The Ceremony of Death: Third-Generation Funeral Home Directors Continue LegaciesJul 29, 2021 04:31PM ● By Chris Bowling
Photo by Bill Sitzmann
More than a century ago, Brian Roeder’s great-grandfather started working in a funeral home caring for Omaha’s dead. Then, Brian’s grandfather took over. Brian’s father assumed ownership after that. Now, with three locations, countless employees, and generations of Omahans served, a Roeder is still manning the family’s titular mortuary.
“I’ve got some big shoes to fill,” Roeder said. “Great-grandfather, Grandfather, Dad—they got the legacy going and I’m only two years into owning it. I think about what can I do to not only put my stamp on it, but to keep this going and continue the legacy. That’s a little bit of a stress point.”
Navigating grief while unpacking the logistics of a funeral takes a special skill set learned over years in the business and passed down through generations.
That was the case for Tom Belford, who runs John A. Gentleman Mortuaries and Crematory. His grandfather, Tom Belford, started a funeral business in Council Bluffs in 1906. The son who succeeded him took over that business as well as John A. Gentleman’s funeral home in Omaha in 1956, and was also named Tom Belford. Then in the ’60s, the company built their 72nd and Western streets location. That’s where the third funeral director bearing the name Tom Belford started working, and eventually took over.
“It’s easy to remember one name,” Belford said.
Belford sold insurance for a couple of years before he joined the family business, but discovered that he enjoys running a small business and helping others.
He said at a corporate funeral home, price points and efficiency get top marks. Belford, however, takes the slower approach.
“First thing I do is say, ‘Don’t come in today. Take some time, relax, come in tomorrow,’” Belford told B2B. “And then they come in the next day. I sit down and I probably don’t touch my pen for 20 minutes.”
Those conversations last about 90 minutes. When it comes to costs, they put people first, providing a quality service that won’t cost a fortune. If Belford’s staff does that well, people come back.
Belford talked about one woman who wanted her father’s urn painted kelly green. To the undiscerning eye, it looks the same as the green that comes in a 12-pack of Crayola crayons. But the specific color was special to her, and so Belford searched his catalogue cover to cover.
“We couldn’t find one, and then it hit me. I said, ‘Your brother runs an auto body shop,’” Belford remembered. “And she goes, ‘Yeah.’ I said, ‘How about taking this white one, and we’ll give it to him and have it painted kelly green?”
Staying flexible and prioritizing people also helps set Roeder Mortuaries apart.
When Eric Sauser died at the age of 43 in 2020, the family chose to have their service at Roeder Mortuaries. Instead of a somber funeral, they took a different route.
“We are not positive, but we think the cause of death was either leukemia or more likely being ‘dead sexy,’ his wife, Crystal, wrote in the obituary that went viral.
At the funeral, friends and family danced, laughed, and celebrated the life of Eric, AKA Super Dad. While Roeder said that service had more to do with the family than his staff, that kind of trust is common.
“‘You know, Roeder’s has had literally everyone in my family,’” Roeder remembered one woman telling him during a visit. “‘You’ve had so, and so, and so, and so,’ and just went through the generations, ‘and we’ve never been anywhere else.’ And I said, ‘Wow, well, thank you very much.’ That speaks volumes.”
Those are the moments that remind Roeder he is in the right business. He went to mortuary school in the mid-1990s, but left after his freshman year to join the Navy. After six years there, and exploring other career options, he decided on being a funeral director, earning a mortuary science degree in 2010.
That trust as a neighborhood mortuary has come over years of operation. Roeder’s great-grandfather started as an apprentice in 1912. Eventually he took over the company and a Roeder family member has been in charge ever since. Over the years their operations expanded to locations at 50th and Ames streets, near 108th and Blondo streets, and in Gretna.
With time and expansion comes change for any legacy business.
Belford didn’t have any TVs in John A. Gentleman Mortuaries and Crematory funeral homes when he started. Now the main location on 72nd and Western streets has 12 60-to-80-inch screens for broadcasting photos and tribute slideshows. Cremation, nontraditional services, and meeting the needs of a community with expanding cultural and religious ties have also become big focuses.
There was also COVID-19.
While death and sickness were top of mind for our society, funeral home directors had to figure out how to fulfill their duties as community’s caretakers.
Equipment had to be purchased for livestreaming, and Roeder started broadcasting the news from his office 24/7 to stay on top of ever-changing
Roeder wonders what his ancestors would think if they could see the business today. Imagining the audio and video equipment that goes into a modern funeral would be hard for those who started their business before cars traveled down Dodge Street.
A lot of other things have not changed.
Roeder has a box of pencils from the first Roeder Mortuary. Belford retains the front doors from the first John A. Gentleman Mortuaries and Crematory funeral home at 34th and Farnam streets.
Because history and tradition are important, and people’s stories are bigger than their family names.
Neither Roeder nor Belford felt pressured to take these jobs, and they’re also not trying to force other family members into it.
Roeder has a 12-year-old daughter who’s smart and kind, but also worries she’d cry too much to be a good funeral director. There’s some other nieces, nephews, and kids who could come in to keep the name alive, but honestly, it doesn’t matter. The culture he and his ancestors have built isn’t going away no matter who’s in charge. It’s baked into the brick and mortar of these businesses; it’s as pervasive as the air they breathe.
This article originally appeared in the August/September issue of B2B Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.