Society has changed. When Ken Poe first got into the funeral business and a family walked through the door of the funeral home, he knew, 90 percent of the time, there was going to be a traditional funeral—a burial two to three days later and a visitation the night before.
Today, options are more plentiful and schedules are less rigid as families make arrangements for their final tribute to a loved one.
“Now, about 50 percent of families opt for burial, with the other half choosing cremation,” says Poe. “The funeral/memorial service might be at a church, the funeral home or graveside—and held at any time of day or evening, if they have one at all. Visitation gatherings may be small intimate groups of family or larger groups of mourners and supporters. Some funeral homes, like ours, can even provide catering. Memorial services may be held weeks after the death. And technology has made it possible for those who cannot attend in person to participate via webcasting.”
Poe has spent the past 35 years—25 of them as president and general manager of Hankins & Whittington Funeral Service—keeping up with cultural, business and lifestyle changes that impact the ways in which we, as a society, honor, memorialize and bury our deceased; all while caring for bereaved families. The one thing that hasn’t change is Poe’s passion for caring for people at the most difficult time in their lives. And this is a passion shared by his hand-selected staff.
A Natural Fit
Currently in its 65th year, Hankins & Whittington, one of the largest funeral home firms in Charlotte, is located on East Boulevard in Charlotte’s historic Dilworth neighborhood. The building which has housed the firm since 1964 was built in the late 1920s and purchased from St. Luke’s Lutheran Church. The former church was renovated and adapted for use as a funeral home, maintaining the 175-seat chapel with beautiful stained glass windows, vaulted ceiling and brick walls, and lobby fireplace.
Founders Irvin W. (Hank) Hankins and James B. Whittington served together during World War II and returned home to found Hankins & Whittington Funeral Directors in 1946. The enterprise also included an ambulance service until the late 1960s. Both Hankins and Whittington remained involved with the funeral home until their deaths; the firm is now owned by national funeral home and cemetery operator Foundation Partners Group, LLC.
After Hankins passed away, Whittington wanted to find a qualified Charlotte native to run the business. Ken Poe had grown up about a mile away from the funeral home in Charlotte and was working in the eastern part of the state in Farmville for his father-in-law who was the funeral director there. “I was already 10 years in the business,” says Poe, who jumped at the opportunity to return to Charlotte.
When Poe first started working with his father-in-law at age 24, he didn’t view it as entering the funeral business. His wife’s father also had a furniture store, gift shop, tobacco farms, export business and rental properties, so Poe learned a great deal about running small businesses. But over time, he developed a love for the funeral business.
“It was kind of a natural fit to be in this business—it suits my personality,” says Poe, who describes himself as soft-hearted and someone who cares about how people are feeling. “Both of my grandfathers were Baptist ministers. We grew up in the church and with the concept of caring for people and doing for others.”
Because he already had a college degree (Wofford College), Poe did not have to go to mortuary science school. All that was required at the time was a college degree, a year’s apprenticeship and passing the state exam. Upon completion of these, Poe received a funeral directing license. This license allows an individual to direct the funeral process and business but does not include embalming. Poe went on to earn his M.B.A. from East Carolina University.
Today those seeking to become licensed in the funeral business must go through a course curriculum at a community college or online. Courses include biology, anatomy, psychology, funeral business practice and economics, and result in an Associates Degree. A year’s apprenticeship is still required.
In addition to the funeral directing license, two other licenses are available: a funeral service license which allows one to do both funeral directing and embalming; and an embalmers license which only allows for embalming. “The people I employ have a funeral service license,” says Poe. There are five funeral directors, one pre-need director, three administrators and one utility person on staff.
A Celebration of Life
Funeral home services are most often focused upon a death not completely unexpected and usually involving an older person. “While you hear about the tragic deaths such as a police officer or young person, those are actually rare and not necessarily what we work with day-to-day,” says Poe. “Most deaths are sad but not tragic.”
The efforts of the funeral home personnel are geared toward finding a comfort level for the families so they can celebrate the life of their loved one in a proper way which gives him or her honor and respect, according to Poe. “Our role is to listen and to make arrangements within a time-frame and schedule that makes sense. We are also highly sensitive to the financial concerns of the family. Funeral service in Charlotte is a highly competitive business and we have to be the most compassionate, creative, yet value-driven provider possible,” says Poe.
Many people still choose to have a funeral service two to three days after the death. This is primarily driven by custom as well as newspaper deadlines for obituary notices. Contrary to older traditions of mid-morning and afternoon services., Hankins & Whittington encourages families to schedule services at the time that will work best for those attending.
The biggest change that Poe has witnessed over his years in the business has been the increase in demand for cremation. “We’ve gone from doing around 20 percent to, as of this year, nearly 50 percent of our business in cremation services.” The attitude that having the body present for services is not as prevalent as it used to be. Also, families are more spread out geographically so it’s harder to get people together ,and many people think of cremation as being easier and allowing a service to be scheduled at a more convenient time.
In North Carolina, embalming is not required for burial. Funeral homes must ask for permission to embalm to temporarily preserve the body, a procedure that was developed during the Civil War for the bodies of soldiers being returned. Today, more families are declining the request to embalm; a trend that goes along with fewer people having open-casket services.
Lots of people are choosing to bury the cremated remains of a loved one in a plot previously bought for a traditional burial. Some choose church columbariums and others haven’t given much thought to a final disposition and truly don’t know what to do. “They take them home to decide at a later date,” says Poe. “We live in such a transient society; some are reluctant to bury in the area where they live since they will likely be leaving that place.”
Hankins & Whittington offers numerous styles of urns in which to place cremation remains; some fashioned as clocks, picture frames, jewelry, custom art objects or other decorative containers.
“I have a deep-seated feeling that everyone deceased deserves to be in a permanent place with their name on it, whether it’s a plaque on a wall in a memorial garden or in a cemetery or columbarium,” says Poe. “We need to leave behind for future generations something that says we were here.”
Many people love to visit beautiful old cemeteries and examine interesting monuments, according to Poe who laments that not a lot of them are being erected anymore. “I wonder if future generations will say, ‘What happened to the people who died in 2011?’”
Making a Difference
Costs are a necessary consideration when making arrangements to pay last respects. Burials can run from $2,000 upwards to $15,000 or $20,000, with most of the variance hinging on the choice of casket. Beyond the professional services of the funeral home, there are costs associated with cemetery charges, flowers, limousines, catering and newspaper notices. The average family will spend between $8,000 and $10,000 for burial arrangements. Costs for cremation usually run between $1,700 and $4,000 dollars.
Around 60 percent of the funeral home’s patronage comes from legacy business. Forty percent is generated through advertising and church and heath care referrals. Hankins & Whittington expects to have revenues between $2 million and $3 million this year.
“Undeniably, the funeral home handles the needs that arise upon a death. But many of their services are intended for the living. We seek to help the family go away from this experience knowing that they have truly honored their loved one’s memory,” says Poe.
The unexpected does happen, according to Poe, who recounts situations in which a pallbearer backed out at the last minute or unplanned speakers stood up and ‘stole the minister’s thunder.’ Dealing with modern-day families where there are second and third marriages may necessitate negotiations between members or seating in separate rooms. Occasionally, a girlfriend will appear that no one knew about. Or, the limousine carrying the family may have to pull into the Arby’s drive-through to alleviate the burden of hunger. Because life is sometimes complicated, funeral home services become diverse.
Like churches and other faith-based organizations, funeral homes are part of the community fabric. Part of the important work that Hankins & Whittington does in the community is providing for indigent burials. The firm works closely with Catholic Social Services to deliver services to impoverished people.
“Even if they do not qualify for CSS assistance, we’re not going to turn anybody away,” says Poe. Members of the Hankins & Whittington staff are also involved in civic clubs, such as Rotary and Knights of Columbus, and area churches. The firm supports the American Cancer Society, hospice organizations, Little League and conducts an annual holiday memorial service.
Technology is being employed in the funeral business to expand inclusiveness and ultimately, to pay tribute. Video tributes, featuring photos and scenes of the departed’s life have become very popular. “They give people a chance to think about the person’s whole life rather than just their death,” says Poe.
In reference to his own mother, Poe shares, “When she passes away, I don’t want to remember just the last few years. I want to remember when I was in high school and would sit on a stool in the kitchen and talk to her for hours while she fixed dinner—the good parts. We’re here to pay tribute to the good times and good memories.”
“The thing is, every family and every situation is different,” says Poe. “There is no ‘typical’ family. But they all have needs and they are all so appreciative of what we do for them. That’s what keeps us going; making a difference and knowing that we helped to honor a life and assist the family through a difficult time.”