RACELAND, La. — With its bold Corinthian columns and gold lettering, Falgout Funeral Home stands out on Raceland's main thoroughfare, looking timeless among clapboard-sided Cajun country homes. But times are changing for the 102-year-old business as the Internet opens up new avenues for sales.
The funeral home on Louisiana Highway 308 is perhaps Raceland's most time-hardy institution. Opened in 1912, it has outlasted dozens of shops and stores in the community of about 10,300. Funeral Director Bert Comardelle said the loyalty of families keeps the funeral business steady.
"The funeral business is not a fast-moving business," Comardelle said. "Technology isn't going to sweep in and take up a body."
The business, more so than almost any small town entity, relies upon trust and familial relationships with customers. Comardelle has embalmed and buried multiple generations of family members since he became funeral director at Falgout in 1985.
That family loyalty, however, is beginning to change now that customers can shop for prices on the Internet. Even in deeply Catholic south Louisiana, the business is starting to feel the stretching of traditions that comes with age.
For a funeral home in a small town like Raceland, less than an hour away from metropolitan New Orleans, that has been a boon for the cash register.
"We are cheaper than most of the funeral homes in New Orleans," Comardelle said.
Plots in rural areas are also cheaper, he added.
Falgout's basic funeral service starts at $4,000, significantly less than the $6,000 national average recorded by the National Funeral Directors Association.
"More and more people are wanting to just do a one-day thing," Comardelle said. "Or they want to have a Mass in church and they just do the wake at the funeral home."
Along with the business, the role of the funeral director is slowly changing as well.
There is no definitive path for people like Comardelle to get into the business of preparing the bodies of the deceased for the world to see.
Comardelle was in the seafood business, got tired of it and enrolled in embalming school.
He ended up staying in the business for the next 32 years — he's in his 28th year as funeral director at Falgout — and is beloved for his ability to turn the throes of post-mortem heartache into a sense of well-being.
"I have had people come into my office in tears and leave in laughter," Comardelle said.
He works nights and weekends. During hurricanes he camps out in his office, within the century-old funeral home's thick concrete walls.
His commitment has made him a sort of universal family member, a trusted beacon to provide light in the darkest of times. During his tenure, Falgout has expanded its footprint to cover a territory that spans two parishes and dozens of communities.
"It is important to understand in this role that death is not always a bad thing," Comardelle said. "You see somebody who has lived for 98 years. That's a good thing. That's a time for celebration."
Younger customers are changing, though. Fewer people have requested the traditional Catholic wake that used to last for up to a week, and cremations are making up a slowly increasing percentage of Falgout's business.
In California, one funeral home has even begun promoting its services at kiosks in shopping malls, right between food courts and department stores.
Up the road in Thibodaux, at one of the regions oldest black funeral homes, the trend is no different. Maurice Southhall has been funeral director at his family's funeral home, Williams and Southhall, since 1970.
"Twenty years ago it was a given that if you bury mama, you bury the rest of the family," Southhall said. "But families today are kind of shopping around and looking for the best value. We here in the rural areas have more flexibility, generally price-wise, and operating expense perhaps has less operating costs than in the city."
At both funeral homes, business has increased as customers from New Orleans have called. Comardelle said it's difficult to quantify how much of the New Orleans business is new and how much is coming from families who have relocated, but there has been a definite uptick.
"I technically have weekends off," Comardelle said. "But that doesn't mean anything. The phone rings seven days a week. It's difficult to even plan time to go get a hamburger around here."
Information from: Daily Comet, http://www.dailycomet.com