Passing the torch



Trust me.  This will not be a political article but I got the thought for it when I read this article in the Sunday Minneapolis Star Tribune entitled, “The Grayest Generation – the torch has been passed to the oldest pair of presidential front-runners ever.  Is it time for a younger generation?


That’s an interesting question for America.  But, if you are in the family funeral business anywhere in the English speaking world you have probably asked the same question about the leadership of your business. . . .”When is it time to pass the torch?”  If you are the leaders of the C.P.J Field Funeral Directors in Great Britain you’ve asked that question since 1690 and passed that torch to a succession total of 10 generations of family.


I have a unique perspective on this topic seeing it over my lifetime from both ends of the spectrum.  I’ve had the torch passed to me, in 1977, and then had the responsibility to pass that torch to someone else.  If you are the owner of a family funeral home, you will have that solemn responsibility at some time in the future too.


In my case, I was a 19-year old college freshman majoring in Business when my father suddenly died.  Funeral service was not a part of my life’s plans at the time.


I was eventually asked by our estate attorney if I had any desire to own the funeral home because he pointed out, as a 49-year old widow, “your mother has to have money to live on”.  He explained further that she “could either sell the funeral home to outsiders or would consider selling it to me at a discounted price if I wanted to become the 4th generation of my family to operate it“.


Quite frankly, my hand went up in a sense of “family responsibility” more than anything else.  I agreed to do so, changed my major, and went to work.  In retrospect, after a 35-year career, I look at that decision coming from the “hand of God” more than anything else.  I turned out to be a successful business person and operator of that business and, while this may sound corny to some of you, I firmly believe it was God’s plan for my life and His plan worked out quite well.


The ramifications of that experience, however, helped guide me in how I would pass the torch.  As our two boys grew I had told my wife that I never wanted one of them to “put off their real ambitions” to take care of the funeral home if something happened to me.  I never wanted them to have to face the “family” decision that I had to face.  Over time and discussion we learned that our boys had dreams and ambitions in other fields and did not want to operate a mortuary.  When I decided to pass the torch it was to another company.


Tom Anderson
Funeral Director Daily

That’s how it happened in our family and your family will have a story too.  Other factors that come in include things such as “When is the right time?”  Passing the torch pre-maturely could have bad business consequences, but waiting too long could cause that next generation to “get tired of waiting” and move on.  It can be a delicate dance in some families.


Interestingly enough, while I loved, and still love my Dad, I think his death made it easier on me.  He’s been gone 46 years already and I still think about him every day.  I never had his counsel to ask about making decisions in my early years of operation. . .and I made some big mistakes.  But, where I think it was made easier on me was the times where I pushed forward with my instincts with new initiatives and did not have someone saying to me, “We have not done that for 100 years, we don’t need to start now”.


You see, I think older generations that give push-back to new ideas may, in many cases hinder their business.  Younger voices need to be listened to. . . I think they have good ideas and see the world from a perspective that a lot of us old experienced funeral home owner veterans miss.


I recently turned Medicare age eligible and I often mention to my wife that virtually everyone that I seek advice from now is younger than me.  My doctor, my dentist, my attorney (he’s actually my age, but I’ll be seeing his successor soon), my tax consultant, my car dealer. . .and just about everyone else.  And you know what? . . . They all give me good, solid, purposeful advice.


As a matter of fact, when I served on the Board of the University of Minnesota I got to meet lots of people.  I remember telling one of our top heart surgeons at the university hospital, “You’re pretty young to be a heart surgeon“.  He responded by telling me, “You don’t want an old heart surgeon“.


There is no doubt that the funeral/cremation/death care industry may be going through more changes than anytime in the past 100 years right now.  There is a lot going on — livestreaming, payment options, online services, FTC issues, disposition options.  You get the picture.


I also think that responding to those changes and positioning your funeral business to prosper from them will take input from all possible advisors to do it successfully.   And, if you are a family funeral home, those advisors certainly should include the potential next generation of operators.


An interesting perspective — I just finished reading a book on America’s involvement in what we refer to as “The Revolutionary War” for independence as a nation against Great Britain following our Declaration of Independence in 1776.  The book was “Killing England” and there was some amazing facts in it.  One of the things that really stood out to me of that time period was the relative youth of some of America’s biggest players in the conflict.


  • George Washington who was selected to command the entire American battle force was 44 years old in 1776.
  • John Hancock who was President and Leader of the 2nd Continental Congress that adopted the Declaration of Independence was 39 years old at the time of that signing.
  • Thomas Jefferson, a representative of Virginia at the 2nd Continental Congress who was appointed to write the Declaration of Independence (with the help of a small committee) by the 2nd Continental Congress, was 33 years old when he did so in 1776.
  • Alexander Hamilton, who was a key aid to General George Washington in 1776 was 19 years old and later commanded troops during the war at age 24.


Another perspective on Presidential politics —  President John F. Kennedy was elected the first President of those born in what is termed the “Greatest Generation” in the 1960 election.  It was 32-years until the next generation -“The Baby Boomers” took the oval office when President Bill Clinton was elected in 1992.


It will now be another 32 years when the election of 2024 rolls around.  My thought is that maybe it is time for the next generation of Americans, Generation X, to have the torch passed to them.  That would include Americans born from 1965 to 1980.  They would be between the ages of 44 and 59 years at the time of that election . . . . all older than those Patriots mentioned above who helped lead the American Independence Revolution.


Related ArticleUK’s oldest funeral directors explains what’s key to family business success.  Business Mondays (Great Britain)


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