Last year, I was running a discussion group of funeral directors, and they shared some common frustrations. Jessica*, a third-generation, 40-something funeral director, said something that stopped the group in its tracks:
“My father just won’t give up the reins. He won’t even let me meet with families by myself.”
She wasn’t a second-career funeral director who joined the family business six months ago. Jessica was fully licensed and had 20+ years of experience working in the same funeral home in the small town where she had grown up. But now she was having second thoughts about eventually taking over the business because she was worried that her father would never let her really run the business until he eventually died.
This is not an isolated problem. I frequently hear from the “next generation” that one of their major sources of stress is uncertainty and disagreements surrounding family business transitions and decision-making. While each situation is unique, here are three pieces of advice that I believe will benefit every family funeral home:
1) Begin Talking About Transitions Earlier Than You Think
Family funeral homes should begin discussing transitions before the next generation begins to work at the funeral home. This doesn’t mean you need a contract regarding transitions or the entire process mapped out 30 years in advance, but you should have clear and open conversations about what the owners and the next generation hope will happen, as well as some general expectations.
I have heard too many stories about owners who didn’t know that the next generation was thinking about leaving funeral service. Likewise, I know of situations where the next generation worked for decades and expected to have the option to buy the business, but the owners suddenly sold the funeral home business to an outside entity. We all know of families that are no longer speaking to each other or have even opened up competing funeral homes because of a disagreement. Starting with open and honest discussions very early in the process is critical. Don’t assume you are both on the same page; talk about it.
2) Handing Off Responsibilities Over Time Helps Everyone
Don’t make the same mistake as the father I mentioned at the beginning. Like Jessica, many family funeral professionals feel that they are not allowed to take on additional responsibilities within a reasonable amount of time.
When I ask family funeral home owners about their nightmare scenario, they often say they would hate to transition the funeral home to the next generation and then watch it fail. One way to give the next generation the best chance of success is to begin transitioning duties early in their professional career. This strategy benefits everyone in several ways:
- First, it allows the next generation to gain experience with the inner workings of the business instead of just doing menial tasks. This also creates a situation where the next generation can always go to the owner for advice, and it helps them to grow as professionals.
- Second, the next generation will begin to feel a stronger sense of responsibility and pride in their work. Furthermore, other staff members will start to see that the next generation has the skills and dedication to eventually take over.
- Third, the owner will be able to regain some work-life balance or start working on new projects or initiatives for the business.
3) Owners Must Take Time to Develop Interests Outside the Funeral Home
It is difficult for business owners to let go of the reins if nothing outside the funeral profession excites them. Or put another way: to transition away from something, you must have something fulfilling to work toward. I strongly encourage owners to begin developing hobbies and interests before they give up all the day-to-day operations. It takes time to develop hobbies that are interesting and fulfilling. The best time to foster these interests is before you retire.
Family funeral business transitions can be stressful. Nothing can make Thanksgiving dinner worse than family members who used to work together but now won’t speak to each other. By having conversations early and often, transitioning duties throughout the process and making sure the owner has something to look forward to, family businesses can significantly reduce the chances of conflict and unnecessary stress.
For more stories and insights written especially for funeral professionals, I invite you to join the free Finding Resilience email program. Each week, I share practical advice about preventing funeral professional burnout, from prioritizing goals for your funeral home business to finding work-life balance and much more.
*Name has been changed to maintain confidentiality.