Upon retiring, after serving more than 30 years with the county sheriff department, Harry VanVliet IV decided to start completely from scratch and build a career and business as a funeral director. Although he did not have family in the funeral business and the process would not be easy, becoming a licensed funeral director became a goal he would strive to achieve before retiring from law enforcement.
During his career as a deputy sheriff, Harry was exposed to many death scenes. He took notice of how when a funeral director arrived at the scene, the families seemed so relieved that their director was there and this deeply inspired him. Since he was 18, Harry’s life was all about serving his community and after years of being inspired the comforting presence funeral directors offered to families, he knew that once he retired from law enforcement at the age of 48, he would need a second career to move into, he would do whatever it took to become licensed.
“During the last few years of my career in law enforcement, I attended full-time the mortuary science program at Hudson Valley Community College in Troy, NY and after working extremely hard for two years straight, I earned my associate’s degree and passed my boards. Upon retirement, I completed my apprenticeship at a local Kingston, NY funeral home in 2005 explains Harry.
After working in the industry for a few years, Harry became acquainted with Jim Gilpatric who had been a funeral director in the Kingston area for many decades. Jim had taken over his grandfather’s business in the early 1950s. His firm is one of the oldest funeral homes continuously operated in Kingston since its establishment by Jim’s great-grandfather in 1872.
“Jim was semi-retired at the time, so I offered to handle most of his firms calls while I worked at another busy funeral home. Eventually, I offered to buy Jim’s firm and after acquisition, continued operating within Kingston for about 3 years,” he continues.
Upon acquiring the funeral home in 2009, he recognized the many funeral homes already in Kingston and began to make plans to move the business to his hometown Esopus, NY. Using a home he and his wife owned nearby, Harry developed architectural plans to convert the site, using local community contractors and expert guidance from friends in the business.
After a few years, when the new funeral home was ready, Harry officially moved the business to the new location and the Gilpatric-VanVliet Funeral Home became what it is today.
“I was lucky in the fact that I had worked at a few different funeral homes in the area before I owned my own firm which allowed me to get an idea of what families were looking for and to create something offered what was missing,” states Harry.
Simple things like multiple bathrooms, abundant on-site parking, one floor, handicap accessibility, and a well-lit rooms were a few of the essentials Harry knew he had to include. The building itself has a Cape Cod style with a waterfront theme that gives it a relaxed and airy feel. The East border of our town is created by 10 miles of the nearby Hudson River, North the funeral home is bordered by the the Rondout Creek, and West is the Wallkill River.
“Being surrounded by waterways, our funeral home had served many of the tugboat crew and captains that worked the Hudson River and resided in the community. which is something that makes our funeral home really unique. Our décor includes local community and Hudson River lighthouse photos and tugboat replicas to pay tribute to crew members,” mentions Harry.
When Harry renovated the building, all the new construction (visitation room, prep room, etc.) were added to the back so that from the front, the additions cannot be seen from the busy state highway and the Cape Cod style was not compromised.
“We planned all of these renovations back in 2010 and I’m really proud of the vision we had for the funeral home back then because many of the design aspects we included are what all the experts are suggesting now,” Harry says proudly.
Even with an overall small footprint, the space still has a big impact on families and visitors. With all the additions to the back, visitors don’t expect such a big space when they walk in. The smaller building has proven a good investment considering the rising popularity of cremation. Spending less on the size of the building has allowed them to invest money into the comforts and overall design – which we feel really matters to families.
“We designed the inside of the funeral home to be very home-like. When visitors walk in, we want them to feel like they are home and comfortable. Using earth tone painted walls and large windows, the design allows for a lot of natural light making the space bright and inviting. When visitors come in to celebrate a life, we want them to feel as relaxed as possible in such a stressful time. Paying close attention to the overall ambiance has paid off for us,” he continues.
The Gilpatric-VanVliet Funeral Home has been setting trends in their area for years. In addition to being one of the first to invest in the overall ambiance of their funeral home, Harry was also one of the first in his area to really embrace technology. We offer free WiFi which is often used by children in a room adjacent to the chapel to connect their tablets, we converted the majority of our lighting to LED, and we use hi-resolution tablets to display caskets, urns and burial vaults, instead of maintaining and stocking an expensive showroom. This alone was a significant cost-savings, and embraced by families. I have been often told by families that one of their biggest fears entering the funeral home was eventual visit to a room full of caskets. Since our opening in 2012, we have had success in using tablets. In 2015, the small-town funeral home took a really big risk investing in a digital sign from FuneralScreen.
“We are a small, family owned and operated firm, so when I looked into FuneralScreen, I knew it was going to be a big investment. Choosing to include FuneralScreen’s technology in our funeral home has been one of the absolute best decisions we have ever made. Mounted above the register book stand, our screen offers visitors a unique tribute of the deceased while they wait in line for the book. No more felt boards with white letters. We can control the screen from a desktop or on the go from a tablet or smartphone. Our 42” hi-res screen is wood framed and is customized to feature a slideshow of photos, special announcements, the full obituary, and the time, and the weather forecast, which gives next day attendees advanced notice. We feel the screen adds value, an offering that families don’t pay extra to use, and that has been proven successful by the many compliments we receive,” Harry explains.
In addition to embracing technology, another part of their success is the importance that Harry and his team have placed on education.
“We take education seriously. In my previous law enforcement career, I was a certified police instructor, so I understand the importance of education. Since opening in 2012, we have established a partnership with a vocational school that is located next to us. We welcome over 150 health education students per year into our visitation room and teach them about what we do, removing any mystery of our profession and maybe steering some toward this rewarding career. We cover everything from first call to aftercare. The program has been so successful, that we also welcome SUNY New Paltz college students annually. We also visit senior living facilities, senior’s clubs, service organizations and affordable housing areas and teach them about the importance of memorialization and why viewing the deceased is valuable. We have found that community education and involvement is extremely important. I love our small town feel and staying connected with the community we serve helps maintain that,” he says humbly.
At the end of the day, Harry has created a space that breaks the mold of what was expected of a funeral home. His hard work, decades of dedication to his community, and innovative vision has made the Gilpatric-VanVliet Funeral Home a place for everyone in the community, as well as neighboring communities, to embrace and not just during a service.
“We maintain an open-door policy.” We welcome visitors daily into our funeral home, local clergy, police, fire and ems, town officials and anyone who just wants to sit in the comfort of our home and talk about the community and events. As lifelong community residents, my family recognizes the importance of community dedication, both of my adult children are members of the local ems squad. Being active in the community is very important in our profession. That’s one thing I just love and that I am really proud of,” expresses Harry. Being more than ‘just a funeral home’ is where their success is defined. FBA