from Southern Calls Inaugural Issue – September, 2013
It was unusual, compared to most obituaries, because it ended with the following:
“The family will receive friends from 6:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. Saturday at Christian-Sells Funeral Home in Rogersville. Funeral services will follow. Graveside services will be held 2:00 p.m. Sunday at Highland Cemetery.”
Funeral Director Chris Christian, 43, co-owner of Christian-Sells Funeral Home, one of three firms located in this community of 5,000, says, “95 percent of the funerals he and his business partner have arranged this year have been held at night.”
Rogersville’s tradition of evening funerals began before Christian and James Sells completed their mortuary training at Jefferson State Community College in Birmingham, almost three decades ago.
“In this area—East Tennessee—you’ll find a lot of the older funeral traditions still being practiced,” the director pointed out. “No older than I am, I can remember occasions where the family requested that we take the remains back to the home for visitation, and even though we’ve seen a lot of changes, a few times a year we still get these requests from families.”
Located in the picturesque foothills of Stone Mountain, Rogersville is the second oldest community in Tennessee. It was settled in 1775 by Davy Crockett’s grandparents, named for its founder John Rogers, and serves as the county seat for Hawkins County.
Typically, funerals in Rogersville are held at 7:00 or 8:00 p.m. with a one-hour visitation before the service begins. “With night services, people have time to get off work, go home, take a shower and then be at the funeral home in time for the visitation,” Christian explained. “After the service, everyone goes home and the next morning, we hold a brief service at graveside.”
Because pricing is the same for daytime or evening funerals (average cost of a funeral in Rogersville is $7,000 – $9,000), the only difference comes at the end of the night service when the clergy or funeral director announces, “This concludes the service. Anyone wanting to process to cemetery tomorrow morning should arrive back here at 9:30 a.m.”
Sometimes a family requests mourners meet at the cemetery, where the funeral home has delivered the casket and flowers. Other families request to come to the funeral home the following day to spend some private time before going to the cemetery for the committal service.
“Many of our residents work in agriculture or one of our two factories, so night funerals don’t require anyone taking off work to attend,” Christian explained. “Therefore, not only are the crowds for funerals larger, but it’s also been a long time since I had to verify funeral attendance for a mourner’s employer.”
When Christian and Sells built their funeral home in 2000, the primary focus of their architectural design was to accommodate families who requested evening funerals. There are two full-sized chapels, separated by offices and a fire wall plus additional soundproofing so that two services may be held simultaneously.
One chapel seats 299 and is like a church sanctuary, complete with pews, piano, organ and raised altar. The other, with seating for 250, resembles a home-like setting with furniture and a fireplace with gas logs. There are also flat screens in both chapels so, in case of very large attendance, the unused chapel can seat the overflow and transmit the service through the firm’s in-house network.
“Three or four times a month, we have services in both chapels at the same time,” said Christian, “families may choose which chapel they like best, and those choices are divided about 50/50. We use four to five staff members on each night service, and that makes it is easy to work two services simultaneously, because you don’t have rolling stock involved. Then sometimes, when two services are scheduled for the same evening and the families know each other, one can be scheduled at 7 p.m. and the other at 8 p.m. so attendees can go to both services.”
“Most families expect to have a night service,” Christian pointed out, “and over the last 15 years, it’s become the norm. We even have church funerals at night, where we take the body to church, have the service and then bring the body back to the funeral home. The next day we meet family at the cemetery for the committal service.
“There’s really no difference between services held in the morning or afternoon and those held at night,” added Christian, “except the night funerals are better attended.”
Why Chris Christian Chose Funeral Service
There were no funeral directors in Chris Christian’s family, but his aunt played the piano for funerals in the community. “I was about 15 and had gone with her to a graveside service,” he said, “the funeral home had been extremely busy during that time, and after the service, one of the directors asked me if I wanted a job. The next week I began working at the funeral home, part-time, washing cars, mowing the lawn and running errands. I didn’t even fill out an application.”
Christian, who had wanted to go to medical school, continued working at the family-owned funeral home through high school. Before he graduated, it was sold to a corporation. “My boss said if I would go to mortuary school, they would give me a job,” he said.”
“I had grown to love working in the funeral home because people remembered your help, and their appreciation, plus the ability to help, went a long way with me,” Christian remembered, “and the stability of having a full-time job waiting when I graduated was also important.”
He and James Sells attended mortuary school together and worked together before building the Christian-Sells Funeral Home in Rogersville.
Christian is the immediate past president of the Tennessee Funeral Directors Association.
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