When you meet veteran funeral director Jerry Griffey, you are struck by his soft Southern drawl and the pride he takes – and has always taken – in serving as a funeral director for the families in his hometown of Knoxville, Tennessee. Although Jerry retired several years ago, it’s no surprise families still call on him to shepherd them through funeral services.
The 85-year-old Knoxville director, who will be honored for his more than half-century of service at the Tennessee Funeral Directors Association annual convention this summer, was born in Jefferson City, Tennessee. His mother died when he was 3 months old, and his grandparents stepped in to raise him … which is how he arrived in Knoxville.
Being an eager kid, Jerry – who never met a stranger – began mowing the lawn of his friend’s father’s funeral home for $10 a week.
“My friend, Fred Berry Jr., and I had a lot of fun growing up together, and his dad, Fred Berry, took me under his wing,” Griffey said. “He was a wonderful man and was very good to me.”
As a student attending Fulton High School in Knoxville, Jerry was a band captain and also enjoyed neighborhood athletics. Giving in to his entrepreneurial spirit, the youngster also formed a dance band, playing his trombone and finding regular gigs at dances for the local Episcopal Church and also at the state mental hospital.
As he and Fred Jr. became old enough to drive – funeral vehicles as well as ambulances – he continued to work for Mr. Berry, staying at the funeral home every third night to make removals and answer ambulance calls. In the interim, he worked funerals and was mentored by Mr. Berry in all aspects of funeral service and taking care of families.
“In those days, I owned two shirts – one in the laundry and the one I had on,” Griffey confided, “and like one of the characters in a William Faulkner novel, they called me ‘Digger.’
“By the time I enrolled in Gupton-Jones in Nashville, I had learned most of what I needed to know to be a funeral director,” Griffey said, “and had also set my sights on someday owning my own funeral home. I wouldn’t say I was ahead of everyone in my class, but Mr. Berry taught much so much. I would say I was extremely fortunate to have had such a fine mentor.” He also knew his very ambitious goal for funeral home ownership would take hard work and determination since he would be the first in his family to enter funeral service.
“I wasn’t inheriting a firm, nor was I expecting anyone to offer me a partnership,” he said candidly. “Our success in funeral service would strictly be up to us and the level of service we would consistently be able to offer.”
While in mortuary school in Nashville, Griffey – like many of his classmates – lived and worked at Martin’s Funeral Home for Will Martin.
“He paid $5 a week for night calls,” the longtime director remembered, but it was actually a good place to live because lots of Gupton-Jones kids stayed there.
But there were unique benefits as well.
“We had chauffeur-driven ambulances, and, when it rained, the funeral home picked us up from school in Cadillac family cars,” the alumni said.
When Fridays came around, like many of his classmates, Griffey bought a bus ticket for a few dollars and rode home on weekends, though sometimes he helped with Mr. Berry’s larger weekend services. Later, he also found time to spend with a lovely young lady named Joan Bostick, whose family attended Knoxville’s Magnolia Avenue Methodist Church. This was a friendship that quickly blossomed into a romance and eventually led to 56-year marriage, family and partnership that would continue until her death in 2015.
Griffey graduated from Gupton-Jones’ one-year licensure program when he was 19 – in 1953 – but had to wait two years, until his 21st birthday, to be granted his license as a funeral director and embalmer.
In the interim, the United States engaged in war in Korea and then began sending advisors in the run-up to the Vietnam War. Since the military draft was still intact at that point, Jerry was drafted in 1956 as an Army mortician at Fort Polk, Louisiana. When he was discharged in 1958, he returned to Knoxville and went to work as a funeral director at Mann’s Mortuary.
Jerry and Joanie married in 1958.
In May of 1984, Ollie Thomas Hudson Sr. died, never recovering from a heart attack he suffered just months prior. He was embalmed by Fred Rhodes and laid to rest in a solid bronze casket.
The couple, determined to work hard to fulfill their now-shared dream, bought an interest in Newport Funeral Home, located in one of the old Stokely-Van Camp Southern mansions and surrounded by treed acreage.
“We learned many lessons there, including some painful ones, but we also were young and determined make it the best and most beautiful and home-like firm in Newport,” Jerry said. “I remember the first floor had 22 windows. Joanie, who had been a home economics major, decided it would be more affordable if she made the drapes for all those windows, so she purchased some elegant drapery fabric and started the project.
“She was pregnant at the time, and I still have a mental picture of my poor, pregnant wife lying on the floor and cutting drapes.”
Some of that first funeral home’s hard-earned revenues came from their ambulance service, ferrying accident victims from Newport’s small community hospital to higher-level health care at Knoxville’s larger medical facilities.
“The towns were 45 miles apart,” the funeral director remembered. “We could cover those 45 miles in 45 minutes, and, if Joanie ever realized how fast we were pushing those old Packard ambulances down those poor roads, well – I’m sure she wouldn’t have been very impressed.”
Those primitive roads also were the source for some of the Newport firm’s cases.
“There were a large number of automobile accidents, and we picked up many of the victims,” the director remembered. “Many of those – during the 1960s – we shipped home by rail, so much of the time we were on the phone, working on getting victims back home.”
He also admitted the early-day ambulances he’d been driving since age 16 were poorly equipped.
“Nothing but an oxygen tank and a bedpan,” he said. “A few times, when a drunk I had on a cot back there began to get belligerent, I had to ‘weaponize’ the bedpan and conk them on the head until we arrived at the hospital.”
The two operated Griffey Mortuary in Newport for seven years, rearing their two daughters in the funeral home’s upstairs quarters. While Jerry met with families, directed funerals, drove ambulances and coordinated the firm’s small staff, Joanie took care of the bookkeeping and administrative duties, took the lead with the children’s activities and worked with her husband on visitations and funerals.
There were two unique experiences that stand out from their years in Newport. One involved something called “liquid corn” in the South. The other had to do with a plane crash.
“We had salesmen coming through regularly on their way to Ashville, and a couple of them liked drinking moonshine,” said Griffey, a lifelong teetotaler. “Well, I knew a few folks in Newport who made moonshine that wouldn’t kill you, so I’d go to Miss Bonnie’s place and pick up a few bottles for those travelers who’d stop on their way back,” he said.
Joanie and Jerry also were in Newport in early July 1964, when an United Airlines Viscount turboprop crashed into the Great Smokey Mountains close to Parrottsville on a Thursday evening. Jerry heard about the crash on his citizen’s band radio. He immediately sent an ambulance, but there were no survivors … and initial reports indicated there were 39 passengers and crew members on board.
Of the 39 fatalities, 12 were Tennessee residents. Four were highly-respected hematologists en route to a conference in Oakridge, Tennessee.
“We had to climb the hillside to get to the crash site and then removed the bodies to a temporary morgue set up in a nearby National Guard Armory,” Jerry remembered. “The crash happened in the evening, so we were working mainly in the dark. It was physically demanding because of the mountainous terrain and emotionally wrenching as well. The people in charge, as they finished autopsies at the armory, called us in rotation to remove the bodies to our funeral homes.”
According to an account in the July 10, 1964, edition of The Kingsport (Tenn.) Times, “by 10:30 Saturday morning, rescuers said all bodies had been retrieved, but some pieces were being picked up.”
Jerry remembered the strange, still silence that greeted him each time he arrived at the makeshift morgue with another fatality: “As we carried the remains into the building, the guardsmen, all in fatigues, stood in a line and snapped to attention in respectful tribute.”
In November of that same year, the 64 men of Company A of Newport and Company B of Morristown, the First Battalion, 109th Armor, 30th Armored Division, were presented with the Governor’s Meritorious Achievement Award for their response to the aircraft disaster.
In May 1970, Jerry and Joanie realized the time had come to move from Newport and back home to Knoxville.
“It was time, and we were both ready to live closer to our families, especially as our daughters were getting older,” Jerry explained. “We assumed ownership of Gentry Griffey once we had settled in and continued the tradition of providing personalized and compassionate service to our friends, neighbors and strangers who had lost a loved one,” he said.
The funeral home, a premier firm in North Knoxville since 1948, became a member of National Selected Morticians – now Selected Independent Funeral Homes. Active in NSM and the Tennessee FDA, Jerry was president of the Greater Knoxville Funeral Directors for three years in a row. Along with wife Joanie, he was active in their church, community, in volunteer organizations and during any incidents where their specialized skills were needed.
Jerry recalled the recurring traffic accidents on nearby Interstate 75 over the Hiwassee River, where morning and evening fog were often a problem. On several occasions, he served with the identification team, working with law enforcement and officials at the National Transportation Safety Board in the aftermath of multivehicle pileups. One of these I-75 disasters took 13 lives and injured 50 others. Some 60 cars were involved.
In many of these accidents, the ID team had no age or hometown information available. Victims were burned, some beyond recognition, so identification was slow.
The emotional tolls on next-of-kin were multiplied by the days of waiting. Many were identified by dental records – that was long before DNA was used.
“In one wreck, I worked on-site, on and off, for a week,” Jerry said. “Everybody was worn out after that first night. Remains were stored in refrigerated tractor-trailers. Over a five-month period on that same stretch of highway, 816 tickets had been written, most of them for speeding.”
During their 46 years serving the Knoxville community, the Griffeys shepherded families from every walk of life – including former University of Tennessee Head Football Coach Harvey Robinson, who made his mark on Tennessee football when he coached at Central High School from 1934 to 1941, never losing a game to arch rival Knoxville High School during those years.
“We had Coach Robinson’s visitation and graveside service. Coach Johnny Majors and his staff from the University of Tennessee were honorary pallbearers, and everyone of them shook hands with our staff,” Jerry remembered.
In 2009, Jerry and Joan took new partners into the business, forming Gentry Griffey Funeral Chapel and Crematory, and, in 2010, the couple stepped away from their full-time duties to travel and enjoy their four grandchildren as well as time together – time they rarely had since their marriage.
“We were able to check off every box on our shared bucket lists except for one,” the octogenarian admitted. “We never got to visit the Grand Canyon, but we traveled almost everywhere else on the map and had a wonderful time every mile along the way.”
In 2015, Jerry’s beloved wife died suddenly and unexpectedly.
Since that time, Jerry has remained active at the funeral home, travels whenever he has an opportunity, enjoys his four grandchildren and their adventures and spends time with his daughters, Karen Sue Todd of Kingsport, Tennessee, and Rebecca Ann Rippy of Knoxville. He also enjoys spending time with his four-footed housemate, a beautiful Sheltie.
Jerry and Joanie Griffey believed their Christian faith was essential to serving families well. They were successful in funeral service because they both saw owning a funeral home as a privilege and a ministry, bolstered and based on their shared Christianity.
“Joanie used to say, ‘If funeral service isn’t a ministry, we’re just a hardware store,’” Jerry said in his soft, Southern drawl. “I couldn’t say it any better.”
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