Funeral Business Advisor sat down with John Hill funeral director with James H. Davis Funeral Home in Owensboro, KY to learn more about his career, experience in the funeral industry, and what excites him about the future of funeral service.
How did you get into the funeral industry?
I got my first glimpse of the funeral industry when I was in middle school. I am from a small town called Beaver Dam, Kentucky and one summer many of my family members on my dad’s side of the family passed away. I spent a lot of time at the funeral home that summer and spent most of my time with the funeral home owner, William L. Danks. It got to a comical point where he was letting me ride in the hearse with him to the funerals and I became his co-pilot. Then it all just blossomed from there.
I went to church with Bill Danks and he became a mentor to me and then when I was old enough to drive, he hired me for the summer. I mowed the grass, washed cars, and spent all of my free time there. The following summer he asked me back, gave me a suit and a cell phone, and told me when the phone rings to put the suit on and come to work. I was working in the back, driving cars, and basically got a very well-rounded education on what this business is all about. His guidance and our mutual respect for each other paved the way for where I am today. My senior year of high school, I was working in the embalming room, going on calls, and helping out anywhere I was needed. At that point, I really realized that this was my calling and it was what I was meant to do. Although my parents thought I was crazy, I knew I wanted to pursue it full time.
After high school, I attended Western Kentucky for basic classes for a year. Then the following year a friend and mentor of mine, Kelley Reid, who was a professor with Mid-America College of Funeral Service in Jeffersonville, Indiana encouraged me to go to embalming school. Towards the end of the program, he introduced me to the funeral home I am at today, James H. Davis Funeral Home in Owensboro, KY because they were in need of an embalmer. It all just worked out and I have been here 23 years. I became Vice President nearly 14 years ago, when Billy Boyle, President, asked me to become his partner here at James H. Davis. It’s been a quick 23 years, but so rewarding. The Davis family has really been a joy to work with.
What is your favorite part about working in this industry?
When I first started, I loved being in the back and embalming because I was more into the art and anatomy aspect of the job. Then when Dawson Davis retired, I took over his role meeting with families and planning funerals and really dove into being on the front lines and out of the background. After I began to spend more and more time with the families and I wasn’t in the back as much, I truly started to realize my full potential. Meeting the families and helping them is now my favorite part. People tell me all the time that I always have a smile on my face, and I think in this part of the business you must.
I always tell young people who are just entering the profession to envision that there is a fence between you and the families you serve. And it’s your job to get as close to that fence as you can without crossing it and then get the family to come the rest of the way. If you are a blubbering mess or if you can’t assist the family to the best of your potential, you are doing them an injustice. I try to always keep a positive outlook and a smile on my face. Each family is different, so if you can find the right way to serve them and get them to come over the fence themselves and see that there is life beyond their worst day, then you’ve done your job. Doing that with each family I serve is beyond rewarding. You never get over the loss of a loved one, but you have to figure out how to cope each and every day.
I enjoy making personal connections with our families and forming lasting friendships.
How do you keep residual emotions from following you home after work?
At the end of the day, the bonds that I form with the families I serve and the relationships that are established play a big role in sending me home smiling. There are days that are harder than others, but getting to help people through this process is rewarding enough to take the weight off. I think the best part of this job is knowing that when I walk out the door, I can go home and see my kids and my wife. Working in this industry is a constant reminder of how fragile life is, so it makes me that much more thankful when I get home.
People ask me all the time why in the world I would ever want to be a funeral director and I explain to them that the reward outweighs the harder parts. Nobody is guaranteed their next breath and this job makes you appreciate life. This job ensures that you will always appreciate what you have. Even if I have a bad day, you realize that the family you just served had a much worse day. Working in this industry keeps things in perspective.
What are you most proud of so far in your career?
I am proud of the fact that I got to where I am today even though my parents weren’t in this business. I am proud that being a funeral director wasn’t something that was handed to me and I am glad I worked so hard to make it in this industry. My ability to work hard and not give up on what I knew I wanted to do is a testament to my parents and how they raised me.
Are you a member of any community groups or organizations?
I currently serve on the Kentucky Funeral Directors Association Board, I am the Southern District Representative, which is something I never even dreamed I would be asked to be part of let alone actually serve on. I am working my way up the ranks and will be President of the association once I fulfill the rest of my term. Which is pretty impressive considering I did not grow up in the funeral business.
I am on the Owensboro Parks and Rec Board here in town. I have a passion for kids and sports, and I may have complained too much to the Parks and Rec Board in the past, so they put me on it. I have also done two terms for the Hospice of Western Kentucky. I am constantly looking for volunteer options in my community. I even participated in Dancing with the Stars for a local non-profit. Everyday thinks I am always in a suit, but I like to take the suit off and have fun – volunteering gives me the opportunity to do so. I love my community and I try to help out where ever I can.
Even with my busy schedule at work and taking time to help out in the community, I always try to make it home for supper. As a family, we try to sit around the table and discuss our day. I have two girls; Kendra, 14 and Addison, 12. I have been married to Kim for 16 years. No matter how tough it gets to juggle everything, we try to slow down and be present with each other.
Looking forward to the future, what are you most excited about moving forward?
The business is changing rapidly. From technology advancements and the rise in cremation to personalization and memorialization options, things are certainly different than they once were. It is a challenge to tailor each service to the specific needs and wants of each family, but it’s something I really enjoy. I look forward to creating unique services with creative families. I also look forward to educating families on all of their opinions and what is available. With all the advancements the industry has made, we are better suited now than ever before to help these families find the closure they desperately need. Helping families and friends find closure is something I am very passionate about.
A lot of funeral directors don’t like the changes that have been happening, but I feel like if you don’t change as the needs of the families change, then you’re not going to make it and you won’t be a thriving part of your community. Change is good. Improving is good. Making updates to your business is good. As funeral directors, we cannot be afraid of the future, we have to change with the times and adapt to what is required of us. I always tell families that I will do whatever it takes to make them happy and satisfied, as long as I don’t go to jail or break the law. FBA