Q & A with Leslie Rago, Director of Evergreen Funeral Home
Apr 04, 2012
(This interview was originally published in the March 2012 issue of ICCFA Magazine and was conducted by ASD Staff Writer Jessica Fowler. Click here to view original article.)
Brooklyn Neighborhood changing, but family's belief in service stays the same
Leslie Rago began working at the Evergreen Funeral Home in Brooklyn, NY at an early age, assisting her father Peter Rago with funeral duties before eventually becoming a funeral director herself. Located in Greenpoint, Brooklyn's northernmost neighborhood, the funeral home serves a diverse group of multigenerational families and the growing number of young professionals moving into the neighborhood.
The area is a melting pot of different ethnicities and cultural traditions with a large population of Polish, Latino and South Asian residents. The neighborhood combines the customs and heritage of the many immigrant communities with the eclectic tastes of the newer residents that have migrated to Greenpoint.
Can you give me a little background on the funeral home’s history?
Evergreen Funeral Home has been in business since 1959. We’ve been family owned and operated all of that time and just about all of the employees at the funeral home are family members.It is a very team-oriented environment. Even our children’s friends work for us—the boy who lives up the street is now attending mortuary school because he basically grew up in our funeral home and now wants to be a director.
In what ways is your funeral home different from other firms? What makes you unique?
We are dealing with a lot more transient families now. Many people have lived here for decades but others have just moved in. We live in very artsy section of the city so we offer a lot of different styles of funerals. I handled a memorial service for a dress designer that was more like an exhibition of his clothing with wine and cheese served. I had suggested a lot of it because he was a big clothing fashion designer and I thought that displaying his clothing and sketches would really show off his work and who he was.
Of course, that is only one style. Traditional services are still in demand but there are a growing number of families interested in non-traditional services. I remember a service I handled where we removed the chairs to lay out handmade rugs. It was for a gentleman who had walked the streets picking up metallic elements and making instruments from them. Every person who wanted to pay respects could pick up and play his instrument and sprinkle this sparkling dust on his body. Then when we got to the crematory, everyone started to howl like wolves it was very…different. So I handle services for people with very distinct needs and everything and anything goes now.
What are some of the specific challenges that a funeral home in a big, metropolis area might have?
People living in the city are used to having a lot of choices and they expect the same for their funeral. A funeral is really supposed to be a celebration of that person’s life, no matter what that life was their loved ones want to see a reflection of that. We offer very individual funerals and I try very hard to pick the brains of the families as gently as possible to try to make that funeral truly reflect who the person was.
With some many funeral homes in close proximity, what are some ways you retain a competitive edge over other firms?
I work with a lot of funeral homes in my area. If there is a family that is located closer to another funeral home or that is looking to have something very specific, I have no problem calling them and they have no problem calling me. There is one firm in the area, though, only concerned with profit and willing to make next to nothing so that no on else will handle the funeral.
I’ve had families go to the cheapest funeral home and call me because they aren’t satisfied, and that is a hard lesson for loved ones to learn. It may cost a little more to come to my funeral home over that one but it is true that you get what you pay for, and I won’t sacrifice quality. I’d rather have quality funerals than a large quantity because I love the families I deal with and I want them to love us and come back.
Do you think that funeral homes in different parts of the country conduct business similarly or do you think it differs by region?
I’ve been to national funeral shows and met directors from all over the world. I think it differs by region to an extent but most independent firms that sell quality over price share the same principals. We have built a professional relationship with a funeral director located in a small town upstate and I know that the quality of his work and the way he deals with family is very close to the way we conduct business here in Brooklyn. I would never be ashamed or embarrassed to refer him because I know the quality of his work.
We used to rent the chapels of several funeral homes in the Long Island area for the convenience of the family. Since they have turned to a publicly owned conglomerate, they now will only rent to other funeral homes also owned by that corporation. This is inconvenient for a lot of funeral homes in the area, but I feel most families appreciate the way a family-owned business takes care of them, so it hasn't really hurt us.
Are most of the families you serve people you know in the community or do you get a lot of price shopping calls from new families?
Our funeral home is a great big fishbowl with glass windows so you say hello to thousands of people a day. A lot of times I handle services for the parents of people I grew up with or people I’ve known most of my life. There are a handful of services we conduct for people I don’t know but most of our funeral homes' business is a result of the personal relationships we have built during the fifty years we’ve been in this community.
How do you set aside personal time for yourself?
It’s a family business so one of our family members has always been here 24/7. A couple of years ago, I learned about specialized funeral answering services and decided to try one. I wanted us to be able to go out to dinner once in awhile or attend family functions together because we’ve never had that. We don’t use an answering service all the time because we feel more comfortable with someone present at the funeral home, but when we do have to use them we never regret it.
Are there any funeral home resources you find to be especially helpful?
We belong to the Metropolitan Funeral Director’s Association, which serves the entire New York City area. Once you become a member, you can attend seminars and be alerted of funeral industry news within the metropolitan area. For instance, we had an issue with scammers contacting funeral homes in the area pretending to be hearing impaired and requesting that money orders be sent. The association gave us a heads up so we were prepared for those calls.
About The Author
Jess Farren (Fowler)
Jess Farren (Fowler) is a Public Relations Specialist and Staff Writer who has been a part of the ASD team since 2003. Jess manages ASD's company blog and has been published in several funeral trade magazines. She has written articles on a variety of subjects including communication, business planning, technology, marketing and funeral trends. You can contact Jess directly at Jess@myASD.com