By Liam Bouquet
The McFarland & Son Funeral home has been owned and operated by the McFarland family for four generations, but the 177-year-old business goes back even further than their family.
Now James McFarland has passed the torch on to a new family.
“This whole story has been a book. Everyone thinks, ‘Well the McFarlands started the book,’ but they didn’t. My great-grandfather bought it in 1897,” McFarland said. “I’m very proud of it, and I wanted the tradition to go on. Unfortunately, I didn’t have a next generation unless my dog wanted it.”
McFarland, who has worked there for 45 years and inherited the business from his father, chose to sell to Mark Barbee, who will operate it with his 35-year-old daughter.
“I wanted it to stay in a family, and Mark has the next generation, his daughter, coming in with him. So the book can continue, just one chapter is closed — a 120-year chapter.”
Mark Barbee worked in information technology before changing career paths, working at Shorts Spicer Crislip Funeral Homes in Ravenna for 10 years before setting out to own his own funeral home.
“That’s part of the reason I renamed it to McFarland Barbee Family Funeral Home,” Barbee said. “I wanted people to know that it is still owned by a family, and it is going to cater to families, not just numbers.”
Of course, Barbee wasn’t alone in his interest in the funeral home.
“I had been approached by other people, mostly corporations, and I did not want my family tradition to be marred by a corporation. In this profession, the first thing they do is prices go up and quality goes down,” McFarland said. “We are lower priced than them. First thing, they have got to pay off stockholders, who aren’t doing any work.”
Death is a $20 billion industry in America, and it is increasingly corporate.
While funeral homes have proven more resilient than coffins and cemeteries, with 86 percent of funeral homes remaining family or individually owned, McFarland and Barbee said since the 1980s, companies have vacuumed up more and more funeral homes in areas around the U.S., even closing some to consolidate their business.
An undercover investigation by the Federal Trade Commission found about one in five funeral homes engaged in “deceptive and manipulative practices,” “significantly violating” a 1984 federal law that protects grieving families from exploitative practices like compulsory bundling of products and services that drive up the cost.
Barbee said corporate funeral homes are often rigid with their packages and include hidden costs.
“A lot of corporate ones will not allow their funeral homes to bend or change from a certain package,”Barbee said.
“The bigger you get, you can’t bend,” McFarland added.
This flexibility and intimacy improves what he called an essential part of the grieving process.
“What is the most healing of this time? The gathering, the telling the story, however that’s done, whether it’s at Joe’s Bar and Grill, or at a church,” McFarland said. “That can’t be done on Facebook.”
He said he has cherished directly providing this service.
“It’s our specialized ministry,” he said. “I was on a train out east, and this lady ask, ‘Well what do you do?’ and I said, ‘Well I’m a funeral director.’ She goes, ‘How can you do that?’ I said, ‘How can I not do that?’ What’s the first thing you think of when a friend dies, ‘What can I do to help?’ And what better position are we in?”
McFarland said it has required a lot of him, but he still loves the profession and the community he has grown close to.
“We have to be information gatherer; we have to be psychiatrist; we have to be a businessman; we have to be a ranger with the flowers; we have to be a scientist with the embalming; we have to be an artist,” he said. “I was at Thanksgiving [with very good friends of mine], and in the middle of the meal, I got called out. [They] were surprised when I just got up and left because I had a family to meet with. … To last as long as I have, you have to have that calling.”
Barbee said he will be keeping many of the same traditions the McFarland family had, and James McFarland will continue to be involved, working as a funeral director.
“What I might be introducing is new kinds of services that are coming out into the marketplace today,”Barbee said. “My daughter is on the leading edge of the millennials, so she has a finger on the pulse.”
For example, Barbee hopes to introduce green burials, an eco-friendly method of burial that prioritizes minimizing the carbon footprint and preserving the natural habitat of the burial site.