SERVICE INDUSTRY: Jeff Smith has grown Smith Family Funeral Homes into a local empire. Brian Chilson

The original Smith Funeral Home first opened its doors on Valentine’s Day 1955 in a house on North Little Rock’s Main Street that once contained an OB/GYN’s practice. Almost 70 years later, Jeff Smith said, his staff still occasionally hears from older locals with a personal connection to the spot.

“It doesn’t happen very often anymore, but we have done many, many, many funerals where people tell us, ‘I was born in this house.’ And then later, we have their funeral here,” he said. 

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Trafficking in the mysteries of death and life is all in a day’s work for Smith, 48, the third-generation owner of Smith Family Funeral Homes. He took over the business from his father, John, in 2010 and has grown it into a small empire, with 140 employees across funeral homes in Little Rock, Benton, Sherwood, Hot Springs, Glenwood, Beebe, Arkadelphia and North Little Rock, which Smith said may perform more services than any other facility in the state. The old doctor’s house still stands, but it’s now incorporated into a larger building with a grand, colonnaded facade.

The business has doubled in size since 2019, driven by the acquisition of other family-owned funeral homes. “As baby boomers are transitioning to retirement, their kids aren’t necessarily wanting to come into the business,” Smith said. “They saw the long hours -— you work nights and weekends, your phone rings all time.” Better to sell to a local competitor than a national chain, he argues.

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Smith wears his faith on his sleeve (he insisted on starting an interview with a prayer), but he says he and his staff cater to everyone in the community. Being a funeral director requires meeting families where they are: As churchgoing rates have declined and fewer people have a go-to minister, a growing number of staff are trained as “celebrants” — non-clergy professionals who plan and officiate the ceremony in consultation with the family.

Other things have changed as well. Cremations, once a social taboo, are now half of all services. Evening visitations are more well-attended than funerals. Smith says one of the first things he did when he took over the business was to eliminate the casket display room and turn it into a visitation hall.

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“When industry people did focus groups, people said over and over again that the worst part of the whole funeral experience was walking into the selection room. They come in and see all these full-sized caskets, and it’s real intimidating,” Smith said. In the ’80s, his father replaced full-sized caskets with “quarter-cuts” — a sort of cross-section display — and the response was positive. “When I took over in 2010, I took them out completely,” Smith said; families now browse their options on a computer monitor.

In general, services are becoming more tailored to the desires of the family and the deceased, Smith said. “If you think of the Greatest Generation, the people who came through the Depression and World War II, they were conformists. All funerals looked the same. Now the baby boomers come along, and their whole thing is ‘I want to be unique, I want to be different,’” he said. “The personalization is to whatever degree the family’s comfortable with.”

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Some requests they turn down. Occasionally, a family will ask for gold fillings to be extracted from the deceased’s teeth. “We’re like, ‘No, we don’t practice dentistry,’” he said. (A family is welcome to independently hire a dentist to come “retrieve the metal,” Smith said, but most everyone abandons the idea when they realize the labor costs more than the gold.)

He’s aware of pictures on Instagram of so-called “extreme embalming,” in which a deceased person is displayed in a lifelike pose — playing video games, watching TV, studying a poker hand. “There’s one that’s come around multiple times of a Pittsburgh Steelers fan, sitting in his recliner with a beer in one hand and a remote in the other. That kind of stuff, like ….” Smith paused. “We’d have to really talk to the family about that. I’m not saying we wouldn’t do it, and we haven’t ever gotten a request, but … that’s pretty extreme.”

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Embalming is not mandated by law, Smith said, but funeral homes generally require embalming to have a public viewing, for health and safety reasons. (Also: “An unembalmed body is going to look very different, and you can’t put up a sign that says, you know, ‘Warning, this person has not been embalmed.’”)

What’s the one thing he wishes the public knew about funerals? Smith answered without hesitation: Cremation is fine, but it’s not an alternative to a service.

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“Cremation is simply a form of disposition. It is not the funeral,” he said. “A lot of people use the words, ‘When I die, just cremate me,’ and what that conveys to the surviving family is ‘My dad didn’t want to have a funeral.’” But the old saying is true: Funerals really are for the living. Failing to stop and recognize the significance of a death, and a life, can leave survivors “stunted in grief,” Smith said.

He’s often asked for advice about how to handle bereavement. “They’ll say, ‘My friend’s dad passed away, what should I do?’ I always say the same thing. One, go to the funeral or the visitation. And then, on the one month anniversary, call them or go see them or take them a meal. A lot of times, people feel like they’ve been forgotten.”

Is it hard to work with death so closely? No, he said, because the job is fundamentally about service. “It’s like being a nurse or teacher … You know you’re helping people every single day.”