Christopher Rhodes planned on playing college football. Sidelined by an injury his senior year of high school, he then set out to fly helicopters for the Army. However, problems with his eyesight diverted his plans once again.
With graduation approaching, Rhodes “pretty much didn’t have a clue” what he would do next. After stopping by his older brother’s work one day, an impromptu lunch meeting with the business’s owner led to a job offer.
With a career spanning 25 years at Rich and Thompson, a mortuary in Burlington, N.C., Rhodes guides families through their times of loss, continuing a long, yet unexpected, career in the funeral industry.
After graduating from Cummings High School in Burlington, Rhodes only planned to work temporarily for Rich and Thompson, helping out with odd jobs in exchange for the owner covering his college tuition.
[Click play below to hear Rhodes explain Rich and Thompson’s history as the second oldest business in Burlington.]
At the start of his apprenticeship, he found being surrounded by caskets “eerie.” “I can tell you when I first started this, the only thing I did was I started washing cars, cut the grass, staying outside, not doing anything where I would interact with the deceased,” Rhodes recalls. “I thought early on, this is not going to be for me.”
However, after 25 years, he now says being around grieving families and the deceased doesn’t phase him. He says the transition came with time, as he demonstrates the features of different caskets and walks families through their different service and burial options. At the mortuary, Rhodes says “I walk in the room like I walk in any other room.”
[Video: Rhodes provides a walk-through of two of the mortuary’s meeting rooms]
Although he initially avoided customer interactions and coordinating funeral services, an experience working with a widow served as a catalyst for his long-term career and growing interest in working directly with the mortuary’s customers.
On one particularly busy day, Rhodes was sent to a house to pick up the funeral parlor’s equipment. The task typically takes 10 minutes, but Rhodes stayed at the woman’s house conversing for three hours. Two weeks later, the woman brought him a cake at work and told him of the positive effect their interaction had on her grieving process.
Afterwards, Rhodes began interacting more with customers. He realized the impact his role in the business carries explaining, “Unfortunately, everybody’s gonna pass away. Everybody’s gonna come in here with a loss. I won’t really say enjoyment is what I get out of it. But I do get a sense that I make a difference.”
He acknowledges that he sees a lot of sadness in his daily work, but continues knowing “That [he] can make the event go flawlessly for them, knowing [he] can honor their loved one exactly how they want it to, there is some reward in that.”
After deciding to make his career with Rich and Thompson permanent, Rhodes entered an unusual program for a young adult. Whilst enrolled in funeral school, he learned that planning a funeral and assisting the bereaved entails more than just finalizing details and coordinating a service.
[Video: Rhodes demonstrates the casket selection process in the Burlington branch’s display room]
“The funeral is for the living, it’s not necessarily for the deceased,” Rhodes says. “The time that we have with them is brief, we’re getting it all done. Some of the families we do form a bond with, it just depends on the extent of help they’re looking for, but we try to help them along the way.”
[Click play below to hear Rhodes explain the differences between the Burlington and Graham facilities.]
Thus, Rhodes believes Rich and Thompson’s role in guiding families through the grieving process goes beyond the funeral service. On a daily basis, his duties mainly concern walking families through the pre-planning process. He urges children and other relatives to check in often on their parents after a loss. “Really the hard part with death, from experience, is after everything is over, the funeral is over, everyone is bombarded at first.” Rhodes continues, “Relatives are calling, friends are sending letters. But in a week or two, everybody’s going on with their lives.”
Beyond the fear of being around the deceased, or working in an environment most known for sadness or associated with loss, Rhodes explains the funeral industry often has a negative stereotype due to corruption in the industry.
After a crematory in Georgia garnered national attention after it was discovered an “astronomically large sum of bodies” were being buried in shallow graves, the funeral industry was portrayed negatively in the media, Rhodes says. (See graphic left. Further reading on the Georgia scandal: Times Free Press & The Guardian)
The case cast honest businesses in the industry like Rich and Thompson in a negative light; Rhodes and the rest of the staff strive to help customers, providing them with honest advice about financial decisions and supervising all bodies as they are prepared for burial. Rhodes says the loss of close family members in his own life also motivates him to speak frankly and truthfully with families throughout the funeral planning process.
In addition to providing funeral services to families in the Burlington area, Rich and Thompson also takes on charitable causes. Rhodes himself coordinates the mortuary’s community outreach services, including holding an annual memorial service around the holiday season for the 600 families Rich and Thompson assists throughout the year.
Although Rich and Thompson is a business, the industry allows the staff to help its customers even beyond when they step out of the mortuary’s doors. Rich and Thompson donates to an organization in Hillsborough, where customers who are struggling with their loss can receive help free of charge.
Despite the sad nature of their trade, Rhodes says Rich and Thompson has become a family. “We are 24 hours, seven days a week, 365 days a year. We’ve got a large enough staff, and the people that work here, we get closer with them than we do our own families.” Although his hours can be unpredictable at times, he enjoys the flexibility of his job, as he can still attend his two sons’ little league games and spend time away from his work. The staff works together to capitalize on their strengths and weaknesses.
The staff’s differing backgrounds, ranging from children of the original owners who grew up around the business, to a 2005 Elon graduate, enable them to approach their work from various viewpoints. Despite working in a funeral parlor, each staff member is human first. For instance, as a parent, Rhodes struggles with helping families who have a lost a child. In those cases, he explains, “Someone who’s single normally does [help them], and vice versa. If there’s something that bothers somebody else, somebody else will wait on them.”
Although Rich and Thompson is a business associated with sad circumstances, its devoted workers like Rhodes have benefitted the community over a long period of time and continue to debunk negative perceptions of the funeral service industry.