Article Category: SC12 | The Present
Mary Hagan, First Lady of the Funeral Service

Remembering Mary Hagan

Posted Friday, Sep 01
Mary Hagan – First Lady of Funeral Service
Southern Calls, Vol. 12, June 2016

Though you may never been introduced, if you’ve attended NFDA’s annual conventions over the last seven decades, her face will be familiar.  And if you’ve had the privilege of meeting Mary Hagan, you’ll never forget her charming smile, her keen wit and her unabashed love of the funeral service profession.

The wife, life partner and “woman behind the man,” Mary Hagan and her husband Joe were the handsome couple gliding across the dance floor or at the center of the laughter at receptions when funeral directors across the country got together – Joe, dressed as though he had just stepped out of “Gentleman’s Quarterly,” with Mary on his arm, looking like the beautiful and adoring wife she always was. 

Mary and Joe, two years her senior, had known each other since childhood, attending the same schools in Mobile, Alabama. “Joe’s family was very poor, but he never talked about it,” Mary recalled from her home in Silver Spring, Maryland. “His father was killed in an automobile accident in 1934 when Joe was 12.” 

The accident occurred on a little two-lane bridge with a pipe railing. The oncoming headlights apparently blinded the driver of the other car, the two cars collided and the pipe was driven through the engine and into Mr. Hagan’s vehicle, mortally injuring the driver. 

Mary Hagan holding Kate Brooks, granddaughter of NFDA President Robby and Betty Bates, of De Kalb, Texas at the 2013 NFDA Convention, Austin, Texas.
Mary Hagan holding Kate Brooks, granddaughter of NFDA President Robby and Betty Bates, of De Kalb, Texas at the 2013 NFDA Convention, Austin, Texas.

“My mother and I were in a car directly behind Mr. Hagan’s car, although we didn’t know him at the time. After the crash, my mother ran to help the injured Mr. Hagan and, with some water we were carrying, bathed his face and talked with him. As we awaited the ambulance, he kept asking for his son Joe,” Mary remembered. “It was quite a while later I found out this was my friend’s daddy.”

 Joe’s mother was a nurse. Joe was an only child born to older parents. To help his widowed mother, 12-year-old Joe began carrying groceries from the store to the shopper’s home, giving his tips to his mother to help pay household expenses. 

Another irony: Mary’s family lived across the street from Frank Roche’s funeral home on the corner of Franklin and Government streets in Mobile, the same firm where young Joe Hagan would begin his career in funeral service.  

Roche’s Mortuary Services, the first formal funeral home in Mobile, was established in 1922 by second-generation funeral director Frank L. Roche. After the death of Mayor John Curtis Bush, the mayor’s widow offered their stately, two-story home for sale and Roche saw his opportunity. 

It was 1936 when Frank Roche, a second-generation funeral director, took Joe Hagan, then barely 14, under his wing, teaching him everything he needed to know to become successful in the profession.

 As a teen, Mary had eyes only for young Joe, but, as she said, “He didn’t know I existed . . . and, quite frankly, I held out little hope Joe would give me a second look, since I was a redhead.”

 She said several girls were gaga over Joe, and, like many, she had a crush on the handsome lad in high school. “But Joe had a steady girlfriend,” she remembered, “so I thought they’d be together forever.”

 But as fate would have it, young Joe did look at the attractive redhead who lived across the street from the funeral home, maybe more than once . . . and he finally got up the nerve to invite her on a date.

“We usually fell in with a group, so our dates consisted of churning ice cream, dancing, playing records or making candy,” she remembered. “With Joe, we always had fun.”

Then, life in Mobile changed – for everybody. It was December 1941, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The country went to war, and life everywhere was intensely more focused and more serious. 

“We went on a few dates after the war began, before Joe joined the Marine Corps, signing up for a four-year hitch. (“I think he chose the Marines because Joe liked their uniform best – and he was, indeed, quite handsome,” Mary said.) 

The two married during the war, and when Joe came home from the service, he joined Mary in Silver Spring, where she had moved with her mother. Because of the decade of mentoring and experience he had received at Roche’s, he served an internship and earned his funeral director’s and embalmer’s license in 1948. 

This was also the year Mary accompanied Joe to the first NFDA convention. “They were all fun,” she said, “and the people were so welcoming.”

“I think he chose the Marines because Joe liked their uniforms best...” Mary Hagan
Above: “I think he chose the Marines because Joe liked their uniforms best…” Mary Hagan Left: “…and, quite frankly, I held out little hope Joe would give me a second look, since I was a redhead.”

 “Joe was short in stature, but he carried himself big,” Mary said. “And he was also determined. I knew he considered Joseph Gawler’s Sons to be one of the top funeral homes in the country. They were the first full-time funeral directors in Washington, D.C., beginning in 1850. So when Joe went to visit Mr. Gawler, seeking a job, I knew he wanted that job above all others.” 

“When he returned home, Joe said Mr. Gawler had agreed to accept his application but hadn’t hired him on the spot. They did say they would call him.” 

That call came less than a week later, and with it came changes for Mary. When Joe Hagan accepted the position, little did he realize he was accepting a job that would endure for the next 52 years – literally for the rest of his life.

“With Joe at Gawler’s, my life became different from my life in my hometown of Mobile,” she said. “But the Gawlers were wonderful people to work for . . . and wonderful to me.”

During his tenure at Gawler’s, Joe Hagan became well-known and respected for directing the funerals of some of the nation’s highest government officials, including such notables as President Dwight Eisenhower, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. Perhaps Joe is most noted for arranging, with first lady Jacqueline Kennedy, the state funeral of President John F. Kennedy. 

As the young Hagan proved himself to be an excellent arranger and funeral director, Mary said W.A. Gawler and his sons began turning everything over to Joe, who was always proud to be part of the Gawler’s staff. 

“Joe rarely talked about his work,” Mary said, “and the only time I ever went to the funeral home was when I was paying my respects to someone I knew. But Joe had an uncanny way of separating work from home, so, when he arrived home from work, he was all about me and, later, all about our family.”

Mary and Joe became the parents of two children – a son, Joseph Richard, who is a funeral director in North Carolina, and a daughter, Mary Beth, who succumbed to ovarian cancer in 2009.

“As a funeral director’s spouse, you sometimes feel like a single parent because he or she works all the time,” Mary said candidly. 

His wife said Joe Hagan made sure every family, wealthy or poor, felt important. “I think Kennedy’s death and funeral weighed on Joe the most, although every service was hard for him,” Mary said.

“We both realized the importance of JFK’s death and its impact on the entire country, but, like I said, Joe didn’t talk business too much at home. He saw funeral planning as confidential between the family and their director, so he didn’t discuss it.” 

But, as the years passed, Joe said things that told his wife how difficult the Kennedy funeral had been for him.

Before Kennedy's casket was closed for the last time, Joe was the one who, at the request of the first lady, pinned the president's PT-109 insignia on his lapel.
Before Kennedy’s casket was closed for the last time, Joe was the one who, at the request of the first lady, pinned the president’s PT-109 insignia on his lapel.

“Joe lived his beliefs and loved what he did,” his wife shared. “He often said, ‘It doesn’t make a difference how many calls a firm receives. Whether it’s 25 or 2,000, what counts is serving the needs of the families. A funeral director must not only be considerate, kind and understanding, he or she must really care about the families served and never move away from that principle.'”  

When Service Corporation International acquired Joseph Gawler’s Sons in 1970, Joe’s responsibilities extended beyond the families being served there. Not only did he become the “face of Gawler’s,” now one of SCI’s flagship firms, but he also served as district manager for SCI from 1971 to 1987, as vice president until 1994 and as a consultant after that. 

Joe had become president and general manager of Gawler’s in 1975 and was now a familiar figure at SCI headquarters in Houston, always nattily dressed, shoes shined like mirrors and perfectly groomed. His shirts were so white, they fairly glowed, and he always was enthusiastic, with a twinkle in his eye and a joke to share. 

When asked if she was responsible for Joe’s always-fashionable appearance, Mary is quick to dispel that myth. “Oh no,” she said. “Joe had excellent taste, took pride in his appearance . . . and the last thing before coming to bed each night, he polished his shoes.”

By the early ’90s, Joe began experiencing problems with his vision caused by macular degeneration. Eventually legally blind, he stepped away from his managerial responsibilities but not from funeral service. “Joe began working part-time at Gawler’s, but sometimes he was there a full 40-hour week.

Mary with NFDA Photographer Jay May of Louisville, Kentucky at 2013 NFDA Convention
Mary with NFDA Photographer Jay May of Louisville, Kentucky at 2013 NFDA Convention

“Some said he retired, but, for Joe, there was no actual retirement,” Mary continued. “He’d say, ‘I just hope they’ll let me keep working.’”

 “I don’t know many who enjoyed their work in funeral service as much as Joe. To him, there was nothing too much to ask.” 

During a 1993 interview about his long career at Gawler’s, Joe Hagan said, “[Here at Gawler’s] we want to be a credit to funeral service. We would never want to be in a position to embarrass our fellow funeral directors by something we slipped up on because we were not paying attention to details.

 We feel we have a responsibility to our fellow funeral directors to perform in a most professional way in terms of dealing with these types of funerals, because we are in front of millions of families who will see the pictures, and of the history that is being made. I feel that, in our own little way, we’ve been a special part of the history of this country.”

Above all, Joe Hagan was respected by his peers, winning the President’s Award from the National Funeral Directors Association in 1996. Additionally, he was featured several times on the cover of “American Funeral Director.” 

When he celebrated 50 years of service in the funeral profession on Nov. 14, 1998, more than 225 people, including funeral directors from across the country and family members, gathered at the Cannon Caucus Room of the U.S. House of Representatives to honor him.

Joe died on May 5, 2000, after collapsing at Gawler’s of a massive stroke. “He dropped dead, doing what he loved,” Mary said. “Joe never knew what hit him.”  

Mary, however, has continued to attend NFDA conventions, to renew old friendships and make new ones among the profession she has come to love. 

The Joseph E. Hagan Memorial Chapel – In January of 2014 the chapel at Gawler’s was dedicated to Joe Hagan.
The Joseph E. Hagan Memorial Chapel – In January of 2014 the chapel at Gawler’s was dedicated to Joe Hagan.
The Joseph E. Hagan Memorial Chapel – In January of 2014 the chapel at Gawler’s was dedicated to Joe Hagan.

Since the late 1940s, she has only missed one NFDA convention, and that came last year when funeral directors and their families gathered in Indianapolis. “That was the first one I missed,” said the bright and bubbly nonagenarian, a hint of her deep Southern upbringing still softly discernible, “and I really missed being there because they are all fun to go to. If you do love it as much as I do, you’ll always have fun.”

Without any fanfare over the 54 years she was married to her beloved Joe, Mary Hagan became the perfect funeral director’s spouse – loving, supportive and understanding. “While Joe was working, I was always busy, volunteering, taking care of our children and making our home comfortable for Joe when he came home after a long day,” she said. 

“Joe and I loved to dance, and we danced as often as possible,” she continued. “We stayed pretty close to home while he was at Gawler’s, but when we got older, we took a cruise and had a wonderful time.”

 When asked what advice she would give the spouses and partners of young directors, Mary is unapologetic: “The best advice I’d offer would be to have a lot of patience. Your family life will have many interruptions. Often other people – sometimes complete strangers – will need your spouse more than you do, so learn how to give your partner to those in need.” 

This first lady of funeral service concluded this delightful interview by saying, “Joe Hagan couldn’t have a bad day. He felt everyone was fine and saw something good in whomever he met. He was honest and fair, and what you saw was what you got.  

“Because I knew Joe, I know he put love and care into every case, no matter who they were,” she said. “He loved a good joke, but when he was at work, he took everything seriously.

 “If he made a mistake, Joe would go out of his way to square things. He never held a grudge, and he never stopped learning. If you have pride in what you’re doing, that’s the way it works.

 “Joe never complained. He did his job and loved it . . . and it’s my hope the profession will never change.”

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