By Thomas A. Parmalee

Eric Trimble and John Kepner were officially installed as the president and board chair at Selected Independent Funeral Homes’ Annual Meeting, Oct. 10-13, in Chicago.

There, they had the chance to network with hundreds of their peers throughout the United States and Canada, connect with suppliers and hear insights from experts from inside and outside the profession.

We recently caught up with the two men to learn about some of their takeaways from the association’s signature event, why they pride themselves on being members of Selected and how they are navigating the challenges that go along with being a funeral director.

First, can you tell us a little bit about yourself, your funeral home and what makes your business different from others?

Trimble: I am Eric Trimble. I am president of our family-owned business, Trimble Inc., in Moline, Illinois. Moline is located in the center of the Iowa-Illinois Quad Cities, a metropolitan area of 450,000 residents spanning the Mississippi River 160 miles due west of Chicago.

Under the umbrella of Trimble Pointe Companies, we operate Trimble Funeral Home & Crematory in Moline, and Trimble Funeral Home in Coal Valley, Illinois. We also operate Cremation Society of the Quad Cities, CityView Celebrations at Trimble Pointe and the CityView Lounge, a full-service reception and event center, and WaterMark Corners and Stationers, a retail gift store located across the street from the John Deere Welcome Center, and The Corner Bar at WaterMark.

Our firm’s roots go back to 1841. In 2014, the property that had been our main location for 90 years was taken for the new I-74 Mississippi River Bridge, so we were forced to relocate. That gave us the opportunity to reinvent ourselves and add a crematory and the reception center.

Kepner: I am a fourth-generation funeral director with the Kepner Funeral Homes. My great-grandfather came to West Virginia from Ohio and bought a business that was established in 1845. The business transferred to his son Wade, then to Wade’s son, John W, who had two sons, John D. (that’s me) and James B., who grew the business to five locations in Wheeling, West Virginia, and Huntersville, North Carolina, outside of Charlotte, in the Lake Norman area. Our fifth generation is my son, Jonathan Kepner, and his wife, Lindsey, who operate the North Carolina location and are the future owners of the company.

There were lots of interesting sessions at your recent Annual Meeting. But which speaker did you enjoy the most – and what lessons did you take away from their presentation?

Trimble: The professional speakers, selected by the Programming Work Group, all gave excellent programs and provided valuable information. To me, I always enjoy the sessions featuring our own members sharing their best practices. One of our mission statements is that our members are all both teachers and learners, which makes our member-programs most relevant.

Kepner: I enjoyed all the sessions and never stopped learning. The opening keynote address, “Leading on Your Feet” by Andrew Tarvin (a speaker, trainer, author and coach who teaches people and organizations how to use humor to be more effective while having fun) was amazing. It really focused on learning what it means to lead on your feet and how to develop the skills to do it. The Futures Session was also amazing, and it always fascinates me. And I always enjoy when our own members present. “Expanding Your Firm’s Footprint” (with Bill McReavy of Washburn-McReavy Funeral Chapels, Inc., Robert Nunnaley of Fry & Prickett Funeral Home and Jeff Smith of Smith Family Funeral Homes) was fantastic.

You recently became a new officer at Selected Independent Funeral Homes. What have you gained by being a member of Selected over the years and what will your role be moving forward?

Trimble: Our firm has been a member of Selected since 1934, and it has been an important part of our firm’s culture ever since. Over the years, we have gained so much by networking with and learning from the best firms in funeral service.

Kepner: Our firm just celebrated 100 years with this organization, and we are very proud of that! My grandfather, Wade Kepner, and father, John Kepner, were past presidents of National Selected Morticians (which eventually became Selected). My brother, Jim Kepner, was NSM’s past secretary-treasurer, and I am very proud also to hold the position of chairman of the board in 2024. This organization has meant the world to my family, and we have established many valuable friendships. My goal as a leader of Selected is to build on our current strengths and focus on how we can make it better. Our executive director, Rob Paterkiewicz, is second to none, and our staff is amazing. I also believe in our board of directors. It is a very smart, dedicated group.

Another goal is creating a great opportunity for our new members to be able to enjoy and benefit from what Selected has to offer. They are the future of our industry and lucky to be part of the best independent organization in the world.

It is our job to create constant value, to keep and grow our membership, to learn to adapt to the issues we are faced with and to overcome challenges through positivity not negativity.

What do you personally struggle with most as a funeral home owner?

Trimble: Our struggles mirror those of many of our members: Families not valuing what we offer and society not realizing the importance of ceremony. Plus, the economic challenges of declining revenues due to cremation and increasing costs.

Kepner: Change!!! And to me, it’s exciting to have survived this long. Our industry has always had issues, and we seem to survive. Staffing, succession planning and corporate acquisitions are all issues, but I truly believe we will learn to adapt and will be around for a long time.

What are some of the most interesting changes you’re seeing in your market as it pertains to funeral service, and how are you navigating those changes?

Trimble: We are grateful that our community has embraced our reception center, which allows us to provide different services than other firms in our market. A growing number of families don’t want a funeral, but they do want a “party” – a special kind of party but a party nonetheless. Last year, 45% of the families we served that had a service of some sort had a food event in our building; and 40% of the events in our building were not funeral related.

Kepner: There are many changes in ownership structure, and I find them interesting. From large corporate structures (publicly traded) to private equity groups, to generational family-owned businesses, funeral service is here to stay. To me, these are not our enemies, but very good operators we can all learn from. We need to learn to realize there is a common goal to value the funeral and take care of the families we serve.

How has the high inflation environment and high interest rates affected your business, if at all, and/or how has it affected families doing business with your funeral home? Have you seen any effect?

Trimble: Certainly, families are more price-conscious than before, and the casket has become a commodity. Like many Selected members, our cremation society brand enables us to serve families who might not consider using our premier brand.

Kepner: We still carry a large amount of debt, and the current economy has definitely affected our businesses. The costs of buying and keeping our cars in good shape, gas expenses, salaries and overhead have all gone up. And those of us who have locked into loans with five-year terms are struggling to keep our payments from rising with the current rates. It is tough.  Our families are also having to make important financial decisions, which is causing many traditional families to seriously consider cremation.

Is your firm doing anything to encourage more people to explore the funeral profession and/or what SHOULD we be doing to promote more involvement?

Trimble: One of the things I am most proud of in my years of being a funeral director is that at least 10 funeral directors who have worked with me have gone on to own their own funeral homes. In the last few years, several students have asked to shadow us to learn about the profession and a number have become licensed.

Kepner: Yes, we are constantly trying to encourage more people. Our part-time staff is a good focus for us. We use ex-military personnel, some of whom have continued to get their licenses, active church volunteers and retired firefighters, police officers and ministers. Through their involvement, we have created more interest in the funeral profession with people they know.

How can the profession do a better job retaining those who HAVE entered the profession?

Trimble: We are hearing a lot about work-life balance, and that is especially important to the younger professionals. We must work together to find ways to merge that goal with the around-the-clock demands of funeral service.

Kepner: That is one of the challenges. One obstacle is keeping good directors and embalmers. The publicly traded companies can afford to pay wages that the family-owned-and-operated firms cannot. We need to have higher salaries, yes, but also be able to offer good benefits, compensation and bonus structures that keep the interest of these licensed professionals.

What’s a book you’ve recently read that you would encourage fellow funeral professionals to read – and why?

Trimble: Eric Layer’s “The Right Way of Death” is a thought-provoking book that encourages funeral directors to innovate and challenge industry norms.

Kepner: I enjoyed “It’s Your Business” by Christine Holton Cashen. Simply stated, when most people are focused on problems, you are focused on solutions. It explains how to take charge of the valuable brand that is you.

What do you see as the biggest threat in funeral service … and what do you see as the biggest opportunity?

Trimble: To me, the biggest threat is the profession failing to remain relevant to families experiencing a death. If we can accomplish that, however, we have the opportunity to offer expanded areas of services and options that will be meaningful to those we serve.

Kepner: Change is the biggest threat. And change is the biggest opportunity. Those who do not accept change will not survive, and those who do accept that will be the leaders into the future. In this interview, we have talked about how funeral service has changed and will continue to change. We must never stop learning and must adapt. That is also a great goal for Selected Independent Funeral Homes as we adapt and educate our family-owned members to be here for another 100 years.

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