Starting Sunset Memorial Park, Funeral Home, and Crematory has fulfilled a long-time dream of Toni and Robert Byrd. Located in Dothan, Alabama, the funeral home has had the same goal in mind since the start and that was to provide the most compassionate services to the residents of the Wiregrass area at a reasonable cost.
Born and raised in the Wiregrass Area, Robert Byrd was born to Dr. Robert Morris Byrd and Georgia Helen Smith in Midland City, Alabama. He was a 1973 graduate of Headland High School. At the young age of 16, Robert began his career in the funeral industry, working under the direction of Wilton R. Holman, Sr., who founded Holman Mortuary in Headland, Alabama in the early 1930’s.
“I arranged to work at a funeral home after school when I was 16. I wanted to try it so badly, that I actually worked there for free for six months to make sure that I liked it,” recalls Robert.
It was there in 1972 while serving his funeral directors apprenticeship that Robert was first exposed to the duties of a coroner as Mr. Holman was also the Henry County Coroner. Robert is a 1976 graduate of the Cincinnati College of Mortuary Science. He has been a licensed funeral director in Alabama since 1976 and has also been a licensed funeral director in Florida since 1994.
In 1983, Robert opened Byrd Funeral Home in Dothan, Alabama and was elected as Houston County Coroner in 1986, a position he has held since. “Mr. and Mrs. Holman were like icons to me. They were gracious enough to let me work with them from a young age and taught me so much. I saw what they did to help families, and I knew I wanted to do the same. So I opened Byrd Funeral Home,” explains Robert.
Just like Robert, Toni Byrd was born and raised in the Wiregrass Area. Having a heritage on her mother’s side of the family that extends from Slocomb and on her father’s side from Taylor, she has loved her community and was proud to stay and raise her own family there. While attending Wallace Community College and Troy University of Dothan for a degree in elementary education, Toni began to look for part time work. In 1989, she began working at Byrd Funeral Home where she met and later married Robert. The Byrds have five children, Jordan, Phillip, Andrew, Matthew, and Emily, and now have a granddaughter, Olivia.
A few years later, in addition to the funeral home, Robert and Toni bought some property a few miles north of their funeral home from Robert’s great- grandfather. They established a cemetery there now known as Sunset Memorial Park.
After running Byrd Funeral home for several years, the Byrds sold it in the mid-nineties. They then embarked on bringing the most professional funeral service in the Wiregrass area. Several hundred interments later and a name change to Sunset Memorial Park, Funeral Home, and Crematory, LLC, Robert and Toni’s dream to have a funeral home on their cemetery grounds became a reality.
“When I first started, everything in this industry was separate. There were funeral homes and there were cemeteries. In the mid-eighties, I met a gentleman who gave me the idea and concept to combine it all. He even gave me some examples of a few funeral homes in Florida who were trying this at the time. I knew it was a great idea and it just made sense to me to structure my firm that way,” recalls Robert.
Robert and Toni completed the first phase of construction in May of 2007 and revived their funeral establishment license from the State of Alabama Board of Funeral Service. The second phase of construction was completed in February 2009 and includes a chapel, visitation parlors, and a reception center.
“We noticed right away how much easier it made everything for the families to have everything together. From the beginning to the end, our families deal with the same person and that really puts them at-ease. There isn’t a need for a third party to be involved,” Robert says proudly.
Sunset has developed a few niches over the years that are very important to the area and the families they serve. One of which is Veteran Services. Sunset proudly supports the area’s veterans and their families and does so by allowing veterans to access an interment grave space at Sunset at no charge.
Sunset also allows the veteran’s family access to grave spaces next to the veteran’s space. By providing the funeral home with a DD-214 (Honorable Discharge) from the military, they will assist veterans and their families with the acquisition of a grave space, a burial flag for services, a marker provided by the Department of Veterans Affairs, filing of Veterans Burial Benefits reimbursement paperwork, and scheduling of Military Honor Guard for funeral services. Sunset also provides onsite Military Services that are unlike any other memorial park in the area. They use the Patriot Guard Riders to assist them in the firing of artillery volleys from three Civil War era cannons for every veteran’s service.
At Sunset Memorial Park, the Byrds have established a garden specifically for veterans and their families, known as the Garden of Valor. This garden surrounds a flagpole and Eagle display designating this garden with a bronze plaque placed after the garden was officially opened. It is designated as a Veterans Burial site by commanders and leaders from local veterans groups.
In addition, Freedom Park was recently added to the cemetery. This garden is made up of companion arrangements which include 2 interment spaces (1 space is complimentary to the Veteran) and a black solid granite cross. At the center of the garden is a static display AH-1H 1971 model Cobra Helicopter standing guard over the Veterans’ graves.
Sunset has had a Memorial Day Ceremony for the past 11 years. It’s an event that they started before the building was even completed. The first year drew in about 200 people and now nearly 1000 people come to Sunset on Memorial Day. There are so many veterans in the surrounding area and the Byrds wanted to do something for them to honor their service.
“Our Veteran services offer a bag pipe player. We also have a 1931 Model A and we had a carriage made that can house the casket which serves as our hearse. It’s beautiful and a lot of our families really like having it be a part of their service. It’s really unique and it doesn’t cost the families a penny more than a regular hearse,” Toni says proudly.
At Sunset, they strive to make every service unique. They make it their mission to celebrate and remember the lives of those they serve through little details that their families truly cherish.
In addition to traditional services, Sunset offers green burial options for those who don’t want to be cremated or have a standard service. Sunset works hard to offer various choices at a reasonable cost that work for everyone.
“We know that one of the biggest reasons that people choose cremation over other options is due to cost. So we now offer the option to have a natural burial, without all the extras, that is very close to the cost of cremation,” explains Robert.
In addition to everything they do for their community, the Byrds still wanted to do more. Therefore several years ago, Sunset began a hospice outreach program that is led by Toni and Robert’s son Andrew.
“When I first started working in this industry, I quickly realized the importance of public relations. It’s not so much about who you know in this business, but it’s more about who knows you. I reached out to local hospice programs and attended staff meetings. I found that a lot of the families at hospice facilities had questions they were not getting answers to regarding their loved ones. So I attended meetings and helped to answer any questions they had,” explains Andrew.
For Andrew it didn’t matter if the families he advised chose Sunset for their funeral service. He just wanted to make sure that those who were close to losing a loved one knew their options, had a plan, and weren’t left in the dark in regards to any questions they may have had. It’s that deeply rooted passion for helping people that makes the entire Byrd family and Sunset so successful.
The Byrds have also taken steps to make Sunset Memorial Park, Funeral Home and Crematory more tech savvy. Although they are in the south where traditions are hard to break, they decided to implement iPads in meetings with their families within the last year and take everything digital.
“We were nervous about how the updates would be received, but it has done so well. The families love how much information we can send to them and it makes everything so much faster. It’s definitely something we are glad we tried,” explains Toni.
The Alabama funeral home also maintains an active Facebook page that draws a lot of activity and embraces the technology Tukios offers.
“We would honestly spend 3 or 4 hours making a DVD with the program we used to have. Then Tukios came along and made our lives so much easier. It is honestly the best thing. We live stream all of our funerals now with Tukios. Our families love it because it allows loved ones who cannot physically travel to the funeral service to be there. One of our goals is to help families remember their loved one as they were when they were alive, and Tukios helps us do that,” says Robert.
Sunset is a truly unique place. From their Veteran services and green burial options to their stunning facilities and gardens, the funeral home really stands out among the competition. However, the family business would not be complete without the help of their miniature dachshund, Bob.
“People actually come in and ask for Bob. He is a large part of our team. When people come in and they see that we have a pet here, it breaks down the business barriers and makes them immediately more comfortable. He also really helps calm children down as well,” Toni states lovingly.
Starting Sunset Memorial Park, Funeral Home, and Crematory has truly fulfilled a long-time dream of Toni and Robert Byrd. They love what they do and they have created something together that you won’t find anywhere else. Although there were many changes along the way, piece by piece everything fell into place and they are exactly where they wanted to be.
“Life has been good and we just feel so blessed. It’s truly unbelievable how everything has unfolded and I could not have planned it any better than this. Sunset is something we are truly proud of, but we still consider it a work in progress because we know we can always make improvements and adjustments,” Robert states proudly.
The Byrds prove day in and day out that hard work, dedication, and being open to change can get you where you want to go. Sunset Memorial Park, Funeral Home, and Crematory is a beautiful business run by a family that is just as beautiful inside and out. Their passion to help others shines through in everything they do. They are creating a legacy that will surely continue to be successful in the years to come. FBA