Funeral Business Advisor sat down with Edward J. Sheehy, Jr., funeral director with Riverview Funeral Home located in Shelton, CT and Edward F. Adzima Funeral Home in Derby, CT, to learn more about his career and experience in the funeral industry.

Did you always want to be a funeral director? How did you decide to enter the profession?
While in high school, I started working part time for my Uncle Joseph Pagliaro, Sr., who owned a local funeral home. I played three sports after school, so I needed a job that was flexible, and I was able to work with my uncle late nights after my practices. At the beginning, I took the job just to make a little bit of money as a high schooler, but the more time I spent time at the funeral home, the more I watched how my Uncle Joe interacted with the families he served and helped them through such difficult times. I noticed how appreciative people were of everything he did for them…the personal touches, his caring manner, and his undivided attention.
Initially, my plan was to go to college to become a doctor and help people through medicine. But after working closely with my uncle, I quickly realized that I could also help people and make a greater impact in there lives as a funeral director, and I truly felt it was something I could be great at, and enjoy… a “calling,” if you will.
In my senior year of in high school, I officially made the decision to become a funeral director. I then attended Hudson Valley Community College in Troy, NY. That school had a terrific program that provided me with lot of hands-on and practical experience – and only strengthened my belief that I was on the right professional path.
What makes your funeral homes unique? How does they stand out from others?
When I first started in this profession over 30 years ago, there were several funeral homes in the Derby and Shelton area of CT – today, we own the only two in the area and are going strong. We have worked hard to cultivate relationships and built a name for ourselves in the communities we serve, and it is a name our families can trust – which to us is priceless.
It is difficult to say what makes our funeral homes unique, because everything our funeral directors do is focused on the family needs and their specific wishes…so that every single funeral or memorial is actually unique. We want to be able to do everything to help a family….but I’d like to think that all funeral directors think like that too, and are as committed and sensitive as we are.
Personalization is extremely important to us, and our staff spends a good deal of time with each family to get to know them and their wishes, so we can serve them in the best way possible, and offer unique suggestions. We strive to provide numerous product and services options for the family, when requested, to make the planning easier and lessen their distress. We aim to offer a one-stop shopping experience and have assembled books of photos and prices of local flower shops’ arrangements, repast catering options, hotels, musicians, transportation, monuments and other options – all to make the planning experience smoother and easier. As all funeral directors know, carefully cultivated relationships with a variety of local vendors and resources results in local relationships we can count on, all to be able to deliver exactly what a family is seeking within a matter of hours.
Primarily, we just offer suggestions and guidance, so if the family decides to make the purchase themselves directly with an outside vendor then they have the base of knowledge to make an informed decision, so they can be ensured the celebration of a person’s life is memorable.
What is your favorite part about working in this industry?
I believe that when a family chooses a funeral home, it’s because they trust you. They choose you because they believe you will help them through the process and offer the best possible options for what they need. Every time I meet with a family, I value and work hard on the rapid relationship-building that opens the door to this trust.

An important part of our business involves the private or public viewing of the deceased. For many, that viewing brings a tremendous about of closure, although some people resist seeing someone they love after death. In fact, with the rise in popularity of cremation, one of our funeral homes’ “best practices” is to require the families to view the body beforehand to confirm identification. Initially, we did this for liability reasons, but then realized what the impact of saying “goodbye”, even briefly can have on families and friends by providing some peace. I know how important it is to do a good cosmetics or reconstruction job for a viewing because that viewing can change the families lives and, ultimately, alleviate their grief. I do everything I can to make this process easier for the families we serve and, when they thank me afterward, I am reminded about why I am in this business.

Here’s a good example why: A few years ago, a family wanted a cremation for their father and I explained that they would need to come and view him to verify it was he. We prepared their dad nicely, covering him with a quilt, and the wife, daughter, and son all came to say their final goodbyes and sign the forms. That night, I received a text message from the daughter who thanked me for everything we did, but especially was appreciative for letting them see her dad one more time. She said that her mother had finally found peace and described her husband as, “being the most beautiful thing she had ever seen.” The daughter told me that I had changed the course of her mom’s life because now she knows her husband is at peace and was able to spend time alone with him in private, in a nicer setting than a hospital.

That is exactly why I do what I do. I am saving this text from the daughter forever; it’s a great reminder of how rewarding funeral service can be. It’s the quiet, caring gestures that can make a huge difference.

Looking forward to the future, what are you most excited about? What are your concerns moving forward?

This year I am very excited about being President of the Connecticut Funeral Directors Association because it gives me the ability to protect and shape our industry. I love our profession and I love being a funeral director and everything it includes. I am ready to do anything I can to make sure the profession gets the accolades that it deserves.

As far as concerns: I think the challenges we face ironically is education the public the importance of the life there love one has lived and the need for a service to celebrate that life and how a service can help ease the grieving process. Also I believe the industry as a whole sends a mixed message about our views on the important of having a service by advertising direct cremation to the public. The service does not have to be an expensive, elaborate, or a religious ritual, but should be a time to join together with others who cared for the individual and celebrate that life. Years ago we never needed to be in our communities, speaking at local civic, religious or business events, about the importance of a service because everyone had one and today we need to have that message at the forefront, so the public does not thinks that it’s OK to skip a service or miss the final goodbye.

Funeral directors are supposed to be the leaders of our profession and we know what families truly need during such a difficult time, so we must be vocal about that and continue to educate the next generation of funeral directors as well. Even only five people attend a ceremony, it still is so important for the families to get closure and celebrate their loved one at that event.

Do you have any advice that you would share with other funeral directors?

It is imperative that we, as funeral directors, listen to the families they are serving. Most time today we need to decipher what they are trying to tell us because they are not exactly sure what to do since they have not had the “Talk of a Lifetime” with their loved one. To do that we need be open to suggest services that may be non-traditional to what we have been doing to meet the changing needs of that family and society. We need to educate ourselves on more than just running a funeral, use the tools that the State and National Funeral Directors Association is producing to evolve to the funeral director society needs you to be. We need to know the grieving process and the importance of going through those steps, and then we must educate our consumers on how important it is to have a service, funeral, memorial or a celebration of life. Some people think that having a service is sad and will make the loss hurt more when we as funeral directors know that having a service does the exact opposite and I believe it is our job to educated those families and help them understand just how important a service can be to the rest of their own life. There always will be a need for an event like that – even with the rapidly rising number of cremations.

Become as valuable to the families you serve and the community, guide them in insurance filing, social security and steps to take in the weeks following the loss and I believe they will see the value in not only taking care of their loved one but being there for them weeks after the funeral if needed.

As funeral directors, it is our job to help families heal and find peace, and we can’t do that if all we are doing is handing them ashes – it must be more than that. As funeral directors we must make sure our families get every opportunity to come together to say goodbye and have service so they can start to go through the grieving process and try to help them heal and return to a normal life as best we can. FBA