Funeral Business Advisor sat down with Drew Edwards, a funeral director with Sunset Funeral Homes
headquarterd in Danville, IL to learn more about his career and experience in the funeral industry.
How did you get into the funeral industry?
I went to a Catholic high school in Illinois and they had a very high success rate of their graduates moving on to college. My older brother was attending Southern Illinois University and I decided to do a college visit while I was still in high school. When I returned to school after visiting my brother, I told my advisor that I wanted to go in mortuary science – but I told her that as a joke so she would stop bothering me about school for a while. My advisor ended up gathering a lot of information regarding the mortuary science program at Southern Illinois University for me and I was honestly intrigued.
Then in 1991, I enrolled in mortuary school and I have never turned back. Being in this industry wasn’t something I always pictured myself doing, but now that I am here, I know it is where I’m meant to be.
I graduated from mortuary school in 1993 and I was sent to Danville, Illinois to do a 10 week practicum at Sunset Funeral Home. After I started working for the Darby family, I was offered a one year apprenticeship. And now, 24 years later, I’m still with the company. My entire career has been with the Darby family and with Sunset Funeral Homes.
What is your favorite part about working in this industry?
My favorite part is definitely the people. The families we serve are the best part about what I do. A lot of times, funeral directors try to make this business rocket science, but it doesn’t have to be. This is a business of families caring for families and people caring for people – it’s as simple as that. In my opinion, the strongest funeral directors in the nation are the ones that have the biggest hearts.
What makes Sunset Funeral Homes stand out from other funeral homes in the area?
Sunset was established in 1984 and it was the first cemetery and funeral home combination in the state of Illinois. When the doors were first opened, they knew it was going to be tough to get families to switch their traditions and move to this new funeral home. Through a strong preneed department and a lot of community support, Sunset Funeral Home worked itself into the community.
Over time, as other local funeral directors retired, Sunset had the opportunity to purchase other funeral homes and expand their presence in the area. We have a business model that we feel will work in any community and that is something that really puts us ahead of our competitors.
How are you personally involved in the community?
I am currently president of the Illinois Funeral Directors Association and I also serve on a workforce development board here in town. Additionally, I am on National Wild Turkey Federation board and I am a part of the Lions Club as well.
We are very fortunate at Sunset Funeral Homes because we have a lot of employees that are heavily involved in our community. As our funeral home grows, so does our community outreach. It’s great to be so connected to the families we serve all around the community.
What does excellent customer service mean to you?
Excellent customer service is the key to our business. We survey every family that comes through our funeral homes and we ask very direct questions about the service that we provided. We use these surveys to constantly train our staff, find new services that we may need to start offering, and pinpoint areas in which we can improve. Every family we serve is an opportunity to learn how we can better serve the next. We put customer service above all else in this business.
When we started our survey program, we found we had an 87% excellence rating. Since then, we have been able to move our excellence rating above 95%. So that just proves how important it is to really listen to the families you serve.
Looking forward to the future, what are you most excited about? What are your concerns?
I think this industry is the one of the best in the world. It’s one of the most noble professions out there. As I get the opportunity to speak to the younger generations and students in mortuary school, I stress to them that I think this industry sometimes focuses too much on the negatives and that is something we can change. On the other hand, this is a very slow changing industry. Over the next few years, I think we will see this industry change more quickly than we have been used to as the rates of cremation, green burials, and alternative services continue to rise. We have to look at these changes and shifts in the industry as positive changes and learn to embrace them and all the industry to grow in new ways.
What would you say is the most rewarding aspect of what you do as a funeral director?
Planning a funeral includes just as many details as planning a wedding includes, but with weddings you have months to prepare and with funerals you just have a few days.
Every day is different and every day is a new challenge – there are never two funerals that are the same. The most rewarding part for me is the hug at the end of the service from a family member and knowing that I helped make a difficult time a little easier for them.
Do you have any advice that you would share with other funeral directors, especially those just now entering the profession?
My advice to any funeral director out there is to that you do not have to leave profession if you are not happy. Instead, leave the business or company you are working at. There are a lot of opportunities across all of the United States and a lot of owners looking for great funeral directors. Finding a funeral home that is the perfect fit for you is so important, so don’t settle at a funeral home that leaves you unhappy. Just because one business isn’t working out for you, doesn’t mean this industry as a whole isn’t the right fit for you.
The funeral industry needs to keep moving forward with pay and time off. My advice for anyone getting into this industry is to not give up. Yes it’s changing, but it’s changing in ways that will eventually make it stronger. FBA