By Thomas A. Parmalee
Robert M. “Bob” Fells retired as general counsel of the International Cemetery, Cremation and Funeral Association in July 2019.
It was the end of a incredible run in death care, as Fells joined the ICCFA as its general counsel in 1983, In 2011, he was named its executive director – a position he served in for several years before passing the torch to Nadira Baddeliyanage, formerly the association’s director of operations.
For many years, Fells, who is now 72, was the association’s voice on Capitol Hill and a driving force behind its Government and Legal Affairs Committee. Members of the profession always knew they’d learn something by reading his “Washington Report” column for ICCFA’s magazine as well as his contributions to ICCFA Wireless, the association’s electronic newsletter.
FuneralVision.com recently caught up with Fells to find out what he’s been up to since retiring a few years ago. Edited excerpts follow.
If you would like to nominate yourself or someone you know for a future “Where Are They Now” feature, email the editor.
You retired from the ICCFA in July 2019 … do you still stay in touch with many folks in death care?
I stay in touch with many people but, with only one or two exceptions, they are all (or were) suppliers.
Is retirement what you thought it would be?
Yes, and more. I’ve always liked keeping busy and having something tangible to show for my time. Writing, publishing, image and sound restoration projects, and helping others to get published fill my days now.
What do you spend most of your days doing?
I’ve been fortunate to enjoy a long career earning my living by writing and public speaking. ICCFA was a great place for doing that. Today, I’m on the board of directors of my retirement community and serve on several committees there. I coach neighbors with books they are writing and getting them published. I’m launching a community literary newsletter as an outlet for folks who want to publish their poems and short stories but don’t have enough material for a book. In the evenings, I’ve learned how to use audio/video software to restore old 78s and movies. It’s quite a kick to watch people’s reactions to restoring a century-old record so that it sounds almost new today. I post my work product on social media through two blogs on WordPress (including a popular blog on actor George Arliss), three Facebook groups that I administer, and my YouTube channel.
Do you still do any consulting work or have any involvement in the profession?
I made a point of volunteering with several places, including ICCFA, but there haven’t been any takers. I am not looking for work in the sense of paid employment, so I am quite satisfied with the way things are now.
What do you think about the current state of death care, including death care associations?
I continue to follow legal and legislative matters at the federal level. I’m keeping my eye on the current Federal Trade Commission Funeral Rule review because I think mandating a requirement to post prices online is unconstitutional. I am not aware of any other industry that’s required to do that and there’s a reason for that. Try finding online prices for lawyers.
What do you miss most about being involved in the profession on a daily basis?
I met many fine people among the membership and some of them have since passed away. But I’m still in touch with the ones I admire, so I don’t feel as though I’m missing much.
What do you consider your greatest accomplishments and/or legacy in death care?
Perhaps because I am a lawyer, I was never intimidated by industry critics who castigated the industry with claims of “mounting abuses.” I like to think that if I have any accomplishment, it was by holding those people’s feet to the fire so to speak and demand that they prove their accusations. They could never document their claims except on an anecdotal basis.
Is there anything you feel you left undone at your time at ICCFA?
Not much, but I wish industry members had more of a sense of stewardship about their chosen profession. I don’t mean the rank-and-file salespeople who are just trying to earn a living. I’m referring to industry leaders who can look at the big picture. Being skilled at “closing the sale” is not the big picture, but my impression is that too many of the industry leaders think it is. This really hit home for me when I launched a historic grave restoration project and, with one exception, nobody in the leadership even commented on it to me. Funding – just a few thousand dollars – was eventually achieved thanks to crowdfunding by ordinary people who saw the importance of it. I had to go outside death care to find support and I thought that was unfortunate.
Where do you live now? How are YOU and how is your family?
My wife, Maureen, and I divide our time between two homes in Virginia and Florida. Six months in both places. You can guess where we spend the winters? I am well and Maureen is also in good health. Our three kids are now in their 40s and likewise have much to be thankful for. We have four grandchildren, the youngest is the only boy. We taught the younger two how to swim last summer and our lessons will continue this summer. Our oldest granddaughter has turned out to be “gifted and talented” and she has already been approached by a few universities to apply, even though she’s still a high school freshman. I don’t know where she got her brains, but it certainly wasn’t from me.
What advice would you give to others who are preparing to retire after a long career in death care?
Retirement is the final major milestone in most people’s lives and like the earlier ones, it requires some degree of preparation. Retiring from making a living should not be retiring from life, but that’s what happens when people just drift with the current. Everybody seems to go on cruises and travel, but after a while that becomes a “been there, done that” type of thing. I’d say to future retirees that you should plan for your day-to-day life rather than focus on climbing Mount Everest.
You are the author of many books, some of them quite acclaimed. What are you working on now and out of all the books you wrote, which is your personal favorite and why?
My latest book is always my “favorite” but like having children, how can you pick a favorite? I wouldn’t have published them or kept them in print if I didn’t think they were halfway decent. I prefer writing historical novels, so I’d name two as my favorites. A western I called “Out West with Houdini” was a lot of fun because I used his ability as an escape artist to help our fictional heroes. Another book, my first spy/murder mystery, is called “The Spy Who Resembled Himself,” takes place during World War I and involves a German plot to destroy the Suez Canal. Currently, I’m developing a story about two superpowers who are not friendly, but one is heavily (and foolishly) in debt to the other. Sound familiar? (Editor’s note: You can view an extensive list of works by Fells by visiting his Amazon author page.)
How can folks get in touch with you if they like … or are you not taking emails or phone calls?
I welcome emails and usually answer everybody.