Funeral Business Advisor sat down with James O’Donnell, a funeral director with James O’Donnell Funeral Home located in Hannibal, MO to learn more about his career and experience in the funeral industry.

How did you become involved in the funeral industry? Did you always want to be a funeral director?

I am a fifth generation funeral director and my family’s firm has roots in the community dating back to 1895. I grew up around the business washing cars and doing everything else kids in the family business do. Joining my family in the business was always something that was in the back of my mind, but after playing basketball in college, I decided I wanted to coach for a while. After coaching for a few years, I knew it was time to come back and join my family, and that is a decision I have never regretted.

What steps did you take in order to become a funeral director? Schooling? Certifications?

Missouri is a dual licensed state, so my freshman year of college I went ahead and took my funeral law test and did my 1 year apprenticeship and became a licensed funeral director at the age of 19. I continued college and received my bachelor’s degree in History and later coached for a period before returning to Mortuary School at Kansas City Kansas Community College. At KCK I earned a degree in Mortuary Science, I then completed a 1 year apprenticeship as an embalmer and have been a licensed funeral director and embalmer ever since.

What is your favorite part about working in this industry?

My favorite part is getting to meet the families and being able to learn the stories and little details of their lives. Everybody has an interesting tale to tell. I love looking into the stories and sharing them and celebrating lives. I love putting together tributes that really walk down the path of a person’s life. Helping families heal after a loss means a lot to me and the job I do every day is very rewarding.

What makes the James O’Donnell Funeral Home unique and stand out from others in the area?

What I feel makes our family firm unique is that we spend more time with the family to learn about their loved one’s life and experiences – the big and the small details. The small details help us plan a tribute that truly captures who that person was and is to their family and friends. We do whatever we can to make a meaningful experience. Whether that means having grandpa’s favorite shaved ice food truck at the visitation or having something as simple as grandma’s homemade cookies there – we take the time to slow things down with the families so we don’t miss those important details.

How are you involved in the community?

One thing that is really big in our family’s history – dating back to the early 1900s – is community support of youth athletics. My grandfather passed away when my father was young and my father passed away when I was younger, and sports have always been something we have turned to for support. They are great character builders and leadership tools, and for those reasons we have sponsored youth sports in the community for decades. Supporting community athletics has been a great way for us to give back and also stay connected with the families we serve over the years.

How do you keep residual emotions from following you home from work?

I think the most important thing is that – and this is really easy to brush under the rug with the busy lifestyle and on call schedule – we need to take care of ourselves. Make sure to take time off for yourself. Make a routine that includes self-care. For me, I love to get up and go for a jog in the morning. But do what makes you happy, whether that’s going to yoga, or reading a book, or just listening to music – you have to make time for yourself. Just like you schedule appointments during the day, pencil in time for yourself. If you don’t work in time to reset and relax during your day, your work will suffer and your family time will suffer.

Looking forward to the future, what are you most excited about? What are you most concerned about?

What I am most excited about is getting the chance to tell more stories. It’s not a doom and gloom world of funeral directing anymore. I think if we look through the right lens, there are wonderful lives to be celebrated and it doesn’t matter if a family selects burial or cremation – that person has had unique and splendid life either way and getting the chance to share and celebrate that with the world is so exciting. I’m always looking forward to the next story.

A concern I have sometimes is, whether as a profession we value and invest as much as we could in continuing education. I look as my own career and cannot imagine navigating the world of funeral service without some of the educational experiences I have been fortunate to be exposed to. I stumbled across the opportunity to study with the funeral directors; Jim Cummings and Gerry Givnish over at Life Celebration, Inc and they introduced me to a whole new world of funeral directing and how to create healing experiences for the families we serve that capture the essence and path of a loved one’s life. We need to seek out those types of educational experiences for ourselves to continue to learn and grow as directors to keep ourselves relevant to continuing generations.

What would you say is the most rewarding aspect of your job as a funeral director?

The most rewarding thing is the emotional connection to the families. That feeling of getting a hug from a family is the best thing in the world. After setting up a unique experience that really captures and celebrates a person’s life, when a family is grateful for all your hard work – there isn’t anything better. When you form such a personal relationship, it’s almost like you become a member of their family and that’s something that I love about what I do.

How would you define excellent customer service?

Excellent customer service is always listening to what the customer is telling you and never forcing your own agenda. It means always being available, it means face to face interaction, it means hand written notes, and taking the time to visit and meet in person. While all the technology we have today is great, taking the time to handwrite a note to someone instead of sending an email can go a long way. Customer service is all about the personal touch and going above and beyond what is expected.

Do you have any advice that you would share with other funeral directors, especially those who are just now entering the profession?

Be open to changes and be open to celebrating lives in creative ways. As this industry changes, be as flexible as you can and always seek out educational opportunities for yourself. And also never underestimate the value of a handwritten note.