think it is for funeral professionals to keep looking for new ways to improve, or to find new ways to keep learning?

McQueen: “I think it’s paramount, to be honest with you. I thought my dad was the best funeral director in the world, you know. I knew he ran a good ship… we did over 600 cases a year, and we had seven staff members. And when he first died, I thought I knew everything. ‘Hey, dad taught me all this. I know what’s going on.’ But then I stepped outside the confines of 22nd Avenue and 9th Street, I started learning, ‘Wow, there is a lot of stuff I don’t know.’ And it’s changing all the time and we have to be able to keep up with that.

“I hear people telling me that they can just keep going the way that they always have, and I hate to tell them, but they’re probably gonna be the one slowly going out of business because somebody else is going to come along and is going implement a lot of these things.”

f1: You have been involved in so many community aspects of the funeral profession. How do you maintain that passion and that drive for what you do after so long, and still not get burned out?

McQueen: “Well, it’s not always easy. I hate to say, ‘back in the good old days’ because I still think of myself as the 22-year-old guy, not the 52-year-old guy. But when I started in the business, we usually worked an 80-hour work week. So as a company, about 10 years ago, we really worked hard on trying to come up with a work/life balance not only for ourselves, but our staff. I tell every new interviewee when they interview with me that, ‘When you’re here, I expect 110% of you. So don’t be playing on the phone and doing whatever. Be working. But when you’re not here, I want you to be 110% off and I want you enjoying your life.’

“Part of that means you need to leave great notes, you need to leave things that your teammates can pick up the ball and run with, without having to bother you. Usually the ones in our company that aren’t successful are the ones that don’t do that, because then what happens is, it’s your day off and we’re calling you. Unfortunately, that doesn’t usually last long. So we really have to come up with a system to try and make sure everyone has a good work/life balance.”

f1: Last question… out of all of the lessons and tips that you have learned throughout your career, what’s the biggest insight that has stayed with you?

McQueen: “It’s not about the big things. Everyone tries to do these great grand things, like ‘Oh, look, I created this huge personalized funeral. I had a horse saddle up next to the casket.’ And that’s all great, but you know what? If the family gets their death certificates, and you’ve spelt the name wrong or you put the wrong social security number or there, you’ve just thrown all that other stuff out of the window.

“The same goes for when people come into our facilities… if our bathrooms look horrible, that reflects back on everything else. I know as a consumer, if I go in a restaurant’s bathroom and it’s horrible, I go, ‘Man, if that’s what the bathroom looks like, I wonder what the kitchen is like? What’s my meal going to be like?’ My father used to always preach to us that it’s the little things that matter. Pick up the gum wrapper that’s lying under the chair, or change the burnt out light bulb in the back, because a burnt out light bulb says, ‘I knew you were coming. but I didn’t care. So many times it’s those little things. And if you focus on the little things, the big things come easy.”

To hear more from John McQueen about the future of the funeral profession and how to deliver an exceptional customer experience to families, be sure to check out his radio show, Undertakings, where he sits down with some of the leading industry professionals to talk all things end-of life (now available on iTunes). Also be sure to check out the Anderson-McQueen Funeral Homes website.

Are you interested in reading more of our exclusive funeralOne sit-down interviews with some of the top influencers in the funeral profession? Then be sure to check out this post next → Opening The Door To The Passed: Exclusive ICCFA Interview with Allison Gilbert

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  3. Paul Williams

    I had the awesome privilege of working with John for several months in his funeral home in St. Petersburg, Florida. He is a man of integrity and true professionalism. I was a pre need counselor and learned so much from him and his associates.

  4. Rodney Williams

    I went to school with John McQueen at Gupton – Jones College of Funeral Service in the late 1980’s, I was in the junior class behind him. One of the nicest guys you will every meet.