For more than 23 years, Dee Branch Oliver worked alongside her husband, Johnnie, in the funeral business, helping people work through grief during the most difficult times of their lives. Together, they guided countless families through the inescapable circumstance of death. Yet when Johnnie suddenly passed away, Dee found herself completely unprepared. Dee notes the irony of the situation, laughing to herself. We spend years preparing for major life events, she noted, such as planning weddings, attending college, and having children, but rarely do we have our ducks in a row when it comes to the passing of a loved one.
Dee is one of many women in the Tidewater area who works around the clock to help families process their pain and plan what to do next. Careers in the funeral business require these selfless, inspiring women to give of themselves constantly to help others. Let’s meet a few of them.
Married to the Business
Growing up, death was never on Dee’s radar. If you asked her as a child what she wanted to do when she got older, working in a funeral home never would have been her response. Then, in her early 20s, she married her husband, Johnnie, a fourth-generation funeral director at H.D. Oliver Funeral Apartments. When she married him, she also married his career. Her life changed forever.
As newlyweds, the couple rarely found quality time to spend together. Life as a funeral director is demanding, as it requires one to be on call at all times. You can’t schedule death.
“So here I am, a new bride with no husband,” Dee said. “What did I do? Well, I did the sensible thing. I went to work for him!”
Working in the funeral home with Johnnie, she learned a variety of tasks essential to keeping the business running smoothly. She drove hearses, arranged funerals, cleaned the chapel, created programs for services, wrote obituaries, and prepared bodies. You name it, and she probably did it.
Dee considers herself a “people person.” She quickly became accustomed to consoling grieving families, and the desire to help them in their times of need came naturally.
“The real struggle I had was not getting used to death, but getting used to the 24/7 frequency of death,” Dee said. “Funeral directors are moving and shaking all the time. It is a hard job because it never closes.”
Through the years of their marriage, Dee and Johnnie had three daughters, who were raised in their business, and she lost count of the events they missed because the job demanded that someone be present to take care of another family’s affairs.
“I told Johnnie that he had better be there for the birth of our children, or else I’d be giving birth in the cemetery!” Dee said, laughing fondly at the memory. Dee admits that, even though the job can be emotionally trying at times, it is also rewarding on every level.
“I take pride in knowing that I did the best I could for a family every single time,” Dee reflected. “Our job in the funeral business is to help, and families count on us 110 percent. It pushes me to be the best I can be.”
In 2007, Johnnie suddenly passed away, rocking the lives of Dee, her children and all of those who knew and loved him. Despite over 20 years of planning funerals for countless families, Dee found herself at a loss. Her life, again, was to change forever.
She found herself not only emotionally shaken, but also unprepared in ways she felt she should have been—ways that she helped others prepare over the years. What doors did the many keys on his key ring unlock? How would she pay the bills that were only in his name? What should his headstone say?
Preparing for these decisions together, when he was still alive, would have made it much so easier after she was unexpectedly left a widow.
“Preparing for death doesn’t change the heartache or grief once it happens, but it can take away the unknown fear of things after death,” Dee said. “Being ready makes the unbearable less stressful for the living.”
The journey of overcoming her grief was challenging and, at times, seemed never-ending. But with the constant support of family and friends, Dee and her daughters are living happy lives.
“Although I miss Johnnie every day, I wouldn’t have changed a thing,” Dee said. “This process has developed such a strong character in my children, and that is something that I could never have taught them.”
Dee recently published a book called “Going Out in Style” about her experience of coping with life after Johnnie’s untimely death. The book also offers advice in preparing for the inevitable. She is now completing the process of becoming a funeral director herself. After Johnnie’s death, she went back to school and earned a mortuary science degree and completed an internship at Riddick Funeral Service.
When she isn’t busy raising her daughters or advancing her career, Dee can be found golfing or going to the gym. It’s a good bet that you won’t find her sitting down for long.
“My strength comes from Johnnie and his memory,” Dee said. “He was such a loving husband, and he gave me a stronger sense of wanting to help people through—and wanting to help myself. That is so important.”
Curiosity for the Process
Kim Jones is an associate professor of funeral services at Tidewater Community College. She prepares many students, like Dee, for successful careers in the funeral business.
Kim wanted to be a teacher for as long as she can remember. However, her interest in funerals was not piqued until a close family friend passed away at a young age. His death was such that he might have looked disfigured, but when Kim attended his funeral, he looked just like he did the last time she saw him alive. What was done to make him look so at peace? So began Kim’s journey to answer that question. She decided the best way to satisfy that curiosity was to study it.
“It meant so much to me to see him one last time just as I remembered him,” Kim said. “I wanted to be able to do that for others, to give them that sense of peace, that last pleasant memory picture.”
In 2005, Kim was part of a team of educators that began researching the feasibility of offering a funeral services program in the area. At the time, the nearest place to study funeral services was Petersburg, and people traveled from all areas of Virginia to attend. The team’s effort paid off, and a funeral services program opened at Norfolk State University in 2006 and is now offered by Tidewater Community College. The program was recently accredited to run for another seven years. Being a part of a program that, from its inception, has been so successful is one of the highlights of Kim’s career.
She still assists at Frank Walton Funeral Home in Virginia Beach on an as-needed basis, filling in as a funeral director. She feels blessed that she has the opportunity to do two things she loves on a regular basis—practice her craft and teach it to others.
“It takes a special individual to service the public in the way that funeral service professionals do,” Kim said. “We get people through the most challenging time in their lives. We need to express the greatest amount of empathy that we can and remember that, although that deceased person is not my loved one, it is someone else’s loved one. We can make such a difference.”
Traditionally, the funeral service has been a male-dominated profession. Kim, 45, was one of very few women when she began her own funeral service classes. She hopes to cast a light for all women and teach that this industry can be for them, also.
“I would like to think that someone has looked at me and thought, ‘I want to do what she does,’” Kim said. “I like to make this as fun as it is educational because I really do love what I do.” When Kim is not working, she stays active in her church and enjoys exercising. She lives in Chesapeake with her husband and two sons.
Service as a Calling
Early in childhood, Sara Likens knew that she wanted to work in the funeral industry. Her mother worked in a nursing home in Oklahoma that was right across from a funeral home, so she grew up with a unique understanding of death. When she was five years old, she told her mother that she wanted to help old people go to heaven someday. Today, at 31 years old, Sara Likens is living that dream as a funeral director at Smith & Williams Funeral Home in Virginia Beach. “I believe that different things in life are a calling,” Sara said. “I was called to be in this business.”
She notes that the most important thing to know about her job is that it is a sector of the “care industry.” “People might not always think of us in the same way they would say, a doctor, but it’s true that we work in a sensitive area,” Sara explained. “We constantly see people enduring the worst moments of their lives. If I can make that a little bit easier for them, then I have really done my job.”
The job isn’t glamorous, Sara says. As a director, she assists with all steps in the funeral process, down to the smallest tasks. She is one of the first people to meet with families, she helps with embalming and the cosmetic process of preparing a loved one for an open viewing, and completes a lot of paperwork. She works long hours, including weekends and holidays. She is never truly off work. However, being able to help people in need reminds her why she loves her career. Working in a care industry has taught her, over the years, to be more sensitive to the needs of others, even when not at work.
“When I am out shopping, for example, and I see people in a bad mood, I think that maybe they have just had a bad day and that they need to have their bad moment,” Sara said. “We just never know what people are going through.” As a young woman in the funeral business, she brings many valuable skills to the table. Perhaps the most important is her sense of empathy. Her personality is warm, bright, and personable.
“I have had many families tell me how refreshing it is to see a young lady when they come in,” Sara said.
She feels that, at least in this area, female funeral directors are starting to catch up to male directors. She notes that men are just as important to this industry, and a good balance is needed to keep things running.
To Sara, the most important thing about the business is learning to balance work life with a personal life. Being surrounded by grief and death can be emotionally stressful, so it is important to make time for oneself. Sara finds release in spending time with her husband and two-year-old son. She also practices yoga and loves making cupcakes.
“At work, I see the worst in everything,” Sara said. “As cliché as it sounds, I try to live life to the fullest and enjoy every day as much as I can. I have a greater appreciation for everything.”
The wheels of the funeral business are kept turning by vibrant women like Dee, Kim, and Sara, who bring a fresh image to the profession. They are outgoing and full of passion for what they do. Most importantly, they have the best interest of others in mind at all times. Here in Tidewater, these women make the world a more loving, caring place.
For more information:
• TCC Funeral Service: www.tcc.edu/academics/divisions/socialsciences/funeralservices/
• Dee Oliver’s book, “Going Out in Style,” is available on Amazon.
Theresa Walker is a graduate of Virginia Wesleyan College and lives in Virginia Beach with her husband.