With a history from livery service to modern funeral home. . . Key West funeral home changes hands


At Funeral Director Daily we hear about a lot of funeral homes that change hands.  We can’t report on all of them, but some family funeral homes have such unique historical characteristics that we like to pass on the knowledge of those transactions just to keep the historical perspective of funeral homes in America relevant.


Every funeral home started by entrepreneurs back in the 19th century generally has some unique historical characteristics.  Our funeral home in Minnesota, for instance, started because my great-grandfather, a Swedish immigrant trained in cabinetry and furniture building, was asked to build coffins for the deceased members of the community.  At some point, which was when we built a “funeral home” in 1928, the death care portion of the business was large enough to be moved out from the other business and our family operated a separate retail furniture store as well as a funeral home.


Today, however, we are going to tell you about the recent sale of the Dean-Lopez Funeral Home in Key West, Florida, and its history.  We are only able to do so because we recently saw this article entitled “New family buys Key West’s oldest Business  from Keys Weekly and because of the history page, which you can access here, from the website of the Dean-Lopez Funeral Home.


According to that website, the Dean-Lopez Funeral Home was started by Robert Morrow as Morrow Undertaking in 1869.  He operated the business until 1899, when it was purchased by Benjamin Lopez and in an extended family geneology it has been family owned and operated through the Lopez connection until recently sold in 2023.


What I found very interesting was that Benjamin Lopez came up through the livery business to become the proprietor of what is now known as the Dean-Lopez Funeral Home in 1899.  Much like the immigrant story of my family, it shows the desire to better one’s life and how the opportunity, with hard work and ambition, can be done in America.


According to the funeral home website, Benjamin Lopez came to America from the Bahama Islands as a small boy.  He had a small wagon and with his goat to lead it, solicited grocery delivery orders.  (You can see a photo of this if you look at this linked history page on the website.)  And, we’ve been convinced that DoorDash and InstaCart are modern invention conveniences!!!!


Eventually, again according to the history portion of the website, as the delivery business grew, Lopez bought a horse and wagon.  Undertaker Morrow then hired Lopez and his horse and wagon to deliver casketed bodies to the cemetery.


And, in 1899, Lopez bought the funeral home business from Morrow.  Being in business in 1899, the extended Lopez family can, like our family whose business started in 1872, claim that they operated a family business in parts of three centuries.  Interestingly enough, outside of many in the funeral home business, there are not many businesses in America that can make that claim.


According to the website, the extended Lopez family continued to operate the funeral business through what I see as about four more leaders until the recent sale.  After Benjamin Lopez’ death in 1922 his half-brother G. Frank Sawyer operated the funeral home.  Mr. Sawyer’s children, W. Warren Sawyer and Benjamin F. Sawyer followed and each had opportunities in the operations.


Then in 1953, one of W. Warren Sawyer’s daughters, Donna, married J. Robert Dean and in 1974 they bought the funeral home.


The article, dated September 1, 2023,  from the Keys Weekly made this comment,   ““According to our research, the funeral home is the oldest business still operating in the city of Key West, and we intend to keep it that way,” said Peter E. Batty, who recently bought Dean Lopez Funeral Home from Bob Dean. The sale includes the family-owned crematorium on Big Coppitt Key and Castillo & Thurston Mortuary on Truman Avenue, which is run by Aaron Castillo.”


The article also states, “Batty is president and owner of United Atlantic Insurance Group, a co-founder of Gulf Atlantic Bank and owner of ICAMCO property management firm. . . . .Long before those businesses, and right after high school, Batty attended the seminary, where he was studying to become a Roman Catholic priest. (His father, Peter Batty, is also a Key West businessman and deacon at The Basilica of St. Mary Star of the Sea.)

After a few years, I felt that God had a bigger plan for me,” said the younger Batty, who grew up in downtown Key West. “I’ve known the Dean family most of my life. Bob Dean and my father have been close friends for as long as I can remember.”


Tom Anderson
Funeral Director Daily

Funeral Director Daily take:  From my perspective this is a unique and interesting history.  These type of business histories, especially the generational family ownership details, are quite common in the funeral home business, but not many other businesses in America.


Maybe funeral homes prosper in that family ownership realm because over the past century and a half the business has been “highly hands-on and personal”.  While there is certainly room for, and probably even a necessity for, corporate funeral homes across America it’s the “personal touch and care” that clients had come to expect and funeral service families have prided themselves on giving that created this geneology of family care.


I also find it interesting that in every ethnic pocket in America where immigrants settled there was an enterprising person and family that was able to pull themselves up by extending this “personal and caring touch” during difficult times in their neighbors’ lives.


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