By Erin Darst Hein
What is the first word, (or words), that pop into your head when you hear “funeral home”?
When researching for this article, I asked dozens of people that question. About half of the answers were, predictably, about death, (Sadness, Grief, Goodbye, Finality, Crying, Casket). The other, more colorful half could be better classified as perceptions, (or memories), about the atmosphere of a funeral home itself, (Formal, Stuffy, Maroon Carpet, Gold in the bathroom, Velvet Drapes, Unnatural Silence, Awkwardness, Pimento Cheese Sandwiches). As someone who has grown up surrounded by the industry, I can absolutely relate to every single answer, but they also make me cringe. That’s not the story I want for you.
When I say surrounded by the industry, I mean as deep as it gets. Not only was my first childhood home literally surrounded by the grounds of a cemetery, but my Dad actually grew up in the industry too, so even visiting my grandparents meant visiting a different cemetery. So thinking back to my earliest funeral home memories, my own additions to the above list would be The Smell of Lilies and Wood Polish, Bottomless Peppermints, Huge, (Untouchable), Whiteboards with Rainbow Colored Schedules and Under-Desk Play “Forts”, (stocked with Rainbow Post-it Notes and Highlighters).
Most of my childhood, Dad worked for a chain funeral home and it never quite fit him perfectly. He was, (is), never satisfied and is always looking for More, Better, Kinder. I remember the family vacation almost 10 years ago when he started to bounce ideas about a funeral home of our own. He was absolutely on fire about this place where families come “not just to grieve, but to heal.” There would be absolutely no stuffy velvet drapes and gilded toilets allowed. Sounded like a great plan until he showed us the pictures of this place that he had picked out to turn into a funeral home. It was a teeny, condemned shack of a house with a chain link fence and a totally barren yard. His enthusiasm was contagious, but his vision seemed overly-ambitious. On that vacation, he bought some Thomas Kinkade paintings, (that are still here in the funeral home, by the way), of elaborate gardens and winding paths and light breaking through clouds. He told me he was drawn to them not only for the content, but because Thomas Kinkade was called ‘The Painter of Light’.
He told me that he had to build a place where every member of a family felt welcomed. If you are old enough to love, he said, then you are old enough to grieve. So he was adamant that children would have a place to run, and process, and just be children. When you’re five, healing does not begin while sitting on a hard pew in tight patent leather shoes, trying to be quiet, (and as a mother of young kids, I’ll add that healing also does not begin while trying to keep said 5 year old on said pew). He wasn’t sure how he was going to achieve all of that, exactly, but he knew that It.Would.Happen.
When we got home he started renovations on his shack, but it was obvious that space was going to be an issue. He and my gardening genius of a mother-in-law teamed up and mapped out a garden space to allow people to spill out of the funeral home. It started coming together, and kept coming together, and we all watched in amazement as his shack turned into a welcoming and cozy building and the garden became the life of his dream. People began to contribute plants and fountains in memory of loved ones. He added winding paths, porch swings, and a beautiful gazebo. He wired the whole garden for light and sound so that services can either be totally outdoors or so that people who feel more comfortable getting out of the service and sitting under the sky can have some room to breathe while still seeing and hearing the service going on inside. Later, he built a gorgeous open-air chapel and reception space that opens right onto the garden and continues the feel of light and air and space to breathe.
Ya’ll – he did it. My dad, the Willy Wonka of funeral homes, jumped every obstacle and made this dream a reality. And, I want you to come see. It’s shady and breezy. It’s full of flowers and butterflies and the sound of water. It’s welcoming and peaceful and most of all, just like he promised, it’s healing. It’s the best place to come to work that I can imagine. We’ve had weddings here, baby showers, more than a few birthday parties and recently Kingwood Montessori School hosted their 10 year anniversary gala here. We even did Thanksgiving family dinner in the garden last year. It’s just that different.
So, it turns out that you don’t have to be stuffy to be respectful. You don’t have to be silent or awkward to be attentive and present. You can find peace and healing in unexpected places.
Erin Hein is the daughter of John and Anne Darst of Darst Funeral Home. She lives in Kingwood with her husband Evan and their 3 children Jack (7), Caroline (5), and Ian (2) and they are looking forward to welcoming a new baby boy in December.
Darst Funeral Home is located at 796 Russell Palmer Road. You can reach us at 281-312-5656, and you can reach Erin at firstname.lastname@example.org