Southern Illinois funeral director marks 50 years in business

Thursday, September 8, 2011
Bill Crain (Submitted photo)

When Bill Crain says he grew up in the funeral business, he means it literally.

"My first several years growing up, our family home was a funeral home," he says. "I grew up in that circumstance, to the extent that our living room was the chapel. It was a small town, and nobody thought that was odd. I didn't think it was odd, either. It was the only thing I was used to."

Crain's parents opened the first Crain Funeral Home in 1932, about eight years before he was born. As a boy, Crain says he aspired to play center field for the Cardinals -- but when he realized that dream wasn't going to pan out, he went to mortuary school in Chicago. He and his brother, Bob, both worked in the family business, which has since grown to include five funeral homes in Southern Illinois and one in Cape Girardeau. In July, Crain was honored for working 50 years as a licensed funeral director in the state of Illinois -- an honor that his father and brother have previously received.

"It's nothing. It's just for living long enough. It just means I didn't die or get thrown in jail," Crain jokes. "Isn't it marvelous that the state of Illinois thought to license me when I was only 5 years old? I'm only 55."

Crain's sense of humor and easygoing attitude have carried him through too many funerals to count -- thousands in his lifetime, he says. And while funerals are something most people don't like to think about, Crain has enjoyed his career immensely.

"The part I enjoy most is interaction with people. I'm a people person. I love being around people, and if I can help them through a difficult time, that's a big bonus," he says.

Though Crain says he "officially retired" in 2004, he's remained active in the business, overseeing building and renovation projects, guiding and assisting his staff and attending as many Crain funerals as possible.

"As long as my family name is on the sign, I feel compelled to be there," he says.

In 50 years, Crain has seen significant changes in the way funerals are carried out.

"It used to be that we knew with some real certainty that when we had a funeral, there would be eight to 10 hours of visitation and maybe, sometimes, it would be in the family's home," he says. "We knew with some degree of certainty that the funeral would be the next day at 2 p.m. at the First Baptist Church or First Methodist Church, or maybe the Pentecostal church. Basically, we did not have morning services except for Catholic Mass."

Now, says Crain, most funerals are in the morning, often with only a couple hours of visitation that morning or the night before.

"I think that allows families to have an afternoon of socializing together after the funeral. It used to be they all said their goodbyes at the cemetery so they could get home before dark," says Crain.

He believes that in another 50 years, the funeral business will be entirely different.

"As we all know, regrettably, mainline churches are falling by the wayside, and as they do, fewer and fewer people are religious-minded. Fifty years from now, I would not be surprised if many deaths are not followed by a traditional funeral," says Crain. "They may be followed by a celebration of life, instead. We're even having some of that now, where a memorial service will be conducted at a social club or a meeting room at a hotel or restaurant."

When it comes to Crain Funeral Homes, though, Crain knows one thing will never change: their family ties and their reputation for reliable service. Crain's wife, Sharon, is also active in the business, as are his nephew Bryan Crain and his wife, Stacey. Their daughter, Ashley, is attending mortuary school.

"I try to be someone who's helpful and caring and takes responsibility for caring for a loved one," says Crain. "I take great pride in seeing that everything goes off as smoothly as possible and that no one under my area of responsibility is ill-prepared." It's crucial for Crain and his staff to get to know each family, explain all their options and ask the right questions in order to learn what they want in a funeral. Then, says Crain, the staff must come up with a plan at least a day before the funeral and remain organized.

He explains it like this: "Let's say you get married and then split up and get a divorce, but then you decide that was a mistake. The minister can marry you again. If a doctor operates on your knee, and you find out six months later that it didn't work out, the doctor can operate on the same knee again. But you can only have one funeral. A person only dies once. You've got to get it right. You've got to be organized, have a plan, make sure the plan is what the family wants, and then it should all go off without a hitch."

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