In the spring of 2006, when the death of his mother placed the future of his family’s long-owned Kansas City funeral home in flux, Lindsay Jones had a decision to make.
On one hand, he had grown up with the Lawrence A. Jones and Sons Funeral Chapels, spending years carrying out a slew of jobs for the business founded by his father in 1950, now based at 1800 E. Linwood Blvd. On the other, he had since put down roots in Virginia, where he was ministering and where his own children had grown up.
And while he’d always maintained a hand in the family business in the ensuing years — doing part-time work from afar — a full-time return to the business, celebrating its 65th anniversary in 2015, was never part of his plan.
“I did not envision coming back,” Jones says now. “But after the death of my mother, it was pretty clear to most people that for the family legacy to continue, I was the family member who was probably best positioned to assume leadership and oversight.”
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In the end he decided to return, lured by a sense of duty, and in doing so, he ensured that Lawrence A. Jones would avoid the fate that many family-owned funeral homes have faced over the years.
Today, Jones is one of only a handful of people in Kansas City still operating a family-owned funeral home, part of a dying — or at least declining — breed.
Local funeral home owners describe a significant decrease in the number of family-owned operations from decades past. Whereas family-run funeral homes were once bountiful throughout Kansas City, today, says fellow funeral home owner and third-generation Charlie Passantino of Passantino Bros. Funeral Home in Kansas City, “I don’t know if you could fill up two hands.”
The reasons for the decline are varied. There’s the trend toward corporate-owned operations. The increasing difficulty for funeral homes to acquire ongoing financing. The inability — or lack of desire — of younger generations to see that the business remains within the family.
“What do they say about a family-owned business?” asks Douglas Raphael, 75, who is in his 53rd year working at Lawrence A. Jones and has carried out nearly every job imaginable there. “The first generation creates it, the second generation enjoys it and the third generation destroys it.”
But those who, like Jones, have managed to usher their family’s funeral homes into the new millennium take a particular pride in what they do.
“I’m trying to keep the family tradition going because I personally had witnessed how hard my family had worked to make it as far as they did,” said Marion Watkins, 64, the owner and manager of family-owned Watkins Brothers Memorial Chapel in Kansas City, which is now in its third generation.
Like most of his remaining colleagues, Jones’ indoctrination into the business of death came early.
From the time he was born, few aspects of his world weren’t influenced by the family business. As a child, family vacations were trips to the latest funeral home directors convention. Rides to school were given in a company-owned black limousine. For a time, the family even called the funeral parlor its home — the living quarters upstairs, the business operation on the main floor.
It was in that house that, at the age of 6 or 7, he came across his first corpse.
The sight scared him.
As he grew older, however, the fear dissipated, and he came not only to respect the work of his parents — but a calling toward it.
It began with his father, Lawrence A. Jones, a noted businessman and community leader with that rare ability to walk into a room full of strangers and emerge not long after with a couple of dozen new friends.
From close up, the younger Jones watched it all. He noticed the compassion with which his father went about the business of dealing with grieving families. How he’d quietly waive the funeral fee for families who couldn’t afford to bury a loved one. How, in monthly staff meetings, he’d remind employees that they had a personal responsibility to each person that came through the door.
People in their darkest moments were entrusting them with the burial of their loved ones, he’d say, and that was a duty to be taken seriously.
And so it became Lindsay Jones’ duty, too.
Through high school, when he worked a full-time workload at the funeral parlor, rushing home on his lunch hour to send obituaries to the local newspaper or drop off supplies to the printer — and still managing to graduate as salutatorian of Manual High School.
Through college, when he earned his bachelor’s in business management at Drury University and his master’s in business from University of Missouri-Kansas City but spent summers, and every other chance he got, working on the business end of the family operation.
And through the ensuing decades, when he never ventured too far from the family’s operation — even after he decided to go off to seminary in Chicago.
By 2007, when he made the decision to return to Missouri, he was working as a pastor and presiding bishop for a church in Norfolk, Va.
Today, Jones oversees a staff of 40 to 45 full- or part-time employees, handling roughly 550 funerals a year between the Linwood location and a smaller operation in Kansas City, Kan.
Tall and slender, he looks like what you would imagine a funeral home director to look like. His suits are dark, his handshake firm. He speaks slowly, easily. His is a voice meant to comfort.
The desire to keep a business in the family isn’t difficult to understand.
“You lose something when you become a corporate-owned funeral home,” says Scott Anthony, owner of the Anthony Funeral and Cremation Chapels in Rochester, N.Y., and a spokesman for the National Funeral Directors Association.
“You lose an identity.”
And indeed, in keeping Lawrence A. Jones family-run, Jones has ensured that residents have a familiar place to bury their loved one.
During his almost 40 years in the funeral service industry, Lindsay Jones has buried something close to 24,000 people.
He has buried the bullet-riddled, the accidentally drowned. He has buried the well-known — local barbecue magnate Arthur Bryant, for instance — and the anonymous, the sick and the dismembered.
He has buried family, too: his parents, friends, siblings. The first time, when an older brother was murdered in Dallas, just days before beginning mortuary science school, Jones collapsed onto the floor of the funeral parlor, crying until there were no tears left.
Even now, he says, there is something unnatural about finding himself on the other side of things — like the fireman whose house goes up in flames.
“We tend to go through life assuming that we’ll still be here tomorrow,” he said one afternoon recently, inside the funeral home. “But when you’re both in the funeral service and in ministry, you are constantly reminded” that that’s not the case.
Through the window of the funeral home, which is a large, stately white building nestled upon a pristine patch of grass on Linwood Boulevard, you can see the toll time has taken on the surrounding area. Nearby lots are vacant, buildings are under construction. Some of the family-owned businesses that once dotted the neighborhood have long since closed.
And yet, the funeral home on Linwood remains.
There will always be a market for it. Death, after all, is life’s lone certainty.
And so, for as long as he’s able, Jones will be here, inside his second-floor office, working each day to carry on a legacy 65 years in the making.
“I do believe,” he said, wiping his eyes, “that mother and dad would be proud.”