Photos by K2 Images
Growing up in the Ouachita Mountains of Arkansas, Larry Graves knew he would be stepping onto a college campus following graduation. At the young age of 13, he began working with the public at a full-service gas station. He graduated from Henderson State University in Arkadelphia. Following graduation, he poured into young lives on the football field and basketball court. As a teacher and a coach in Arkansas and Texas for ten years, Larry desired to invest in the lives of his students. “It is important to see children mature into teenagers, into adults…but you are ten, fifteen, twenty years out before you see the results.” Then, he felt the call on his life to minister to those grieving through a loss. “I began to see kids dealing with death. I knew then that was what I was supposed to be doing—it is a calling. It is the greatest feeling in the world to know you have taken care of somebody. It is a passion.”
In 1977, Larry and his wife Milly made sacrifices in order for him to attend the Dallas Institute of Mortuary Science. He moved by himself in order to go to classes, and he would travel home every other weekend to spend time with his young family. Although, in present day, one must complete an associate’s degree in this field, Larry completed 128 hours in one year. After that, he finalized a two-year provisional license working under an established director. In 1983, he was asked to come to Huntsville Funeral Home.
Larry described Huntsville as the perfect community in which to minister to those who are walking through the tragedy of the death of a loved one. “This town is one of the most loving communities. Sam Houston, the prison system, the schools (public, private, and homeschooling), the hospital district, the tourism all play a part in making up Huntsville. But what makes Huntsville so special is it is a faith-based community; it has churches of all different denominations and doctrines that work together as Christians. When I lost my wife a few weeks ago, we saw that. We saw this community surround us and give back—and we will continue to give back to the community.”
Since 2003, Sam Houston Memorial Funeral Home has adopted the families they have served. Larry commented that ministering in this area of business is a family commitment. “My wife was the one who made it possible since 1977 for me to leave in the middle of the night, leave in the middle of a birthday party, leave in the middle of opening gifts Christmas morning. She took the kids to the baseball games, the softball games—all the things they needed to attend. The people who walk through those doors are important. They have given us the most important thing they have—their family. It is day and night. When you get that call, you never know what you are going out to see. Like with doctors and ministers, you go to whom you trust. We’ve built relationships with these people. It is another facet of reaching the folks. We have to keep giving back.”
There are many members of the staff of Sam Houston Funeral Home who help Larry to serve this community. Belinda Honea, who has served at this location since 1992, and Cherry Hardy keep the business office running smoothly through the weekdays. Sherry Andrews and Lori Logan also help in the administrative center on a part-time basis on the weekends. Directors Andy Graves and Jack Gandy work alongside Larry to meet the needs of the survivors. There are also 28 individuals who are considered part-time. When mourners walk into a viewing or service, it is important they recognize someone; these part-time workers cover a large cross-section of our community. They are on staff not for monetary gain, but to give back to their hometown as they assist with the funerals. “When people walk in, I want them to see someone they know. It is a community funeral home, not a private one. We want to greet folks, rather than them greeting us. We will put people on the outside (of the building) to greet. We are all about ‘Hometown Traditions, Hometown Values’,” Larry shared. “We want to be competitive in service, not in price.”
In order to maintain excellence in service, Larry and his staff work to coordinate and facilitate the many entities that must operate together to produce a service honoring to the departed and cathartic for those left behind. “A funeral director is no different than a director on a movie set. You are going to have a storyline, you are going to have cameramen, you are going to have actors. You are going to have all these players, and you are going to come up with one big scene on the stage. A funeral director is no different. You have cemeterians, you have florists, you have photographers, you have police officers, you have ministers; you take all these different things and put them together.”
For Larry, the key word for his interactions with the community is “loyalty.” He is loyal to his florist, the casket vendor, and local media. “You are loyal to one company. They get you what you want. They take care of you,” Larry noted. He also gives back to his community in a number of ways; he has contributed to the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, SHSU, Little League All-Stars, Faith Lutheran School, and more. Larry feels by investing in the community financially “you can never give more than you are going to get back.”
In this facility, which is right under 10,000 square feet, every inch is used to serve the consumer. The chapel seats from 275-300 people. If Huntsville experiences a multi-fatality tragedy, the Sam Houston Funeral Home can accommodate six different viewings/services simultaneously. Also, families are offered a time to gather together the evening before a service to grieve privately. The building also contains four offices and various waiting areas. Parallel to the large chapel area sits a room where children can watch movies, color, and entertain themselves while the adults receive the condolences of friends and family. Also, tucked away in a corner of the chapel is a room containing a piano, sound system, and a collection of ties from which the directors choose to accent their black suits and white shirts. The directors sit down with the families in a warmly-decorated meeting room. The families then might be ushered into a small room to view and choose a casket for their loved one.
When someone walks through the doors of Sam Houston Funeral Home, the directors walk each patron through the steps needed to lay their loved ones to rest and help with each decision that needs to made. Two of the first questions we ask are, “Do you have anyone there with you at this time? Is there anyone we can call to be with you, such as a minister in our community?”
The directors will make sure that they are flexible as they work on your schedule in order to sit down and finalize details for the services. Larry noted, “You tell us what you want, and we will make it work.” The directors also meet with the families immediately before the services, discuss what is about to take place, and ask the minister to pray over the upcoming proceedings. In the past, some funerals have either been Skyped or filmed in order to meet the needs of individuals, such as a soldier deployed overseas or a relative who is incarcerated and is unable to attend the services. Lastly, the funeral home also hosts receptions after the ceremonies.
“To me it is about service, service, service, service…gimmicks and gadgets don’t work for me. We try not to add on stuff to nickel and dime people. What is it you need? What is it we can do? Here is the value of those services.”
Sam Houston Funeral Home has written the final chapter of many stories. They have partnered with hotels, caterers, families, and community leaders. Some services have been quaint and small. Mourners have arrived in cars, driven up on motorcycles, and even flown in on a helicopter. No matter the cultural group to which the deceased ascribed, the credentials or lack thereof that followed the departed’s name, or whether their bank account registered in the cents or the millions, the directors and staff of this institution love on the mourners. They offer a shoulder on which to cry, an ear to listen to anecdotes, a hand to shake, and an outpouring of devotion to each person that walks through their doors.
1700 Normal Park Dr.
Huntsville, Texas 77340