Death and its finality have always and will always linger on the fringes of life, serving as a reminder of the inevitable. This doesn’t change, but the rituals people use to cope with death change with every passing generation.
Ray Lacy is a fourth-generation funeral home director, following in the footsteps of his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather. The latter founded Lacy Funeral Home in 1872, making it the oldest business of its kind in Louisa County.
Inspired by how his father helped grieving families, Lacy always wanted to be a funeral home director, even as a young boy when his classmates wanted to be police officers or firemen.
“When you’re that young, you don’t really know what you want to be,” Lacy said. “But I said then I wanted to be a funeral director, and that never changed.”
After graduating from high school, he got a two-year apprenticeship at Bliley’s Funeral Home in Richmond, worked at another funeral home for two years, and then went to school for two more. He attended the first embalming school in Virginia to learn how to properly preserve and prepare bodies for viewings and was part of the first graduating class.
“They taught us technique, and like anything else [that requires a skill] – bricklaying or carpentry – some are better than others,” Lacy said.
Lacy has been in the death care industry for 45 years, and in that time, he’s seen how many traditions around death have changed.
“The world has really changed,” Lacy said. “COVID-19 has changed a lot, but the funeral business was [already] changing.”
Traditional funerals typically consist of two days and nights of visitation and then the burial on the third day. Traditions are a source of comfort and security for those who practice them, and people don’t usually give them up easily. However, it seems the increased expense of funerals have motivated some families to shift away from old traditions.
“I can remember doing funerals for $2,600, and you don’t get them for that anymore,” Lacy said. “And there’s a reason for it. When I was a boy, a dug grave [cost] $30, and now, grave digging is $800.”
Because of these costs, families won’t automatically default to a funeral home that has handled their family’s needs in the past. Instead, they will search for funeral homes online and compare costs.
“Because of the economy, old family traditions I think are dying away a little bit,” Lacy said.
He has also seen an increase in requests for cremations. When he did his first apprenticeship at Bliley’s in the late 1960s, he saw people in Richmond opting more often for cremation rather than a traditional burial. Now, people in Louisa who wouldn’t have considered cremation back then are starting to request it for themselves.
“I have 60- and 70-year-old people coming in and doing pre-arrangements, and the first thing they say is ‘Ray, I’m going to be cremated,’ like it’s going to shock me,” Lacy said. “But it doesn’t.”
Cremations tend to be cheaper than traditional burials, forgoing costs of grave digging, embalming (which is optional), and a casket. Secondly, cremations are becoming more socially acceptable, having lost some of the stigma associated with them in the past.
A funeral home is ultimately a business, and like any other business, it needs to stay competitive. Lacy Funeral Home recently renovated its building, making improvements to look more inviting. As a business, it also needs to make money, but Lacy says people come first and acknowledges the difficulty of bringing up costs to grieving families.
“When you go to buy a new truck, you’re there because you want to be,” Lacy said. “People don’t want to be at the funeral home.”
But they do want the funeral home to be there to take care of their needs when death decides to claim a loved one. Lacy said that traditions are ultimately defined by the family, and that every family is entitled to a funeral that will fulfill their emotional and spiritual needs.
“A funeral takes care of needs,” Lacy said. “Some people need closure, they need to see [the deceased] a final time and say their goodbyes. Some people need to go and put flowers on [the casket or grave]. Some people don’t have that need.”
With life comes death, the two forces keeping each other in check: people die and people are born; things end and things begin. This applies even to traditions.
The four-generation tradition of Lacy men becoming funeral directors will likely end with Ray Lacy, whose daughter will likely pursue a different career.
“I’m probably the last Lacy,” he said.