Forastiere Family Funeral Homes: Still Changing After All These Years interviewed

by Ira Bryck

Forastiere Family Funeral Homes was founded in 1905 and presently has locations in Agawam, East Longmeadow, Springfield, and Southwick. Ira Bryck, director of the Family Business Center of Pioneer Valley, conducted this interview with co-owner Peter Forastiere, his parents Anthony and Sylvia Forastiere, and fourth-generation members Elayne Forastiere Smith and her husband, Mark Smith.

Peter: Our business was started by my grandparents, Frank and Carmella, Water Street in Springfield, which is now Columbus Avenue. In those days, they did not have funeral homes; they worked out of a storefront. Everything from the embalming to arrangements with the family to visiting hours took place in the family’s home. Gradually these services shifted to the funeral home. My grandfather purchased our first location in 1933 on Locust Street. In 1959, my father did a major expansion and modernization doubling the funeral home in size.

At that time, funeral service was very different. Back then, funeral homes never had set calling hours either. From morning to midnight, you could just come and go, and people just stayed and stayed. It was exhausting for the families, but no one knew any differently.

Sylvia: So when my father-in-law died in 1952, my husband said to his mother, “I’m going to have set hours for the wake.” Of course, she was a little horrified, but he insisted that she needed a break. So he had 2 to 5 p.m. and 7 to 10 p.m. posted on the front door. It was something he’d been thinking about doing for a long time, but never had an opportunity to try it.

IB: And that was a bold move at the time.

Sylvia: It was unheard of! But people came, they saw the sign, and came back. Most thought it was a neat idea. Other funeral directors adopted it throughout the city.

Peter: My brother Frank came in with my Dad in 1968, and I came in in 1975. Shortly after, we started expanding into the suburban communities. In 1980, we opened our first branch in Agawam. I lived in the community and became the community contact. This is one of the things that we try to do–to try to have someone become part of the community in each of the towns where we have funeral
home locations. Then we purchased property in Southwick and built a funeral home in 1984. It’s a smaller location and a smaller community, but has worked out very well. We found that the Southwick residents like having a funeral home they consider “their own,” and they take pride in it.

IB: Was part of the growth in order to accommodate the growing number of family in the business?

Peter: We did have that in mind. In addition, we found that as people move their homes into the suburban areas, they like to have their funeral services in their own community. And so to be able to expand our business and have growth, we really needed to move out to the suburbs where it would be convenient for families. Plus, we looked at the fact that I have three sons and Frank has four daughters. We knew that if any of our children were going to be in this business, we really had to have it the size that’s going to attract them, and be a good living for everybody.

In addition to expanding in numbers of locations, we also expanded the range of services we offered. For example, we expanded our prearrangement program, and became the leader in that area. Also, Frank’s wife, Lila, became interested in the grief counseling aspect
earning her master’s degree in Thanatology. So she developed a program to help families after a death, so that we can still be there for them when everybody goes back to their busy schedules. It has been recognized as one of the leading programs in the country.

IB: It sounds very inclusive through the years. Were there any entry requirements that needed to be fulfilled for family members to join the business?

Peter: My father’s first requirement was that we go to college. Once we finished college and joined the company, the requirements were based on performance. But we had a very good teacher. My father was very open to turning things over so we would learn and the families could feel confident in us. He trained us in the art of funeral service. He’d critique us and help us understand how to do a little better job, how to explain the options to families, how to deal with their questions. It was ad-lib, but we received excellent training. We
still have a similar training program today. The same concepts are used, only now it’s more formalized and standardized.

IB: Was it hard for you to give over control to your sons?

Frank: I never felt I was the big cheese. They could do the work.

Peter: Frank and I had new ideas of expansion. And as in any generation, senior owners get complacent and say “why does it have to change?” But my father also felt that “I may not agree with my sons’ new ideas, but it is their future, and I have to let go. If they fall on
their face, they fall on their face. If they’re successful, then that’s terrific.”

IB: How did both generations deal with changes in the business?

Peter: We’re seeing so many changes in funeral service that we are all more tuned in to change. Until into the ’70s, funeral service was a stable, more-or-less non-changing industry. So, for my father’s generation, there was a certain resistance to changes in funeral

My brother and I saw this happen when we first wanted to contract out certain areas of the business, like cleaning and landscaping. My father, as most people from that generation, did everything: vacuumed the rugs, shoveled the walks, painted the building, met with
families, cleaned the cars, set up the flowers. My brother and I were doing the same thing, and then the business grew and we had to start thinking about giving something up. The previous generation said, “I always did that, why do you have to hire someone?” But we
realized it was good business sense.

IB: Elayne, what went into your decision to come into the business. Was it offered as an option growing up, or an expectation?

Elayne: It was not pressured or expected. My father never talked about the business at home and never directly asked us to work there. Not that he didn’t want us to, but he never created any kind of pressure. During high school, my sisters and I worked here off and on during summers–opening doors, answering phones, things like that–but just for some spending money.

IB: So you didn’t see it as an early apprenticeship.

Elayne: It never really occurred to me to consider it as a trial for a career. Funeral service simply wasn’t something I felt I wanted to do. I think part of it had to do with the fact that during our teenage years, we’re often concentrating on gaining independence from our parents and “getting away.” At that point in my life, moving back to Springfield and working with my parents didn’t seem appealing to me. I went to college for advertising and public relations in Ithaca, NY, and it wasn’t until after my junior year that I first
considered the possibility.

I remember, I was in North Carolina for the summer, and my father called and talked about expanding again. Since it was just the two of them, my uncle and him, they wondered if they really wanted to grow. He explained that the business was as much as they could handle already. If they knew that it was going to somebody, they’d have no reservations about expanding, but they just weren’t certain what to do.

I hung up the phone and went to the gym. I was riding a LifeCycle bike and thinking about the conversation. I took his words and concerns to heart because it was so extremely unusual for him to voice business issues with me. It was the first time working there as a career ever popped into my head. I hashed out all the pros and cons as I pedaled away, and by the time I got off the bike, I had decided that was what I was going to do.

The business never appealed to me so much when it was just the two of them and they were doing everything. I wasn’t interested in every single facet of the business on a daily basis. But looking at the way it had grown, I knew there was more room for specialization, so that I could concentrate on areas where my skills and interests lay. If they hadn’t already grown, I probably wouldn’t be here today.

After graduation in Ithaca, I immediately enrolled in funeral service school in North Carolina. But I never had any false expectations. Peter and my father were clear that just because I was Frank’s daughter, I wasn’t going to get free reign and wouldn’t have a solid
position right from the beginning. Their expectations were the same, or even more so, as for any other employee.

I met Mark in school. We started dating and we wanted to get married. Mark was from the south–so we had to think about moving up here, because the reason I was in funeral services was because of my family business. So there were a lot of decisions presented to me very quickly.

My father and Peter were good at focusing on all of our needs and formalizing things. I’m a very structured, formal person, so it worked well for me. We had everything in writing–future plans, criteria, and expectations. It wasn’t like, “Come on, start working, and we’ll see what happens.”

IB: What were some of the major points of that formal plan?

Elayne: There was a compensation package, work schedule, training programs, company philosophy and mission, evaluation and review for raises, as well as asking me where my interests lay and where I thought my strengths were, and where they foresaw my strengths and where I would best fit in.

Peter: We spent a lot of time thinking about how we were going to introduce the business to this fourth generation. When we came to work for my father, we walked into the first day of work not even knowing our salary. You just didn’t talk about that. My brother and I didn’t think that was the way it should be. So, when we looked at our children, we thought, “What do they need?” Their salaries, benefits, vacation, work schedule, and what’s there for the future. Are they just going to be employees or are they going to have an opportunity to have ownership? We grew from some of the experiences when we were in their shoes in our twenties.

IB: Mark, what was it like to be in your shoes at that time?

Mark: When I started funeral school, my intention was to go back to my small South Carolina town and become part of the local funeral home business and eventually buy into it. Then I met Elaine, and it was a lot of quick decisions. I looked at the opportunity–and certainly love blinds all–and there was no way I was going to be able to both keep her and keep her down south. So I chose to sacrifice my original intentions. I’m very satisfied with the choices I have made. It was a huge change, a big adjustment, but it’s been really great for me.

Before I moved up here, I flew up alone to meet Frank and Peter, these soon-to-be bosses of mine, to just see, to test the water. They met me with open arms and it was a great relationship. There was no misunderstanding as far as what was expected of me and of them–the compensation package, my future. We really covered all the bases.

Elayne: It was kind of awkward. I was going to school to join the firm. But then, I meet Mark and suddenly I was saying to Peter and Frank, “Here, hire this guy, he’s going to be my husband.” Of course, they met him and they could have at any time said they didn’t feel things would work out. But they really had to trust my instincts.

Peter: Frank said to me, “Elayne says she’s interested in coming into funeral service.” And in the next breath it was, “She’s met this guy, and they’re going to get married.” Oh no, the son-in-law! How are we going to introduce both of them? We decided to treat them like any employee–they would both have job interviews.

Mark and I had a really frank conversation. He asked me, point blank, “How do you feel about having me in the business?” I said it’s fabulous to have you, but you have a tough road. You’ve got to prove that you are a person who stands out on your own. You’re not just here because you are the son-in-law. We would rather have a good quality outside employee, working very hard, than family that just thought it was a free ride–as I had to prove myself to my father. Business came first.IB: Everyone put their cards on the table.

Mark: That was very important. If they fire me tomorrow, I couldn’t take it personally because it has been set down very objectively. Though I assume there would be some sort of warning beforehand. I’ve heard of families who don’t fire someone because they’re afraid it’s going to hurt the family. It’s just not that way because it was set down right from the beginning.

Peter: We even talked about the dynamics of the two of them being a married couple in the business. We stressed that if you have an argument at home, leave the argument at home. By seeing family problems over the years in other families, we learned that an awful lot of families that have been in a business together have broken up because of outside forces. If we’re going to have this business, it’s going to be providing a comfortable life for all of us. We have to give it some priority. We have to work on communicating to be sure it’s going to survive if we’re going to make it.

IB: How do you handle disagreements in the business?

Elaine: People get heated about issues when we discuss them, but we’re careful not to project that onto the person expressing the issue. It’s important to separate the stance on a topic from the person taking it. We try to express and get everyone’s opinion.

Usually things get resolved pretty quickly. We don’t take votes as we’ve heard some companies do. Usually whoever feels more strongly about the issue can put up a better argument with better points, so we’ll go with that. But once the issue is decided, that’s it. It’s a
matter of treating it like a business, rather than a father or a mother or a brother, or somebody scolding a little child. I think that’s one of the downfalls of a lot of family businesses. We’re working together as a team. And I think that’s one of our secrets.

IB: You have three sons; none of them are in the business.

Peter: My oldest is eighteen and graduates from high school this year, so they’re a little young. Hopefully, I’m going to have at least one join the business.

IB: You haven’t called them on the phone yet.

Peter: Frank and I said, we’re building this business, and this is great, but we’ve got to have some family come in here. However, the teaching from my father was that you don’t force someone into this. He always said, the business is here, if you like it. If not, I’ll support you in whatever you want to do. There’s no sense in having someone here if they’re not happy, particularly in a personal service business like ours.

IB: And it’s a calling, I’m sure.

Peter: Yes. And partly being exposed to it, too. We try to talk about the business more in a non-pressuring way. Just enough that they’re aware of the opportunities more and our interest in their participation. They’ve all worked here part time off and on, and we talk about the excitement of expanding. At some point, we hope they’ll say, “I’d like to do that.” However, our philosophy is, we’d rather have a non-family, dedicated employee than have a family person that says this is a good free ride.

Elayne: I took that phone call from my father so seriously because he never, ever brought it up. I knew that it had to be serious if he was bringing it up. Even then, though, I didn’t feel obligated. My sister worked here a little bit at one time. It just wasn’t for her. It certainly isn’t a mandatory thing.

IB: Do you have a succession plan?

Peter: We are working on it! These two young people have told us very openly and frankly that they don’t want to be employees all their lives. Hopefully there will be other family that will come in and we want to treat them in the same way. So we do need a plan. We know we can’t have just promises. It’s got to be something concrete.

We never really had a specific plan when Frank and I were growing up. There was only two of us. We have Mark and Elayne who fit very well into the team. But what happens when we bring in other people? How are all these personalities going to jive? Suppose my sister says to me that her son is interested in the business. Is there a place for him? Just like any other key employee that may come in.

IB: Is there anything you’d like to add?

Peter: Just a testimonial for the Family Business Center. I think it’s an excellent program. We’ve gotten a lot out of it. This is something that could be very helpful to people who are concerned about growing in the future in a family business.