By Thomas A. Parmalee
The internet lit up in a gush of sadness, admiration and respect as word spread that perhaps the world’s best-known funeral director, Todd W. Van Beck, died unexpectedly May 23. He was 71 years old.
While he was not born into the profession, Van Beck was fond of saying, “I came out of the womb an undertaker.”
It’s unclear if anyone ever took issue with that statement, but you can bet that no one would dare argue that Van Beck left this earth as one.
He grew up in Avoca, Iowa, and he’d always been fascinated by the profession, having grown up with a funeral home across the street. At the young age of 5, he declared his intent to be a funeral director, according to his obituary.
An article in the International Cemetery, Cremation and Funeral Association’s magazine noted how he embalmed a pig for his high school science fair and embarked on a career in funeral service after graduation.
As a funeral professional, he did everything, working for Loewen and various firms, traveling the world as a public speaker, serving as a mortuary college instructor and executive and as a spokesman at large for the profession.
According to his obituary, “Prior to his employment as Program Director at Cincinnati College of Mortuary Science (CCMS), Todd served as Faculty/Director of Continuing Education at John A. Gupton College (TN); General Manager of Forest Hill Funeral Homes & Memorial Parks (TN); Director of Family Funeral Care and Public Relations at A.S. Turner & Sons Funeral Home (GA); President and CEO of the Commonwealth Institute of Funeral Service (TX); and Director of Education for the Loewen Group, Inc. (OH). His academic career began at CCMS in 1982.”
You can view his resume here.
He was by far the profession’s most beloved and well-versed funeral historian, penning lengthy articles on a regular basis for “American Funeral Director” and other trade journals. He also was a regular contributor to the “Funerals of the Famous” series.
A prolific author, he wrote numerous books, including “The Genius of Frank E. Campbell: The Story of How One Man Changed Funeral Service,” “Good Funeral Service: A Study in Ethics,” and most recently “Funeral Chronicles.” You can see a list of Van Beck’s works here.
The Profession Mourns
Reaction to Van Beck’s death was swift, with funeral professionals taking to LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram and other social networks to share the photos they had taken of themselves with Van Beck throughout the years – as if he were a rock star, which in a sense, he was.
“We are deeply saddened to announce the passing of Todd Van Beck,” the ICCFA said in a post. “Todd’s decades of selfless contribution to death care have profoundly impacted countless members of this profession. He was a statesman for funeral service and has left a legacy of support for the grieving and respect for those who care for the dead that will be felt for generations. We will be forever grateful for his willingness to teach and share his love of service.”
Robert “Bob” Fells, the former general counsel and executive director of the ICCFA, said Van Beck was regarded by many of his peers as “America’s funeral director.” He added, “I don’t think anybody called him that, but if Norman Rockwell wanted to create a portrait of ‘The American Funeral Director,’ most of us would have told him to contact Todd.”
It was only a few years ago when Fells, a mighty writer in his own right, was contacted by Van Beck with a request.
“He asked me if I would mind reading his manuscript about the life and times of Frank Campbell, founder of New York City’s Frank E. Campbell Funeral Chapel,” he said. “Todd wasn’t looking for praise, he wanted criticism. He felt that his book somehow was missing the mark in that way authors can instinctively detect. Campbell was quite an innovator, and Todd captured the man’s entrepreneurial spirit quite effectively. When I finished the manuscript, I felt Todd had done a good job, yet I could see his concern. His tale just sort of ended with no finale.”
Fells recalled how in the manuscript he was given, the last event that was recounted was the 1926 funeral of Rudolph Valentino. “The news reporting of the day was partly fact-based and partly sensationalism, but this event embedded itself on the American psyche,” Fells said. “Every August to this very day, the anniversary of Valentino’s death is duly recalled by the mainstream news media. Images of the funeral procession emerging from Campbell’s mortuary with Mr. Campbell leading it are still seen by millions of viewers.”
He asked Van Beck if there was anything else in Campbell’s story following the Valentino funeral but learned that Campbell basically retired shortly after and died in 1931. “I suggested to Todd that perhaps he might portray the Valentino funeral as the climax of Frank Campbell’s career and, indeed, the climax of Todd’s book. He liked the idea and revised his book accordingly.”
Fells was happy to help and thought nothing more of it, but then a few months later he heard from an ICCFA staff member that Van Beck had called the office and was singing his praises. “I was surprised and asked why,” he said. “She said it was because of his Frank Campbell book. I hadn’t told a soul about it, but he was spreading the word and making it sound like I was his co-author. That was somehow typical of Todd.”
Anthony Kaniuk, director of industry relations at the National Funeral Directors Association – and a longtime friend of Van Beck’s, said upon learning of his death, “A piece of funeral service’s heart is gone.” He added. “One of the superheroes of our profession will surely be missed. It will now be the responsibility of each one of us to keep Todd’s stories alive for the future generations of funeral professionals, like he did for many of us.”
Alan J. MacKinnon, president and general manager of The Gardens Cemetery in Boston, said on Facebook, “He was a big part of my education at the ICCFA University and annual conferences. He was also dean of the mortuary school at Mount Ida College in Newton Massachusetts, right up the street from our cemetery.” He added, “He inspired me to create the Pumpkin Festival by showing that it was okay to have events at cemeteries. He was always amazed at the size of our Pumpkin Festival that grew to one time having 4,000 attendees … He still is a powerful influence on my style of cemetery management. Rest in peace great teacher.”
Jake Johnson, president and CEO of Johnson Consulting Group, said, “Todd inspired and shared with all of us the importance of our roles in funeral service. I was always fascinated with his deep knowledge of the history of funeral service as well. Funeral service has lost a mentor, great caregiver and teacher in Todd. He will be missed.”
Dan Isard, founder of The Foresight Companies, said, “Todd Van Beck taught funeral service so much about itself, and those of us within the profession how to do things properly. As a presenter, Todd would teach us not what to do but why do you do it and what not to do. He would rely upon his early days as a funeral director and talk about the errors that he made in his self-deprecating style that made young, insecure funeral directors respect and look up to him. Todd was first and foremost a funeral director, but before you can dissect his shadow, he was an educator. He was committed to improving funeral service education, and therefore improve the quality of service. He was an icon in the truest sense of the word.”
The Funeral Service Foundation stated on social media that it joined the profession in mourning Van Beck, who served as a trustee since fall 2022. “His invaluable contributions to the foundation and funeral service will continue to shape the profession long into the future. He will be missed immensely,” the foundation said.
John Heald, general manager of the funeral home channel at Legacy.com, served as a trustee on the foundation with Van Beck. On Facebook, he said Van Beck had “a mind and memory to rival any.” He added, “Always willing to share, he has left our profession a better one. I enjoyed our conversations on the foundation board and appreciate everything he has done for so many … Todd’s countless contributions of time and advocacy fulfilled the foundation’s mission — investing in people and programs to strengthen funeral service and lift up grieving communities. We will miss him immensely.”
The National Funeral Directors Association stated, “Todd was a beloved and trusted colleague and friend to many in funeral service. His countless contributions to funeral service will continue to shape the profession long into the future.”
Selected Independent Funeral Homes noted that it “joins so many within funeral service to express our sadness over the news of Todd Van Beck’s death. Todd was a one-of-a-kind storyteller and the ultimate funeral service historian.” Selected also shared a program recording from an education session Van Beck presented at its 2019 Annual Meeting that you can view here.
David Rousculp, general manager of Harper’s Community Funeral Home in New Haven, Indiana, shared on LinkedIn that Van Beck was his teacher and embalming instructor at the Cincinnati College of Mortuary Science, where he graduated from in 1984. “He is a huge part of how I am a funeral director today,” he said. “I later went to his managers’ training for the Loewen Group, who owned Siferd Funeral Home, in Lima, Ohio. That week of training from Todd changed my life dramatically. He showed Richard Traunero and I how to provide excellent service. He showed us how to put on programs in our communities that made a difference. He showed us how to look for projects in our towns and spearhead a team to get it done. He made us visual programs with full scripts for our local civic organizations when they needed speakers. And he also showed us how to market ourselves. Todd said, ‘Nobody is going to ring your bell, you have to do it yourself.’ News releases, media spots and how to write your own articles were some of his teachings. If you write the story, then all they have to do is print it. Make it easy for them. That was a game changer for me, not only in the funeral business, but also in the entertainment field.”
Rousculp noted Van Beck was widely known for his expertise on the life and death of President Abraham Lincoln. “After being the dean at many colleges he just recently returned to CCMS. Just a few weeks ago, he called me out of the blue. He shared how glad he was to be back at CCMS and asked if I could stop by sometime. Most importantly, he said how proud he was of me.”
In a Facebook post, CCMS said Van Beck “was a person who had a half-century love affair with both funeral and cemetery service. He willingly admitted that he was no ‘expert’ but also quickly admitted that there was nothing about this work and life that he did not enjoy, and have intense interest in. Todd had said: ‘I have never done a day’s work in my life, it has all been fun and interesting.'” The college went on to note that Van Beck selflessly served the death-care profession in many arenas across the nation and internationally, which satisfied his desire to see the world. He was thrilled and humbled to return to CCMS where he planned to continue his mission until retirement.”
Paul White, senior vice president of sales and marketing for Funeral Services Inc., said on LinkedIn, “The funeral profession has lost an icon … Todd was such an accomplished speaker, author and teacher. Not many have left such a mark on funeral service.”
Thomas Hernandez, a branch developer at Merendino Cemetery Care, said on social media, “This man is such an inspiration to me. I took his funeral home management course at the ICCFA University and have read many of his books. He is my absolute favorite author in the profession, and he is the man from which I learned about ‘the worthy ideal.’ I studied his characteristic theories on bedside manner and have applied them to my own bedside manner when helping grieving families through death’s process. God bless this man, if only for the potential additional pain that his presence and family service style has prevented over the span of his many decades of service to the death-care profession. These shoes will go unfilled.”
Tracy Allen, director of mortuary science and alumni relations at John A. Gupton College, shared a picture on Facebook of her with Van Beck on the last day they worked together at the college. “If you are a funeral director, then you know he’s known around the world for his knowledge in funeral service,” she said. “For others, he was a colleague, mentor, and many of you are lucky enough to call him your teacher. For me, he was my friend. I can hear him now saying ‘I’m at your service’ or behind the doors laughing at me. I can recall several stories he told me of his childhood and the many lessons he hoped to leave on others. Most importantly, he was a man of faith and shared his knowledge of the Bible with me.”
Randy Nash Jr., owner of Sumner Funeral & Cremation in Gallatin, Tennessee, took to social media to call Van Beck an advocate, teacher, minister, lecturer, presenter, funeral director and friend. “I don’t believe there ever has been or ever will be a stronger advocate for funeral service or as he called it ‘our beloved profession,’” he said. “His life’s work was to help mold every generation of funeral professional into the best that they could be. When I was elected president of the Tennessee Funeral Directors Association, I came home to a letter from Todd congratulating me, encouraging me and in true Todd fashion, offering his assistance in any way possible. That letter is one of my most prized possessions.”
Nash went on to say that the only thing stronger than Van Beck’s love for funeral service was his faith and love for his Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. “I can’t help but think that Heaven is a little sweeter tonight and Todd is sitting there and having some serious conversations with those who have gone before him,” Nash said. “I hope that one day when I get to Heaven there is a special section for undertakers, and we all get to sit around and listen to him tell stories of the days of funeral service gone by.”
Brent McNeeley of Walters Funeral Home in LaFollette, Tennessee, said, “My heart is heavy tonight at the loss of a dear friend, and possibly the greatest funeral professional of this generation. Mr. Todd Van Beck was the consummate professional in all aspects of our beloved and time-honored profession. He made everyone proud to be a funeral professional. From his beginnings at Heafey & Heafey Funeral Home in Omaha, Nebraska to his published work and speaking of the death, preparation and funerals of President Abraham Lincoln, no one did it better.”
McNeeley went on to say that when his dad died in 2018, he received a handwritten letter of condolence from Van Beck. “He never knew what those words meant to me,” he said. “Uplifting, encouraging, and personal all at the same time. My last visit with him was in October at the NFDA Convention, and he congratulated me on being installed as president of the TFDA -Tennessee Funeral Directors Association. It was always him making you feel like the most important person.”
Daniel Paul Armstrong, formerly of Boles Funeral Homes and now a compliance consultant with Regulatory Support Services, said on social media that Van Beck taught him about compassion, care and learning about the deceased. “He taught me the skill of getting to know families and creating meaningful funerals and services,” he said. “Todd taught me the importance of not asking for the social security number first … push business to the side at the beginning of a family arrangement conference.”
William R. McCormick, vice president at Price Funeral Home in Lewisburg, Kentucky, said on social media that Van Beck was “a walking encyclopedia of funeral knowledge.” He added, “I was fortunate enough to have had him for multiple classes while at mortuary school. During my clinicals, I spent a lot of my free time in his office just listening to him talk. He was a terrific human being who had a passion for serving others and he will be greatly missed.”
Visitation was at the Cincinnati College of Mortuary Science. There was a Masonic Blue Lodge service followed by a Celebration of Life service. Interment was scheduled for May 30 at Oak Hill Cemetery in Hancock, Iowa.
In a Facebook post, Jack E. Lechner Jr., president and CEO of CCMS, shared some of his reflections on Van Beck’s life as well as the services that were held at the college.
“He died on Monday night, after returning from the Missouri Funeral Directors and Embalmers Association Convention, doing what he loved, presenting that morning to funeral professionals,” Lechner said. “We drove back to Cincinnati after my presentation that afternoon. I had no idea that when I dropped him off at his car and said ‘see you in the morning’ that it would be our last exchange.”
He continued, “Several funeral professionals worked out the details of Todd’s funeral. We brought Todd back to the college to lie in repose in his office — it is a veritable museum of funeral service. We wanted the students that he loved to be able to grieve and mourn together in the so familiar and inviting environment. For the visitation we had a string quartet playing J.S. Bach. Todd went to the symphony every week and loved classical music. I couldn’t hold back the tears as I looked upon him in his casket and heard the strings begin to play.”
Lechner noted that Van Beck was a very religious man who often attended the Presbyterian church with friends. “He led the men’s group there, but always attended the Quaker Friends Meeting on Sunday morning,” Lechner said. “In fact, Todd attended and earned his master’s degree from a seminary!”
Van Beck was also a Mason, and a past grand master of Ohio made the arrangements for his masonic service, Lechner said. “David Hicks was a close friend,” Lechner added. “He contributed significantly to preparing Todd and planning the funeral in accordance with Todd’s wishes. Mike Ryan and Frank Rosenacker contributed significantly also along with Marty Rienkin in Iowa.”
Lechner said he’d miss his friend and colleague. “I cherish the time we spent together — working, laughing, socializing, etc. I feel particularly honored to have spent his last Sunday and Monday on earth together. We drove out to St. Charles on Sunday afternoon and had a great steak dinner at Tony’s in St Charles. We drove back to Cincinnati on Monday afternoon/evening after our presentations. We laughed and did what funeral directors do: We talked about other funeral directors. We listened to show tunes — “Fiddler on the Roof” and “South Pacific” — as well as Frank Sinatra, Harry Connick Jr. and Frank Zappa. He was truly one of a kind. I’ll miss my friend.”
It can’t be argued that Lechner is speaking for the choir — the entire profession will miss Todd W. Van Beck.
In lieu of flowers, the family request donations to be made to the “Todd Van Beck Memorial Scholarship Fund” at CCMS. Learn how to donate.
Arrangements were by the Cincinnati College of Mortuary Science, in conjunction with Vorhis & Ryan Funeral Home.
Copyright 2023, FuneralVision.com. All Rights Reserved.