Serving as a funeral director is arguably one of the most demanding career paths one could choose – or be chosen to do. While those employed by larger firms are given the option to work alternating weekends or to use livery services for nighttime removals, many family firms and genuine owner/operators work in the proverbial trenches by spending endless hours at the office during holidays, in the middle of the night and every day of the week – whenever duty calls. While rewarding in many ways, the profession can still be grueling, challenging the patience of spouses and families who remain optimistic and devoted despite having to share the attention of the person they love with a bereaved family.
“Staying grounded and setting priorities are just a few ways to successfully manage my life,” said Michelle Adams, a married, mortician mom who juggles three full-time roles – and not necessarily in that order.
Although Adams has called Savannah, Georgia, home for many years, the former military brat was actually born in Korea and spent her early childhood in Mississippi and Japan.
“My dad was in the Air Force for 23 years and met my mom while he was stationed in Korea,” she described, attributing their long marriage to a mutual love and respect for each other. “My mom knew very little English, and many Asians are not able to work for other people because of the language barrier, so she really made her own way and was a natural entrepreneur. After being awarded the contract, she began cleaning homes on the base.”
“It was so different from what I knew. The people showed up for funerals and carried themselves with reverence,” Hills said. “On the streets in town as well as on the highways, cars pulled over. Drivers often stopped their engines, got out and stood by their cars, removing their hats and placing them over their hearts when a procession passed. I had never seen anything like that.”
When Master Sgt. Benjamin Hamilton retired from the Air Force, he and wife, Sun Hui, returned to his native Savannah to raise their family.
“We moved here when I was in kindergarten; my parents owned a local seafood market for 20 years until they completely retired,” Adams recalled.
Following her high school graduation, working in a funeral home was never imagined or even considered. In fact, Adams had early aspirations of becoming a dentist after earning a biology degree from Savannah State University. She also was passionate about cosmetology and worked as a hair stylist for seven years before a fateful funeral home encounter started to alter her career trajectory.
“My dad asked me to do the hair and makeup for his sister, who had passed away. I had prepared for a very difficult experience, but, to my surprise, I handled it well and left realizing the importance of preparing a loved one for viewing,” she remembered.
Despite Adams’ initial reluctance to accept the career that was quietly calling, others were encouraging the intelligent and ambitious young woman who was a natural nurturer.
“We were still dating at the time, but I believe my husband, Amari, was able to see funeral service in my future before I did. He never pushed me, but, as the son of a funeral home owner and a funeral director himself, he knew that we would eventually work as partners in much more than marriage,” recounted Adams.
Adams Funeral Services, founded by Bruce Adams, is managed by his only child, Amari – a fourth-generation funeral director. The elder Adams grew up in Detroit before moving south to attend and graduate from both Morehouse and Gupton-Jones colleges. After receiving his funeral director and embalmer license in 1976, he joined his family firm, Guyton Brothers Funeral Home, in Bainbridge, Georgia, and eventually purchased the business from his grandfather, the late Eugene Guyton, and adopted father, Benjamin Hatcher. Adams also served as general manager of Sellers Brothers Funeral Home in Atlanta and in the same position with Williams & Williams Funeral Home and Moffett, Speed and Smart Funeral Home in Savannah. He co-owned Speed and Adams Funeral Home before opening his current establishment, which handles approximately 400 calls annually and is growing rapidly.
“My dad and father-law are longtime friends, so although we didn’t attend the same schools, I’ve known Amari since childhood,” she commented.
In 2016, Adams decided to enroll in mortuary school at Ogeechee Technical College in nearby Statesboro but was initially hesitant.
“I wasn’t sure if I would like it, but, because of all the science courses, I found the program to be a natural fit,” Adams expressed.
Several months prior to beginning her first semester, Adams received incredibly sad news.
“My mom was diagnosed with stage-4 lung cancer and started declining very quickly the following year. It was upsetting. I became unsure if I would be able to finish school and accidentally missed a midterm exam,” she reminisced.
However, Adams credited the significant timing of a specific program course for helping ease her pain.
“I truly believe there was no other place I should have been than in school and grief counseling class. I went through so much that semester, but learned so much about my grief as well. It also helped me develop a genuine empathy for future families I would serve because I could relate,” Adams explained.
During the semester, two emotional and touching moments boldly marked the circle of life.
“In August of 2016, I found out I was pregnant. My mom passed away the following month. I get my work ethic, strength and perseverance from her. She worked hard, loved fiercely and was an excellent role model,” she stated.
The next year, shortly after the birth of her son, Hamilton, Adams passed the national board exam and became a licensed funeral director and embalmer.
“Because the business is in a big growth spurt, I hit the ground running and immediately went back to work after Hamilton was born,” she said.
Since Adams joined the family firm, she has worked with families in a variety of capacities. In addition to making arrangements and directing funerals held on and off-site, she also is largely responsible for death certificates, insurance claims and other office management.
“Weekends are very busy times for funerals, so we work every Saturday. Sunday funerals are starting to become more common. Because we have a small staff, I am almost always on different funerals than my husband unless it is a close friend or family member. I had the privilege of handling the services of a friend’s 11-year-old nephew, who was hit by car. I directed the funeral and did the restorative work, which was extensive but made him viewable,” Adams described.
In the wake of her mother’s death, Adams’ twice-retired father now works part-time at the funeral home.
“He will drive the limo on occasion but wants to work funerals primarily with me,” she said, considering any quality time with family to be a blessing.
“It is so easy to be complacent when you have a 9-to-5 job and when you can expect to have the weekend off, but this profession is not at all like that. You have to continuously be aware of all that is going on, that every case is different and to be honest – that is the part I love the most.
I enjoy looking through files and appreciating the differences in every family,” Adams illustrated, in keeping with the refreshingly optimistic outlook of contemporary funeral service, which embraces individuality and uniqueness and erases repetitive, structured and predictable funerals of the past.
Additionally, the increased acceptance of female funeral directors in a profession once principally influenced by men has had a profound effect on families. Sensitive and naturally nurturing, women have innate tendencies that make them automatically more approachable.
“Being a woman in a male-dominated field makes me so proud. I have people give me compliments, and it makes me feel so rewarded,” Adams commented.
Aside from working at the funeral home together, Adams and her husband enjoy traveling.
“We like to take a trip out of the country for our anniversary. Last year, we went to Europe and spent time in Italy touring Venice, Rome and Florence before visiting Paris. We have been on cruises and really love new experiences,” she described.
In March of 2019, Adams gave birth to second son, Lincoln.
“Motherhood is wonderful. With both of us working, Amari and I really try to keep the kids on a routine. We take any opportunity we can to spend time away from the business as a family, which usually is Sunday. We explore new restaurants and attend different concerts and shows, most of which are unique to Savannah,” remarked Adams.
While not all couples are destined to work alongside each other, Adams advised not to take any moment alone together for granted: “Make time outside the business to be a spouse, to be in love. Put as much time and effort into being husband and wife as being co-workers.”
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Southern Calls Issue 24
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