Changing Options to Celebrate Life

Published 3:51 pm Monday, February 22, 2016

Commentary by Dr. Don Newbury

The funeral service was much like many of the hundreds I attended in the century just past. The old parson–officiating in the country church–made the identical statement six times. “We won’t need any undertakers in heaven.”

Each time, I glanced at the late Groner Pitts, funeral director at the service and best man at the wedding for Brenda and me almost 50 years ago. Groner’s facial expression didn’t change. After all, he’d conducted thousands of services, pretty much seeing and hearing it all.

Later, I ribbed him about the preacher’s assurance that no undertakers will be needed in heaven. Pitts smiled, answering, “Heaven doesn’t need any preachers, either–just song leaders.”

During Pitts’ 50+ years in the profession, funeral services changed ever so gradually, particularly in smaller communities.

He’s been gone for a dozen years, and in this short span, there have probably been more changes than during his entire career.

But so has life in general. Still, Groner would be shocked by so many changes, including different settings–often absented by the body of the person whose life is being celebrated. Most noteworthy is the trend toward cremation.

At Martin Thompson and Son Funeral Home in Fort Worth, more than half of the families served choose cremation. Second and third generation in the profession, dad and son follow in the footsteps of the late Guy Thompson, a pioneer undertaker who owned Thompson’s Harveson and Cole Funeral Home in Fort Worth. In the judgment of many, Guy was arguably the most studied, committed, dignified and admired in the field.

“Dad never took a vacation as such,” Martin said, “Because serving others at their time of need was what he most wanted to do. So he stayed close to home.”

Guy introduced solid hardwood caskets in the south. During World War II, when metal caskets weren’t being made, he opted to order handmade, solid hardwood caskets from Marsellus Casket Company of New York. Learning the company’s policy precluded shipments west of the Mississippi River, Guy made it clear he wanted a train car load of 80 caskets. Marsellus changed its policy.

Martin, a graduate of Texas Wesleyan College, worked 22 years for his dad. In 1998, Martin opened his own funeral home in Grapevine, adding others in Keller and Mansfield. Jon, who started working with his father right out of high school, holds a funeral service degree from Amarillo College. They founded their current southwest Fort Worth funeral home in 2013.

With most families they serve choosing cremation, many new choices emerge. Of interest to most is that cremation services begin at $750, far less than for traditional services.

“We can honor most requests, whether for cremation or traditional services,” Martin said. “We strive to meet every need possible in a new era when funerals are far more celebratory than before.”

There’s a good chance a fourth generation Thompson may become involved in the profession. Who knows? Jon’s son, Palmer, is just two years old.

Should he choose to do so,-he’ll be assisting mostly with cremations. In 2013–the most recent national statistical data available–cremations reached 45.4%, with burials slightly ahead at 48.7%. Cremations were projected to dominate in 2015, 48.5% to 45.6%. By 2020, cremations are expected to rule, 56.2% to 37.9%.

On this side of heaven, we’ll still need undertakers, whose biggest challenges still are to comfort the bereaved. It is well to keep in mind Charlie Brown’s cartoon reminder to Snoopy, while they were fishing. He said, “Someday, we’re all going to die, Snoopy.” To which his canine friend responded. “True, but on all the other days, we will not.”

I never expect to attend a service more unique than the one for Darren Nix, 36, a dozen years ago.

The larger part was traditional; then, the minister “changed gears,” mentioning Darren’s love of moon pies.

“Darren loved ‘em, and he loved hearing the Big Bopper’s ‘Chantilly Lace’.” As the some 500 friends passed the coffin, they were handed moon pies, as “Chantilly Lace” lyrics flooded the auditorium.


   Dr. Newbury is a speaker in the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex. Inquiries/comments to: Call: 817-447-3872. Web site: Columns archived at, newbury blog.