Funeral director Brad Speaks of Independence is president and CEO of Speaks Family Legacy Chapels (speakschapel.com). Speaks’ grandparents, Rollie and Beth Speaks, started the business in 1936. Speaks and his brother bought the company in 2008 from their father, who had run it since the 1970s. This conversation took place at the Carson-Speaks chapel on Lexington Avenue in Independence.
You recently got back from a vacation. Where were you?
Sturgis, South Dakota. I was there for the 74th annual motorcycle rally. I’ve been riding motorcycles since the 1970s and really enjoy it.
As a funeral director, you don’t have any extra layer of fear about riding motorcycles?
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You have to be very cautious, and I’m very experienced.
Is this the first time you’ve been to Sturgis?
No. (Laughs.) No.
Your grandparents started their funeral home in the middle of the Great Depression. What was the business like then?
Independence was much smaller then, but it had far more funeral homes than today.
My grandfather rode the streetcar from Kansas City where he was working in the stockyard to talk to C.D. Carson, who had the biggest funeral home in Independence. He asked him to teach him the business, and Mr. Carson hired him for room and board. When Mr. Carson died, my grandfather started his own funeral home. When we had the chance to buy the Carson funeral home many, many years later, it really was like coming full circle.
Did you grow up living upstairs in the funeral home?
I did not, but my father did, because that was how it always was back then.
When did you start working for the company?
My first job was washing cars for my grandfather when I was 13 or 14. I remember him saying: “Those windows aren’t clean. Do it again.” He was teaching me to work. You don’t just wash a hearse, you wash it right.
Was that job just for pocket money or did you already know you wanted to go into the funeral business?
I always knew that’s what I wanted to do. My grandfather was this bigger-than-life character that knew everybody in town. I liked the way my grandpa took care of people. I could tell even then: This is important.
What did the TV show “Six Feet Under” get right about the funeral business?
It lifted up something that applies to every single family-owned business in America: When family members are in business together, there are tensions. My grandfather, father, brother and I always acknowledged that and agreed that how we treat each other is a choice, and we choose to treat each other respectfully instead of storing up anger over things that are said or that happen.
Overall, since we live in a death-denying culture, I liked that the show prompted people to have discussions about dying and funerals.
What didn’t ring true about the show?
The spectacular mishaps at the beginnings of the episodes. People don’t tend to die in such unusual ways.
Do you ever feel you are seeing people at their worst, since a death is such an emotionally charged event that forces family members together who may not get along?
No. I feel like I see people at their best. Ninety-nine percent of the time, people rise above their differences and realize they need to act appropriately. I think that is people’s true nature, and it’s too bad that sometimes Mom or Grandma has to die for them to get there.
How has the trend toward cremation changed your business?
There certainly has been a large shift toward cremation. Probably 45 to 50 percent of people in the metro who die elect cremation now.
What has not changed is the need and desire for a memorial. Families still want to get together and tell the old stories, laugh, sing, sometimes pray. Visitations are bigger than they ever have been.
When my mother died, she had only been in Independence five years, so she didn’t know that many people, but the visitation was full of people who came to support me. It was inconvenient for them, but they canceled plans and work to stand in line and give me a hug and tell me they love me, and that is more true than ever.
What was it like planning your own mother’s funeral?
I was on the other side of the table. I turned over all the arrangements to one of our funeral directors. I decided I was only going to be a grieving son.
Do you think you handle death and grief better than most people because you deal with it every day?
No. People think that, but no one is immune to what happens when somebody you love dies.
Two years ago my wife had breast cancer, and in a funeral family, when you hear the word “cancer,” that’s not good. There was a lot of fear and concern. She has had surgery and is doing well now, but I’m here to tell you, I’m not used to death and sadness and grief.
Nobody that works here is used to it. If anybody ever did get used to it, they should probably go work somewhere else.