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For Innovations in the Funeral Industry, Look No Further Than Houston

Brenda Salinas

From Texas Standard:

As the demand for natural burials grows, industry experts say innovation is likely to come from Houston.

If you've worked in the funeral industry, there's a good chance you know who Bob Waltrip is. A sort-of Rockefeller of the industry, Waltrip owns Service Corporation International (SCI), the largest funeral home conglomerate in the world.

Drive north of downtown Houston, and you’ll find the National Museum of Funeral History — a museum whose main benefactor is none other than SCI.

Museum director Genevive Keeney says the site is home to the burial plots of some of the world’s most influential entertainment figures.

“So I have just a little of everything in here, I mean there’s, just like I say, a century overload. We pay tribute to cowboys, cowgirls that were in the film industry,” Keeney says. “Of course we have Marilyn Monroe.”

The museum is massive – some 35,500 square feet — and features a dozen interactive exhibits. And it’s actually not as morbid as you’d think.

“This is a living, breathing kind of museum, I mean exhibit within the museum, that we consistently keep it updated as more people in the entertainment industry pass away,” Keeney says.

So why would the largest funeral company and the National Museum of Funeral History be in Houston, and not New York or Los Angeles? SCI spokesperson Phil Jacobs says it’s all about personal preference.

“Well, you know, those are all nice cities, and they’re good markets for us, but Mr. Waltrip was born and raised in Houston, Texas, and this is his home,” Jacobs says.

Waltrip revolutionized the industry by doing something no mom-and-pop funeral shop had ever done before: He started buying up as many funeral homes and cemeteries as he could. Now SCI is a publicly traded company worth three billion dollars.

“So, Mr. Waltrip grew up in a family that had one funeral home here, in Houston, Texas, and he just grew up in his family’s funeral business, and over time, assumed the management of this location in the 1950s,” Jacobs says. “He worked with his mom and dad, and then he began to buy additional funeral homes in the '60s.”

To train employees to work in his 22,000 funeral homes, Waltrip founded one of the top mortician schools in the country, also based in Houston. At the museum, Keeney says that the reason people don’t know that Houston dominates the funeral industry is because we don’t like to talk about death.

“We tend to sweep the subject under the rug. We don’t really want to deal with it or think about it.”

But if you do think about it, Keeney says, you could have the best funeral ever.

“Your casket, your urn, your tribute video, your memorial folder, what you’re going to wear. The sky is the limit.”

Actually, the sky isn’t the limit. There’s a company — also headquartered in Houston — calledCelestis Memorial. They'll shoot your ashes into space.

  This story was prepared with assistance by Jan Ross Piedad.

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