By Thomas A. Parmalee
You might think a fifth-generation funeral director like Joseph Thomas, the general manager of advance planning at Shackelford Funeral Directors in Tennessee, would have grown up knowing he’d always enter funeral service.
But you’d be wrong.
In fact, as an adolescent, Thomas knew that was exactly what he did not want to do – even though he fulfilled his duties as a scion of the Shackelford family. You could regularly find him mowing the lawn in the cemetery or cleaning up the funeral home property.
“But I never really planned on getting into this side of things,” said Thomas, who recently turned 40. “I went to college to major in theater of all things.”
When he looked around and saw the impact that his grandparents and others in his family have had on their communities, however, he decided funeral service was a worthy calling. It also offered a more reliable paycheck than being an actor.
“I thought I could do this – I already have my foot in,” said Thomas, whose mother, Lisa Thomas, was a Shackelford before she married. “I felt like I could take that and go with it and be a benefit to the community. So, I did mortuary school in the middle of college – I didn’t wait until the end. Then, I majored in English.”
But if you think that means Thomas lived happily ever after in the profession, you’re mistaken.
Working as a funeral director, he really struggled.
While the tragic deaths he dealt with certainly took their toll, it was something else that weighed on him even more heavily – something you may not expect.
“I think one of the biggest things that would get to me that a lot of people don’t talk about … we talk about young folks being murdered and suicides, and of course, that affects you. But what really affected me is I would go in and wait on families, and at the arrangement conference I would ask a lot of questions,” he said. “I am sitting there thinking, ‘This guy was 85 years old. Let’s talk about his life.’ And I would ask about his hobbies and interests. And they would say, ‘No, he didn’t have any, he pretty much worked and went to church.’ And I would ask if he did anything specific at church. And they would say ‘no.’ And I would ask if there was anything special about his job. And they would say, ‘No, he just did it.’”
It would continue on like that for some time, and as much as Thomas would ask pointed questions to reveal the essence of whoever it was who died, he’d end up with a few bland sentences, including where the deceased lived and when they died.
“Those kinds of things affected me more than I anticipated,” he revealed. “I was sitting there thinking, ‘This guy didn’t do anything … or his family didn’t care that he did stuff. Either way, what are we doing?”
These were pretty heavy thoughts for a 28-year-old, he said. “I started to think I could live forever … and no one would remember anything I do,” he said.
He concluded he wasn’t cut out for funeral service, and he left the family business with his wife and their children in tow to nearby Memphis. He taught high school for a little while and even sold life insurance.
He had an inkling that perhaps he made a mistake when his wife, a longtime teacher herself, told him he was going to hate his first parent-teacher conferences, noting that the parents would “eat him alive.”
But afterward, when she asked him how it was, he realized it was the first time he had been comfortable in the job – even though she claimed it would be the worst part.
“I said it was like an arrangement conference,” he said. “The parents walking in and not knowing what to expect, some of them angry, and sometimes I had to give them information they may or may not want. I had been doing that my whole adult life. It was the first time I felt I knew what I was doing – and I felt like there was something to that. I had taken my break and done my thing, and I was supposed to be back in funeral service.”
He ended up getting a job at a funeral home in Memphis – one that did not belong to his family but did not really compete with them either.
Asked about how the family reacted when he left the business to embark on a career in teaching, he said while he’s not sure if it caused any bad feelings, “It caused some weird feelings. When I left, it kind of shook everything up … so, it was odd,” he said. “I wouldn’t say it was bad, because I wasn’t going into funeral service. But I did hear some rumblings when I got a job at funeral home in Memphis – not necessarily my parents or immediate family but my more extended family.”
Thomas ended up working at a couple different funeral homes in the Memphis area, working his way up the ranks and eventually learning how to sell prearrangements.
“They were corporate firms, and the mentality a lot of independent funeral directors have – and this is not a secret – they don’t like that,” Thomas said. “But that is where I learned how to have an active preneed program.”
Later, he learned that his uncle, Robert Shackelford, was bringing a new focus to preneed at the Shackelford location he managed, and he saw an opportunity to rejoin the family business.
“I figured eventually the goal was to spread that out and have it everywhere, with multiple people doing the job at multiple Shackelford locations. But I also knew they were all funeral directors and embalmers – they had never messed with an active preneed program.”
He continued, “I remember being a funeral director and embalmer and having preneed companies come to us and explain that we could have a seminar and call people and set appointments, and all I could think was we are all busy and have other things to do.”
Even when someone explained what an active preneed program looked like, he could not grasp it, he said. “So, once I knew I had more knowledge in this area than pretty much anyone else in the family, I called my uncle.”
He made the case to his uncle that he could oversee preneed sales for all of Shackelford’s locations. “Because, if you don’t have someone overseeing it, it won’t do as well as it could and it may not do well at all,” he said.
Thomas’s uncle shared the idea with the rest of the family, and they agreed to give it a try.
After rejoining the family firm at the end of 2019, however, things took an unexpected turn for Thomas – and the rest of the world, really – when COVID-19 shut down everything. For Thomas, it came right after he got the preneed program humming.
“We got new people trained and were setting appointments, and they were getting people in the door, and then in March the world shut down,” he said sadly. But everyone pulled together and made it work, he said.
His time away from the family ended up helping everyone, Thomas said.
“We wrote a lot more preneed, and I was able to contribute in a way I never had before,” he said.
“When you are a generation five funeral director and embalmer and most of generation four are funeral directors, sometimes, you don’t feel like you are contributing very much. So, all of a sudden, with the preneed part, I felt like this was my area. It was something I knew how to do, and I felt like I was really doing something.”
With five full-service funeral homes, four satellite locations, three cemeteries and a crematory that serve about 1,300 or so families per year, with about 20% opting for cremation, there was definitely a need for someone to come in and streamline the preneed efforts across all of the Shackelford locations, Thomas said.
“I learned funeral service as a funeral director and an embalmer, and did that for 14 years, so I view a lot of the preneed side from a funeral director’s lens,” he said. “I can take a lot of what I learned on the funeral director side and implement that on the preneed side and know some of the outcomes.”
He also knows what it is like to be a funeral director serving a family at the time of need who had a prearrangement. Often, they are left wondering what the deceased actually wanted – because there are no notes or directions. “It’s nice to have those experiences that you can pass on to folks, so you can plan things out and do the best you can,” he said.
Since focusing on preneed, training other funeral professionals and helping students as a mortuary science instructor, he’s found where he’s meant to be in the profession, he said.
There have also been plenty of changes since his return, including the treasured family firm becoming part of Park Lawn Corp. in September 2022.
While Thomas wasn’t a decision maker when it came to the sale, he did participate in discussions, he said. “I am generation five and generation four is still involved,” he explained. “They were the ones who ultimately said yes or no, but I was involved in the conversations.”
He thinks he brought an interesting perspective to the family, having been the only one who had gone off and worked at other funeral homes. “So, I knew how corporate situations worked, including the frustrations that sometimes come with them,” he said. “I also knew some of the good things – some of the systems they have in place and that essentially every independent funeral home is trying to find a way to replicate.”
As to how Thomas felt, he knew that if the family did not sell to a company like Park Lawn, it would end up spending a lot of time trying to emulate the systems that larger organizations had perfected.
“These folks have systems that work, and we could either try to reinvent the wheel or go with them,” he said. “Also, in generation five, there are only a couple of us. The thought of the two of us taking over this whole thing was a little bit frightening to me – it would be tough. So, we all just put our heads together and said, ‘We think this is the right thing to do and the right folks to do it with.’”
While some of the changes under new ownership have been hard to navigate, the funeral home now has more resources to draw from, including professionals throughout the Park Lawn organization who can be tapped for guidance as needed, Thomas said.
“That has been the best part of it for me – the additional resources,” he said, noting that others throughout Park Lawn “have good ideas and can advise me and tell me things that I can pass down to our preneed and cemetery folks.”
Most of the changes have been within the operations of the firm, how tasks are carried out in the office, what preneed insurance is used and other details that don’t affect how funeral directors interact with the public, he said.
Looking back at his career in funeral service, Thomas said, “The detours kind of reiterated where I needed to be.”
Outside of Work
When he’s not working to bolster Shackelford’s preneed program, you can find Thomas teaching as a virtual instructor at the Dallas Institute of Funeral Service as well as the Mid-America College of Funeral Service.
Courses he’s taught include business law, funeral service counseling, funeral directing, restorative art theory, hospitality and event planning for funeral service, and changing landscapes in green funeral service, which prepares students for the certification exam through the Green Burial Council.
“I feel like I am actually better at that than I was at being a funeral director,” he said. “I didn’t know how to manage a lot of the stuff we encountered … and when I started full time, it was 2004, and we had guys who had been there in the late 1960s and 1970s when we ran the ambulance service. So, if I walked in talking about how I was not feeling great that day because of a particular situation, I’d always have an elderly gentleman telling me how easy I had it and to basically stop whining because I was not running the ambulance service and walking up on car wrecks and seeing gruesome stuff.” He continued, “I thought obviously there is something wrong with me if I am having these kinds of reaction to things and letting them affect me the way they were … that guy over there saw way worse stuff and told me to deal with it.”
The realm of preneed, however, has offered a respite from some of the more difficult cases, Thomas said. “I feel like now, if I deal with the public, it is a little more lighthearted as it is not at the time of death, and they are preparing. Sometimes, it is because something terrible happened, but other times, people woke up and said. ‘I need to take care of it.’ The educational side of it is where I think I fit best.”
When he talks to people just starting out in the profession – either as an instructor or in his work – he believes in being a straight shooter. “I am very honest with people and say, ‘Sometimes, this is going to be terrible,’” he said. “And you need to be ready for that. You need to be proactive. You don’t want to wait for it to be terrible for a period of weeks where it has severely affected you until you take some time away or do something to take your mind off of it. Get some kind of hobby of find a way to be away for a day or two.”
While that’s something he preaches now, he admits he sometimes got burned out by the funeral director grind. But has no one to blame but himself, he said.
“It was strictly my own doing and my sense of obligation,” he said, referring to the pressure he put on himself.
These days, however, with his focus on preneed and training, Thomas is in a much better place. He also has followed his own advice and pursued hobbies – writing and acting, in his case.
In fact, his comedic blog, “Mortified,” which is published on Substack, continues to gain subscribers – many of whom are from outside the death-care profession. He started it a couple of years ago.
Thomas has always been “a comedy nerd to the core,” watching Saturday Night Live reruns.
“I remember being 6 years old, and my mom had to tell me to stop introducing myself as ‘Fred Garvin, male prostitute,’” he said, referencing the iconic sketch in which Dan Akroyd plays such a character. “I didn’t even now what it was … I just thought it was funny the way he said it in that old 40s detective persona … but he was not a detective, obviously.”
His fascination with comedy as a youngster and adolescent had a lot to do with his dreams of getting into theater, he said. In a way, he’s achieved those dreams as he’s a member of an improv group.
“The group is called the Bluff City Liars,” he said. “We perform quarterly at a local theatre called Theatre Works and every third Thursday at a video and game shop/restaurant and bar/entertainment venue called Black Lodge (both locations in Memphis), plus whatever may come up outside of those,” he said.
His blog came about after he took some online writing courses and published a few humor pieces in smallish humor publications, he said. “I’m still trying to get into the big ones like the New Yorker,” he said. “I think my tone doesn’t fit … or maybe I’m not good enough.”
But he’s found a good home for a number of his pieces, he said.
“It was nice to get an outlet to do the funny stuff and write the weird little pieces,” he said, noting that his work led him to join an online writing group.
The idea struck him: What if he wrote about all his funny encounters in funeral service, changing the names, locations and anything that could give away the identity of the family or deceased? The group loved it.
“I write about these things not to make fun of anyone, but to show other people that if you have had this happen, it happens and it’s not just you!” he said. “If someone’s car dies in the middle of a procession, you can still laugh at that – even though it is not awesome in the moment.”
The topics are varied, ranging from experiences on death calls to the challenges of a mortuary college instructor and everything in between. For a while, he even incorporated a podcast that included some big-name guests, including Scott Dikkers, the creator of the satire site The Onion.
His life, he admits, is rife with experiences for such a blog. Who else, he wonders, celebrated his 13th birthday at the Tennessee Funeral Directors Convention and had The Forrester Sisters, an American country group with numerous hit singles, belt out a serenade of the Happy Birthday theme? “It was a weird thing to happen to a 13-year-old,” he admitted, noting he recently celebrated his 40th birthday at the same convention.
The whole point of the blog, he reiterated, is to acknowledge that funny things can happen even during horrible situations. “Someone can walk in, trip and fall down … and it is funny,” he said. “We are people and capable of holding these two truths at the same time. We are capable of being very upset but also being able to laugh at something at some point.”
As to who reads the blog, it doesn’t include as many funeral service professionals as you may think, Thomas said. “They make up a decent bit of the audience but not the majority,” he said. “A lot of it seems to be members of the public who don’t know a lot about this business, which is another reason I wanted to write it. I wanted to show the public what it is like. We deal with some stuff.”
That “stuff” includes the time Thomas went to someone’s house at 2 a.m. to do a removal.
“I walk in, and someone is sitting in the living room – a lady in a recliner,” he said. “Grandkids are running around. I was with someone else, and I just hung back. My colleague came and said, ‘They are ready for us.’ And I said, ‘Where is this person?’ He looked over at the lady in the recliner and said, ‘Her.’ I said, ‘Oh, I thought she was asleep.’’”
He added, “Thank goodness I did not say, ‘Hey, how are you?’ with everyone in the room knowing what I did not know. That would have been really bad. I just never dreamed she would be sitting there in the chair. But you have these situations, and I know there is a way to let other people in on them while still being compassionate and without divulging too much information.”
Writing the blog has been extremely validating for Thomas, and the members of his writing group have told him they think it is very funny. “It reminded me that I can do this,” he said. “I might not ever write for sitcoms or late-night TV, but I can hold my own at this.”
It has also helped him see some of the benefits of humor in grieving. “I started thinking back on my own arrangement conferences,” he said, noting that the most productive ones were always the ones where he and the family would laugh about something together – something he always tried to initiate, with varying degrees of success.
Without the blog, he likely would have never put together a proposal to present a session at the National Funeral Directors International Convention and Expo in Baltimore, “Grief, Humor, and Healing,” which dealt with our terribly uncomfortable relationship with death as well as the positive effects of humor for grieving people.
Attendees enjoyed his session so much that he’s been invited to present at NFDA again this year in Las Vegas. This time, the session will be titled “Improv for Funeral Directors,” and you can catch it on Sept. 10 at 11:30 a.m.
“I don’t think that would have happened if I had not been thinking of those things as I was writing about them,” he said. “So, writing gives me ideas sometimes that I can submit to other places.
But perhaps the biggest thing is it provides him with an outlet. “Even though I am writing about funeral service, it is not directly related to the funeral home,” he said. “It is my hobby. I can sit there, and if nothing else, I can make myself laugh.”
As to what lies ahead for Thomas, he hopes to hear from other death-care groups and even those outside the profession who would like to hear him speak at conferences, conventions and virtual gatherings.
“I am trying to get more into that world, so anything about that would be fantastic,” he said. “Right now, I am really emphasizing mental health in funeral service. I definitely think there is a shift in the classes I teach, as we talk about that a lot more than when I was coming up. I’m glad to be upfront and honest with people in saying this is a great job, but it’s a high burnout job.”
But if you can laugh about some things along the way, it makes it a lot easier.
Learn more about Joseph Thomas and inquire about him speaking at your convention or gathering by visiting his website.