Undertaking the family business
As the fourth-generation owner of a Virginia funeral home, Rob Finch Jr. ’80 is a leader in an industry undergoing change as American attitudes toward faith and death evolve.
By Eric Townsend
Death looked a lot different in this country 110 years ago when John T. Finch first advertised himself as a funeral director in the tiny village of Grit, a rural community nestled in the rolling hills of southern Virginia. Americans died younger. Most died in their homes. And it was in their homes where their bodies would be displayed for relatives and neighbors paying respects.
If a death took place more than a few miles away, Finch would load his wagon for overnight travel to embalm the body and build a custom coffin. He soon relocated his business four miles north to Altavista, a mill town on the Staunton River, and it is here where the family tradition continues today with Rob Finch Jr. ’80 as the fourth-generation president and chief executive officer of Finch & Finch Funeral and Cremation Service.
As the immediate past president of the Virginia Funeral Directors Association, which represents more than 300 funeral homes across the commonwealth, the Elon alumnus has been a forceful advocate for his profession in Virginia. Over the past decade, the number of funeral homes in the United States has fallen by nearly 10 percent while the median cost of an adult funeral has increased more than 28 percent.
Society, Finch says, is more mobile than in past decades, when people finished school, returned to their communities, went to work and started a family. Today there’s less thought given to a permanent resting place in a cemetery. Coupled with fewer Americans identifying as people of faith, it’s been a fascinating time to watch the funeral industry keep pace with trends. “How we treat our dead shows who we are as a society,” Finch says. “We’ve become less traditional in this country, and whether we like it or not, we’re less religious than we were 50 years ago. We live in a ‘death-denying’ society.”
Running the family business was not part of Finch’s original career plans. Growing up he saw firsthand the downside of operating a funeral home. His father often went years without taking a vacation since he lacked the professional staff to run the funeral home in his absence. And telephone calls from grieving families could disrupt the household at any time, including the middle of the night.
So when it came time to choose a career after graduating from Elon with a degree in education, Finch turned instead to production planning management at a local furniture manufacturing plant and, later, he managed sales at a car dealership. He even lived for a brief time in a small apartment above the funeral home. As he aged, however, Finch felt the pull of his family’s legacy.
The family’s funeral business, which includes a second location in Gladys, Va., performs anywhere from 130 to 150 funeral services each year, which is about the industry average. All deaths are a loss to someone. Some hurt more than others, for a variety of reasons. “Untimely deaths are the most difficult,” Finch says of the challenges inherent with his job. “The hard times are when the 16-year-old dies in a car wreck. Or the suicides when you’re left with ‘why?’”
Or the father of four who perishes while serving his country. Finch tears up telling the story of Marine Staff Sgt. Gregory Todd Copes, killed in action in 2012 as part of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. A few days later, on the tarmac of a small airport in Lynchburg, Finch watched as Copes’ casket was lowered from a military transport and his widow, Tia Copes, fell to her knees after several days of showing nothing but steely resolve in the face of tragedy. Finch wept as well as he drove the hearse through crowds that lined both sides of the street with American flags.
Finch’s treatment of the family—including Copes’ four young children—is fondly remembered. Tia Copes recalls the way Finch welcomed a small group of relatives and fellow Marines into the funeral home the night before his service to share stories and toast his memory with shots of Glenfiddich Whisky around the casket. “I felt like they cared. It wasn’t just business,” Tia Copes says of her experience working with Finch. “It was personal.”
Finch’s devotion to his clients is matched only by his dedication to the profession. Much of his tenure as president of the Virginia Funeral Directors Association from 2014-15 was spent lobbying lawmakers to require mandatory participation in Virginia’s Electronic Death Registry System. The tool is one way for funeral directors to reduce the time and mileage of having doctors and government officials receive death notification on paper. Participation by doctors is currently voluntary, which often requires funeral homes to log thousands of miles each year traveling just to get signatures on death certificates.
Finch’s business alone logged 11,000 miles last year getting signatures on various documents. For funeral homes in even more remote parts of the state, that kind of travel can cripple a business. Finch learned this directly as president by personally visiting nearly two thirds of the association’s members. That professional leadership came at a time of flux for the funeral industry. In the 1990s, a wave of acquisitions by national corporations brought an end to hundreds of locally owned, family-run funeral homes. Today, one company, Service Corporation International, owns roughly 12 percent of funeral homes in the country.
Finch admits that running a business— any business—is intended to make money, and when you tour Finch & Finch’s second-floor showroom, it becomes obvious just how much someone can choose to spend on a funeral. Caskets in all shapes, colors and design line the walls. They range in price from $1,000 to $10,000. You can accent a casket with decorative plates and custom lining. For cremation, a countless number of urns are available. Another trend Finch now markets is creating custom jewelry from cremated remains. But Finch makes an oft-overlooked point when critics accuse the funeral industry of price-gouging: He offers products that help people grieve, and if a more expensive casket or a precious stone embedded with Grandma’s ashes gives comfort, so be it. “You do whatever it is that makes you feel comfortable. Our emotions are strange things,” he says from his office, an Elon diploma on the wall above his desk. “You’ll hear, ‘this is all marketing!’ Well, it is. But some people find it comforting.”
Evolving attitudes toward death will drive the success or failure of many more funeral homes in the years ahead, and Finch is in a position of strength to weather the disruption. People in small communities like Altavista lean on personal relationships cultivated with funeral directors who, in some instances, have buried several generations of the same family.
His successor is well known. Older son Trey Finch is a licensed funeral director and has already been learning the business of running Finch & Finch. He and brother Jackson grew up watching their father successfully balance work and family in a way that wasn’t possible half a century ago. In doing so, Rob Finch taught his sons that a career in the funeral industry is a noble calling.
Retirement is still several years away for Finch. Until then, he plans to continue leading a team of five full-time staff members and a dozen part-time employees trained to provide comfort during a family’s most traumatic days. After all, “a funeral is not for the person who dies,” Finch explains. “A funeral is for the living.”