Downing & Lahey Mortuary joins a select group of companies in 2013 as it marks 100 years in business under continuous family ownership.
And the goal of the presiding family is to maintain its ownership and the funeral home’s independence as it begins its second century in business, president Tom Morris said Thursday.
The company operates two locations, 6555 E. Central, which opened in 1963, and 10515 W. Maple, which Downing & Lahey opened in 1999.
The company today is owned by the Morris family. Tom Morris is the great-grandson of J.H. Downing, who started the J.H. Downing Mortuary Co. in 1923. In 1978, Downing Mortuary merged with Lahey’s Crest Hill Mortuary.
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Charles Lahey, the founder of what would become Lahey’s Crest Hill, originally started a furniture-making business – that included the manufacture of caskets – with partner Earl Martin. Martin and Lahey converted that business in 1913 to City Undertaking, later renamed Lahey & Martin Mortuary.
Tom Morris took over the president’s role in 1996 from his father, Jack Morris. Jack Morris still puts in time at the mortuary and said he is “semi-retired.”
Last year, Tom’s daughter, Allison, joined the company after graduating from Kansas State University.
“Her influence has been to modernize us,” said Tom of his daughter. “It’s been a very good and positive change for us.”
The modernization Allison has pushed for, Tom Morris said, has included an increased use of computer hardware and software programs, and working with families across a number of platforms, including e-mails and text messages. She currently holds the title of office manager but said she intends to work her way up in the family business.
“I have a desire to help people,” Allison said of her reason for joining the mortuary.
She also has a younger brother, Michael, a sophomore at the University of Kansas, who Tom Morris said has also expressed interest in working at Downing & Lahey after graduation.
Morris said he likes the change that Allison has pushed for not only because it has helped the company, but because it’s one of the keys to the mortuary remaining a successful family-owned enterprise.
“My dad was not afraid to allow me to change things,” he said. “I’m trying to do the same thing with Allison.”
Morris said even though there has been a next generation to pass the mortuary on to, that doesn’t ensure its continued success. He said he’s seen instances of a family-owned mortuary passed down to the next generation, only to fail because the next generation did not have the desire or passion for the work.
A passion for the business and sincere empathy for families are important, Tom Morris said.
“Most of the families we deal with, the death has come expectedly,” he said. “Funerals are not necessarily a sad occasion. They are (also) a time for celebration.”
But unexpected deaths, “those are a challenge,” Morris said. “If you’re not affected by that unexpected or tragic death, then it’s time for you to get out of the business.”
Jack Morris said a mortuary is a “24/7, 365-days-a-year business,” requiring a team of employees. Those employees, Tom Morris said, are another key to the company’s longevity.
“I’m also very aware that I can’t run this business by myself,” he said of Downing & Lahey’s staff of 13 full-time and 10 part-time employees, who on average have worked at the mortuary for nine years. “Their contribution to the business is just as important as our contribution.”
Jack and Tom Morris said the mortuary has been able to find efficiencies by using the staff interchangeably between its east- and west-side offices. Tom Morris said many of its part-time employees are retired workers who don’t mind working evening and weekend hours – times that Downing & Lahey’s clients are increasingly choosing for visitations and funeral services – relieving its full-time staff of overtime and working non-traditional hours.
“We are seeing more services on Saturday than any other day of the week,” Tom Morris said.
Over the years, Downing & Lahey’s business has been pretty steady, Tom Morris said. It averages 400 funerals and works with about 500 families annually, he said.
So growth for the company has come about largely by expanding its market, which it did, for instance, with the addition of a west-side mortuary. It’s also important to maintain relationships with churches, Tom Morris said.
A lot of its business has come from working with the same families over the years and by trying to deliver a consistent experience each time. Tom and Jack Morris said that when working with families, they and the mortuary’s staff must make each family feel like their situation is getting Downing & Lahey’s full attention.
They’ve also had to adapt to cultural changes. Jack Morris said when he got into the business in 1957, each family was offered a sort of uniform package of services. Nowadays, services have to be customized to each family.
For instance, funeral services typically last longer than the 30 minutes they used to. And people attending a funeral typically want to visit with the family at the funeral home and not after the graveside service.
“Personalizing funerals is very important,” Jack Morris said.
The Morrises said they expect the mortuary’s next big round of growth to come largely from an increase in deaths. They said the industry is expecting the annual death rate to increase because of aging baby boomers, which “we haven’t seen yet,” Tom Morris said. But it’s a trend they are expecting and one projected to last for nearly two decades.
While what the Morrises do is ultimately a business, to continue the business, they constantly emphasize the people involved and focus on responding to their needs.
“It’s always the goal of ours to take the business side out of it and keep it personal,” he said.