VIProfile: Robert T. Arrington, President of the National Funeral Directors Association

First Tennesseean to Hold the Office

Bob Arrington

Bob Arrington

Story by Lyda Kay Ferree, The Southern Lifestyles Lady.
Photography courtesy of Bob Arrington.

The following is an excerpt of an article in the November issue of VIP Jackson.

Bob began his funeral service career at the age of 7 years old at Bodkin Funeral Home in Milan, TN. He became intrigued and interested in funeral service when his grandfather died in 1963. His neighbor, Ralph Jones, owned the funeral home, and Bob left school every afternoon to go to the funeral home and ride home with his neighbor. Weekends were spent at the funeral home.

Bob’s family moved to Jackson in 1970. He immediately went to work at George A. Smith & Sons Funeral Home in Jackson. He finished Mortuary School in 1979.

He founded Arrington Funeral Directors in 1995 in Jackson. In 1996 he started Corporate Funeral Providers to develop, in conjunction with Homesteaders Life Company, the only payroll deduction funeral funding product on the market. In 1997 a crematory was added. In 2003 two cemeteries were purchased, and in 2006 Covington Funeral Home and Magnolia Gardens were added (Bob has since sold the two cemeteries and the Covington location).

Bob was elected to the Board of Directors of the Tennessee Funeral Directors Association in 2000. He was appointed to the Tennessee State Board of Funeral Directors and Embalmers in 2002 by then Governor Don Sundquist, and he served as State Board President in 2005. Bob was elected President of the Tennessee Funeral Directors Association in June 2008. He started and is currently serving as the Tennessee State Honor Fund Leader for the Funeral Service Foundation. Bob has served on the NFDA Operations Committee, Governance Work group for two years, was chairman in 2010; he has served on the Audit Committee and the Budget Committee; and he is on the NFDA spokesperson team. Bob has been the NFDA representative to the Funeral Service Foundation for the past four years.

Currently Bob is serving as President of the National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA), and he is a member of the Heritage Club and a participant in the International Convention and Expo, Annual Leadership Conference, Advocacy Summit and NFDA PAC.

He represented NFDA and Funeral Service on a national televised CNBC documentary entitled “Death: It’s A Living,” hosted by Tyler Mathisen.

Bob is married to Judy (Leathers), who is a registered nurse and community educator with the West Tennessee Women’s Center at the Jackson-Madison County General Hospital. She travels with him 3-5 times a year. That is one of the perks of his NFDA work. NFDA recognizes the hours that funeral directors spend away from family and spouses, so they include the spouses on out-of-town trips.

We don’t do what we do at Arrington Funeral Directors for our needs. We do what we do for the needs of others.
— Bob Arrington

VIP: What attracts you to the funeral home business?
Bob Arrington: I’m a people person, and I enjoy serving people. I always want to do things for other people. That’s in my DNA, and funeral service fits that DNA. When I was 7 years old and one of my grandparents died, that is when the light came on. I’ve been that way ever since. We moved from Milan to Jackson when I was 14 or 15 years old. I immediately went to work in a local funeral home and that is basically the only business I’ve been in. I was in insurance for a short time. I missed funeral service the whole time I was away from it!

When North Jackson started growing and all of the funeral homes were downtown, I searched for some property and found land that was owned by Jimmy Harris, Jimmy Wallace and Milton Cravens. There was nothing out here on University Parkway at the time. I was a pioneer.  I started building in October 1994, and I opened the doors of Arrington Funeral Directors on June 14, 1995. Mike Steele and Gary Carter were partners at the time. Mike is the only one of the original partners who is still involved.

VIP: You paid your dues along the way locally, statewide and nationally before being named the President of the National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA). What led you to being named President of the NFDA?
BA: My journey through the NFDA world is a long one. There is a policy board which is made up of one representative from every state. Fifty people come together three times a year and set the policy for the National Funeral Directors Association. About 10 or so years ago I was appointed as the Tennessee Policy Board Representative in 2006. I served three years on that board as the Tennessee representative. This board elects two at-large representatives to the executive board of the National Funeral Directors. I was elected to the At Large position and I served a two-year term. Then I had to decide whether I wanted to run for the office of secretary or let my term expire and fade off into the sunset.

I was encouraged to run for secretary and I ran unopposed. The next year I became Treasurer, and then a year ago I was elected President Elect. The officers are elected by the House of Delegates, which represents 20,000 members. Once you’re elected President Elect, you automatically become President the next year. Note: Bob was installed president of the National Funeral Directors on October 20, 2015 at the national convention in Indianapolis. (The convention moves to a different city every year.) I am the first one from the state of Tennessee to hold this position.

VIP: How has the funeral business changed in recent years?
BA: The major change is that more people are requesting cremation mainly because we have become such a mobile society. In past years a person was born in a city, worked there, married there and died there. That is no longer true. Families are very mobile.

VIP: What appeals to you about the funeral home business?
BA: Working with the families. There are many aspects of the profession that I like. I can lay my head down at night and really feel like I’ve done something good for somebody else. In their darkest hours they have the confidence to trust their most precious asset in our care. I have never taken that lightly. It’s a ministry, and you’re feeling that life changing event…That’s the feel good ministry part.

VIP: What advice would you offer to someone who is considering entering the funeral home business? Do they need strong people skills and training?
BA: The most important part is where your heart is. If your heart is not right, it’s not ever going to work. The funeral profession is not a 9-5 job. If they go to work at a funeral home, they will know quickly whether they are a fit. It’s not for everybody.

VIP: What sets Arrington Funeral Directors apart from other area funeral homes?
BA: Service. There’s no doubt that we do things differently from some funeral homes. The people we serve only have one mother and she will only have one funeral, and the family has trusted us to perform that one service and do it right. One time. If a family wants to have a service on the roof of a building, we’ll find out how many ladders we need to get. We’re so dedicated to personal service.

We get some rather unusual requests. We’ve done everything from putting a motorcycle in the chapel to putting up Christmas trees to placing a fishing boat in the front door, and we have hung college football banners from the ceiling. We will do anything to help celebrate the life of their loved one. We want to make the experience a very personal and unforgettable one.

VIP: Talk about pre-pay funeral plans.
BA: It’s the only profession/industry or business in which you can pay today’s prices for future services. We put that money in a life insurance policy and you can only get it out with a death certificate.  

VIP: Are more people using pre-pay funeral plans and writing obituaries in advance?
BA: We’ve got many files that people have sent me that include the music or poems they want to use at their funeral or the funeral of a loved one. Some write their own obituaries. A lot of people don’t want to burden their family. A large number of people send us information to continually add to their file.

VIP: What are the major challenges facing the funeral service profession?
BA: Educating the consumer of the importance of memorialization. Many people do not understand the importance of memorialization, having a funeral, taking time to pause for a couple of days to reflect and remember and celebrate the life of an 86 or 96-year-old family member. Some people die, and their kids are in California or Wichita, and they don’t even come home. A month later they wake up and realize that their mother died and they start having grief issues because they didn’t pause long enough to pay tribute to a really special person in their life. The families who have the biggest grief issues never had proper memorialization. We live in a fast world. People have got to stop and realize that a death has occurred and their life will be changed forever.

VIP: What trends do you envision down the road in your field?
BA: There will be more focus on cremation. The stats are showing that by 2020 more than 50 percent of the country will be cremated. In some states that figure is 70 or 75 percent now. We’re in the 20 to 22 percent range, but they are predicting by 2020 that the national average will be 51 percent.

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