The Denning family has been involved with funeral service since 1925. Basil Denning, a farm boy along with his brother Forest opened a furniture store and undertaking business in Strathroy. Bill and Brett Denning grew up above the funeral home in Strathroy and both had a strong desire from early ages to be a part of funeral service. Upon completion of their education, Bill and Brett worked for different reputable firms before purchasing the Harper Funeral Home in Watford. “We had always had the desire to purchase a funeral home because we wanted to be funeral directors/owners. So we started knocking on doors all over Southwestern Ontario on our days off; introducing ourselves and asking for the opportunity to purchase,” Bill recalls.
In 2005, Bill and Brett acquired the Harper Funeral Home in Watford. In 2007 the sale of Ronn E. Dodge Funeral Directors in Forest took place, followed two months later by the purchase of Padfield Funeral Homes in Rodney and West Lorne. Bill recalls,” It was really a whirlwind year. In 2014, Bill and Brett became the fourth generation owners of their family funeral home in Strathroy. They also acquired T. Stephenson & Son Funeral Home in Ailsa Craig (The third oldest funeral home in Ontario!). They are now amalgamating all six locations as Denning’s. “Not Denning’s Funeral Home, not Denning’s Undertakers, just Denning’s. We did this to simplify and also honor our great-grandfather who in 1925 answered his phone as ‘Denning’s.’ For us it’s important because we don’t want to pigeon hole ourselves into using the word funeral anymore because there is so much more than just funeral in what we do. We felt it was essential to rebrand ourselves as the people in our community that families will call upon for support whether it is preplanning, funeral service, visitation, celebration of life, receptions, flowers, celebrant services and a full range of services. We are communicating through our name that we are their resource for everything and will support and help them to put everything together and this is where our strength lies,” Bill stated.
Bill and Brett are facing many challenges in funeral service due to the changing nature of society today. They meet challenges head on by being intimately involved in their community. “As small town funeral directors, we have the opportunity and privilege of knowing people on an intimate level. Not just within the doors of the funeral home, but from the grocery store and the soccer fields; we develop great friendships. So when people are looking for somebody to assist them with a service and they don’t have a religious affiliation, we are stepping in and filling that role. It is important to know that we are not in competition with people that have a religious affiliation and clergy support. But the reality of life is that there is more and more people that don’t have that. So if we are able to help people from that perspective; we are thrilled to,” said Bill.
As our society is becoming ‘less formal’, receptions and lunches are becoming more popular and requested by families. “People like the idea of being able to wrap up a service and go right into a luncheon. In response to this, we are building new in Strathroy which I call our ‘flagship operation.’ “We will be renovating in three stages. First, a new garage which will facilitate our fleet and also include a new embalming room and a warehouse for Northern Casket to give them an opportunity to get their product into Southwestern Ontario more readily. Stage two will be knocking down the old garage and building a state-of-the-art funeral home. And then stage three is to completely renovate the original funeral home into a reception facility which will be great for lunches and the casual “wine and cheese style” reception. The younger generation wants to celebrate a life, but in a more casual approach. The traditional concept of a structured funeral doesn’t necessarily appeal to everybody, but the idea of coming together to share the loss is something that never changes. We need to find different ways for people to come and continue to do that in a way that is reflective of the person’s life and that family’s lifestyle. So, in having a reception facility and also a funeral home, we will be able to offer a full range of services our community needs, Bill explained.
They are also meeting the needs of their community in providing preplanning and an extensive aftercare program. Denning’s believes in having very strong systems in place to help everything run smoothly for their families. Their aftercare program is very comprehensive and was even reviewed by a lawyer who has suggested their program would cost around $1000 if a family was to use a lawyer for the services they provide in their program. “We include it in all of our range of services from a traditional funeral down to a simple cremation because we feel so strongly about the value of it for our families. We wanted to make sure that every family we have the honor of serving was able to take advantage of this program. People see the value in it and are coming back and complimenting us on it. It was created by listening to our families and responding to what they need done after someone passes away,” Bill said.
Running and managing six locations while putting your community first is no easy feat. They have partnered with Director on Call to provide excellent service to their community. “Director on Call was the first service that we found that could get their heads around our six different locations and how to properly channel those calls and understood the importance of the Denning’s brand still being the answering line. Their technology has allowed us to continue to do what we believe in, being there for our community. It is important to us to be the ‘front line’ whether it is nine in the morning or three o’clock in the morning. We want to be the folks who are at that person’s home helping them care for their loved one to let them know everything is going to be okay. Their service allows us to do that and at the same time allows our on-call staff a little bit more freedom to be out in the community and to be with their families. It is really a great balance and we are pleased with their service,” Bill said.
Bill and Brett’s success is not only found by the fact they own and operate six locations. Rather it is in their pure joy and excitement about funeral service and where they see it headed. Their passion for embracing trends and adapting to them is evident. “Brett and I feel that we are involved in funeral service at the most interesting time in our history. Things are changing so much. When I first started, I was at the tail-end of where everyone was choosing a traditional funeral. Now, almost 20 years later, every family that comes in has a different idea of what is valuable to them. And even if they come in asking for direct cremation, we now talk about all the other things that can happen before and after that cremation. We have to really inspire the conversation with the family and listen to what that family is wanting. Good funeral professionals can hear what a family is saying and based on that help them to create unique tributes that will be important to that family. And that is why it is so exciting to be part of funeral service right now. To be creative and work with a family to put something together that is going to be wonderful for them,” stated Bill.
Bill added excitedly, “We are having fun doing it. Brett and I are encouraging of our staff to be creative. And they are incredible and immerse themselves in the whole experience with a family. There is not a single person on our staff that looks at this as ‘just a job.’ Everybody goes that extra mile.”
In the end, funeral home success isn’t always measured by the number of locations a firm has, but instead is found in the excellent service that Denning’s and its caring owner staff exemplify. Every family is important to them and they have committed to taking care of each one of them, before, during and after. “If you serve a family well, you get a feeling in your heart that is just so wonderful. You have done a good job,” Bill said humbly. At Denning’s, they honor their family’s roots of community service and have continued to sow the seeds with passion and compassion and well served families are their product. FBA