Devoting Their Lives To Death

By+Bill Moor


Photos by Bruce Veclotch - Photography by Bruce

Kerry Palmer, co-owner of Palmer Funeral Homes and Southlawn Cemetery with his brother K.R., had 14 suits a month ago.

“But I guess I am down to a dozen now,” he says. “We needed the other two for funerals. The men who died didn’t have suits and their families really couldn’t afford new ones.”

Kerry may have a shrinking wardrobe but he and K.R. have a growing business – partly because of that kind of compassion. One could say they really “suit” this profession of consoling the living and caring for the deceased.

“Everybody who walks in the door, we’re going to make sure we serve them in some way,” Kerry adds.

They are the busiest funeral home business in St. Joseph County, taking care of 564 of the dearly departed in 2010 and on their way to assisting more than 600 families this year. “But it’s not about the numbers,” K.R. says. “We focus on one family at a time and make sure they are well-served.”

The Palmer brothers learned that philosophy from their father, the late Kent R. Palmer who passed away in 2006. He started his own funeral business in the North Liberty-Walkerton area. Then in 1968, he and his wife Dolores moved to South Bend and bought Orvis Funeral Home. Four years later, they acquired the current sites in River Park and Lakeville.

K.R., now 48 and six years older than Kerry, worked in the funeral homes as a teen-ager but wasn’t sure he wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps. “I had already gone to Purdue for two years when Dad had his heart attack,” K.R. says. “That’s when I came home.”
He went to mortuary school and worked beside his father while living on the second floor at River Park for 15 years -- the last four with his wife Betsy.

Kerry, a Purdue graduate, followed his older brother into the business. “I was the youngest of four and so the last in the nest,” Kerry says. “Dad talked a lot about the business with me when nobody else was in the house. I learned a lot just by listening.”

In 1995, K.R. and Kerry bought the business from their parents and have continued to expand  – adding the Guisinger Chapel and Southlawn Cemetery in 2002 and then the Hickey Chapel in 2009.

“I’m more of the macro part of the operation and Kerry is the micro,” K.R. says. “I enjoy growing and making us bigger while Kerry fine-tunes my ideas. I think both parts are really necessary for our success.”

They know the stereotypes of their profession – austere, humorless men in drab suits and tight collars. They shrug or smile at these depictions. “When we were kids, Dad wanted us to have fun – after our lists of things to do were finished,” Kerry says. “When he wasn’t working, he made sure he had fun, too.”

“And I think our generation (of funeral directors) may be able to relate to people a little better,” K.R. adds. “A lot of the Baby Boomers seem to want different kinds of services -- not always the basic type of funeral -- and so I think we have learned to be more flexible.”

It’s safe to say that they never will put the f-u-n in funerals but they certainly know how to give an event a more comfortable feeling. It is not unusual to see them share a light moment with the deceased’s family members or give them a warm embrace.

The Palmer brothers, both fathers of three, work long hours and many weekends and despite having a great staff, they still take their turns on the on-call list for the middle-of the-night pickups of those who have passed.

Their business, meanwhile, continues to grow while they keep their services the most affordable in the area. They now have their own crematory and pet cemetery at Southlawn Cemetery.

They also have added several community-oriented services – including burying stillborns and babies without a fee … opening up a section of Southlawn for police officers called the Heroes section … hosting a Christmas holiday remembrance for the families they have helped during the year … providing state-of-the art videos for visitations … and sponsoring the writing of life stories of people in the community for no charge.

“It’s as much about taking care of the living as it is about taking care of the deceased,” Kerry says.

Evelyn Dust is a key example. She lived in the River Park neighborhood and the Palmers handled the arrangements for Evelyn’s sister when she died. Because Evelyn had no family, the Palmers and their staff have adopted her -- taking her to the doctor and other appointments and visiting her regularly at her retirement home.

“I don’t know what I would do without them,” says Evelyn, now 94. “And K.R. knows where to plant me back in my hometown of San Pierre (Ind.).”

Evelyn is already pre-arranged and K.R. says that is a top priority. “Having a plan -- whether it is pre-paid or not – makes it so much easier for the families when the time comes,” he says.

Because more and more people are opting for cremation, a less expensive choice, the Palmers continue to look at different ways to expand their business so they can keep it moving forward.

But they never want to lose the personal touch. “It’s just a pleasure working for Palmers because of the way K.R. and Kerry are so generous and kind to everyone,” says Elaine Crump, an administrative assistant at the River Park funeral home. “The word for them is integrity.

“They do so much good for people.”

Whether dead or alive.


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