October 30, 2008
Multifaceted funeral director dying breed
DeRuyter man folds ambulance service, furniture store and funeral home into one business
Joe McIntyre/staff photographer
Dick Smith runs a funeral home along with an ambulance service and furniture store in DeRuyter.
DERUYTER — On Tuesday morning, as snowflakes melted on the wet pavement of Cortland Street outside R.F. Smith and Son Furniture, Dick Smith was doing paperwork in his furniture store when he received a call from an Onondaga County 911 dispatcher. A 3-year-old child at a doctor’s office in Fabius was having trouble breathing.
Two of Smith’s employees, Art Nash and Chad Wakula, got into the ambulance parked behind the furniture store and drove to the doctor’s office to take the child to University Hospital in Syracuse.
Dick Smith owns and operates a furniture store, an ambulance service and a funeral home in DeRuyter. Smith Funeral Home, Smith Ambulance and R.F. Smith and Son Furniture, all located on Cortland Street, were founded in 1860.
Although this was an ordinary combination when the Smith family entered these businesses, Smith believes he is the last person in New York to run all three types.
“Initially there were many that did the funeral home and ambulance and quite a few had a furniture store, Smith said. “I don’t think there’s anybody left in this state that does all three.”
Smith said the combination was popular throughout the Northeast and Midwest.
There are still some funeral homes directors who own either a furniture store or an ambulance. The closest ones that Smith knows of are Fagan’s Funeral Home in Bath, whose director also owns Fagan’s Furniture, and Lawrence Funeral Home, whose director owns an ambulance service.
Fred Black owned Black Funeral Home and Black Furniture Store in Cincinnatus until he retired in 1999 and sold the funeral home to Kevin Sharp. Sharp now owns K.L. Sharp Funeral Home, but he does not have a furniture store.
Smith operates the businesses with only three employees. Wakula is a part-time paramedic for the ambulance, Nash is an EMT who also works at the furniture store and Jon Havens is a part-time employee at the furniture store.
Funeral home directors began operating ambulance services around the 1920s, Smith said, when most people began seeking treatment in hospitals rather than receiving doctors in their homes. Patients needed a vehicle that was enclosed and heated, and the only person who had one was a funeral home director, who had a hearse, Smith said.
He said that funeral directors first opened furniture stores because there was a demand for home furniture, and hardwood from the store enabled them to manufacture caskets for their funeral homes.
Smith, a critical care level three medic, said he goes in the ambulance with patients on about 75 percent of emergency calls and receives one and a half calls per day on average, he said.
The ambulance service covers an area of 300 square miles, which includes the towns of DeRuyter, Cuyler, Truxton, Lincklaen and Fabius, Smith said.
When he is not selling furniture at the store or treating patients in the back of an ambulance, Smith is often arranging funerals from start to finish — a process that includes removal, preparation, cosmetics, arrangements and supervising the service.
He said that being a funeral director in a small town is difficult. “I know the families and the people that pass away,” he said. “It’s hard, no matter whether it’s young or old.”
He displays about 43 caskets in the showroom of Smith Funeral Home.
In the 1970s, Smith said, the federal government mandated that the state improve its emergency medical service to receive highway funding. This drove many funeral directors out of the ambulance business, he said. Around 1971 the Smith family stopped using its hearses and purchased ambulances to stay in the business.
He said that many funeral directors closed their furniture stores because the stores took a lot of work and money to run. Smith said his furniture store is doing poorly right now, as are most furniture stores. The ambulance service and funeral home, however, attract steady business. R.F. Smith and Son Furniture has bought all of its furniture from Hallagan Furniture, a family-owned business in Newark, for the last 90 years. He said his selection is entirely American-made hardwood furniture.
Smith said that when he retires, his nephew Daniel Smith plans to take over all three businesses. Daniel Smith would become the fifth generation in his family to operate the businesses.
Havens has worked with Smith for about 20 years.
“He (Smith) has an amazing mind,” Havens said. “He can stick an IV in a person one minute and the next minute tell you how much a washer machine costs.”
Ed Coon, of DeRuyter, has used all of Smith’s services. When his mother had heart problems and his father had a stroke, they were each taken to the hospital in a Smith Ambulance. Smith arranged the funeral when Coon’s father died, and he has made the prearrangements for Coon’s mother. All of the furniture, appliances and carpet in Coon’s house are from R.F. Smith and Son Furniture, Coon said.
“He’s very caring, and he takes care of the services very well,” Coon said.
Smith said that from time to time, people make jokes and ask him if running an ambulance service and a funeral home creates a conflict of interests.
“No, that’s something else no one should ever think about,” he said. “We’re just there to do the job for whatever part of the business it is.”
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