The complete interview originally appeared in the winter issue of OGR’s quarterly magazine The Independent.
R. Hayden Smith Family Funeral Homes have two locations in Hampton, VA. R. Hayden Smith Funeral Home and Berceuse Funeral and Cremation Traditions. The family tradition began back in 1901 when William Smith and his son R. Hayden Smith opened their first location. For 117 years, five consecutive generations have owned and operated their firms. They have a sixth generation working in the business now. Currently, Timothy B. Smith and Kevin B. Smith manage the two locations. At 83, their father, Robert H. Smith, II, is still active in daily operations. Along with two funeral homes, they also have two retorts, providing cremation for people and pets, a small marker business, and on occasion manage to look up and smell the roses. OGR sat down with co-owner Kevin Smith to discuss why funeral service matters and how they approach serving the families in their community.
Why do you believe that funeral service is important?
This is a difficult question to answer. Many who know me know that I see things in a different light than most. In a continuously evolving society, funeral service is also evolving. To evolve is not always in a positive direction, which is what creates the challenge for us as funeral directors and business people. One hard reality is that the evolution of the funeral service provider has shifted in a direction away from “service”. Just look at the number of discount funeral and direct cremation providers that are popping up. “Quick arrangement time, online arrangements, straight disposition, no family connection.” Recently, I scheduled an appointment for a Veteran’s direct cremation with scattering by Navy at sea. Help is needed to coordinate the details, but remembrance and a real service involving the funeral home is not wanted.
In my opinion, the value of taking time to remember someone, who was a significant part of your life, is priceless. My 30+ years of working with people has taught me, that the people who do nothing to remember life, are the ones years later who keep asking, “Why do I feel like I can’t move forward?” Our service to families is important because we say it is okay to mourn and we will lend a shoulder to lean on, we are there to help with the paperwork, but more importantly, we are there to help honor and remember. That way they can go into that kitchen again, or smell coffee or motor oil and have a peaceful memory, find enjoyment in the holidays, and while a loved one’s stocking might be hanging empty on the fireplace, they are still with you in your heart on Christmas morning.
What is the most rewarding part of working in the funeral service industry?
Hearing families say things like, “Thanks for allowing Dad’s motorcycle at the front chapel to lead his casket down the aisle; he would not have wanted things any other way.”
“You made this time easier on us and we will never forget you for that!”
“How do you pull all of this together?”
“I’ll bet we are the craziest family you have ever worked with!”
“I will always remember you wearing the pink tie to honor mom!”
“Kevin, you are in the right profession!”
“I don’t know how you dealt with my crazy sister, but everything was perfect!”
“I just have to hug you before I leave!”
Need I continue?
What do you believe distinguishes your funeral home from other funeral homes?
What distinguishes our funeral home from others is simple… ATTITUDE. Our role is not to talk you into or out of doing things or buying things. Our role is to listen to what you want and how to honor your loved one. Then do it better than anyone else! We don’t care what merchandise you select. Families get the same service, no matter if they select the solid mahogany or the cloth covered wood casket. Our focus has always been on what people need for us to do to help. SERVICE!
What does your funeral home do in order to create a strong community presence?
We ask that our staff be involved in community organizations that are doing positive things: Rotary, Knights of Columbus, HELP, Tim’s new Cidery. We provide workshops, coach youth athletics, sponsor summer league baseball with a box at the stadium, and what seams like a million other things. There’s never a dull moment.
What do you value most about OGR? Why did you become a member?
What I value the most at OGR is the staff. Their job is to keep watching for the changes in funeral service, then help us be aware of them and embrace them. Second to the staff would be the opportunities OGR provides by bringing forward thinking funeral directors from different parts of the world to share new ideas on how to help us do things better. I have always enjoyed my friendships with many OGR members as well as pushing myself to be open minded around the innovative people in the room who I think are smarter than I am. One idea can spawn the development of another idea.
In closing, I would leave you with one parting thought. Innovation and creativity means sticking your neck out and taking reasonable risks without fear of peer criticism. Be flexible and patient, try and fail then tweak and try again; it is not true failure. They all work hand and hand to develop into something great. True failure is not learning anything, or worse, not ever trying anything new. Safe is easy, a no-brainer. Safe is also boring, stale and not forward thinking. Too much safe will eventually lead to the funeral of your own mortuary.
Thanks to Kevin Smith of R. Hayden Smith Family Funeral Homes for sharing and for being a valued member of the International Order of the Golden Rule (OGR).
OGR is a trade association for independently owned and operated funeral homes in North America and overseas. Interested in learning more about us? Visit www.ogr.org.