Ruebel Funeral Home, the oldest funeral service establishment in the city of Little Rock, had its beginning in early 1901 on the corner of Sixth and Main Street. For over a hundred years, Ruebel Funeral Home has continually offered services of its facility, equipment and staff for immediate response to central Arkansas families of every religion preference, race and socioeconomic circumstances.
George H. Wittenberg was acquired by Ruebel Funeral Home in 1953 becoming its Secretary and part owner. At the time, Jack Reed was made Vice-President and Treasurer, while Alfred Leymer held down the position of President. In 1978 Thomas C. Wittenberg, son of George, became associated with the firm and was made President in 1983. Following the deaths of Jack Reed and George Wittenberg in 1997, Tom Wittenberg became sole owner and Chief Executive Officer.
“I’m now the third generation Wittenberg owner of Ruebel,” Justin Wittenberg said. “I tell my employees on a weekly basis, “Never tell a family NO. It doesn’t matter how difficult a request might be, we will always find a way to make it happen. We only get one take when helping our clients, and we have to make it happen when and how they want so that they can fully and effectively grieve the loss of their friend or family member. We are honored to continue to serve the great state of Arkansas, for more than 117 years now.”
Listen to Learn:
Listen to the Interview
Watch the Interview
[00:00:08] GM: Welcome to Up in Your Business with Kerry McCoy, a production of flagandbanner.com. Through storytelling and conversational interviews, this weekly radio show and podcast offers listeners an insider’s view into starting and running a business, the ups and downs of risk-taking and the commonalities of successful people. Connect with Kerry through her candid, often funny and always informative weekly blog. There you’ll read, learn and may comment about her life as a 21st century wife, mother, daughter and entrepreneur.
And now it’s time for Kerry McCoy to get all up in your business.
[00:00:41] KM: Thank you, son, Gray. My guest today is the owner of the oldest family businesses in Arkansas, Justin Wittenberg of Ruebel Funeral Home. Founded in 1901 on Sixth and Main Streets, Ruebel is the oldest funeral home establishment in Little Rock, Arkansas. It was 1953 when Justin's grandfather, Mr. George Wittenberg, hired on to the already established business as secretary and became part owner of Ruebel.
Fast-forward, 20 years later, George's son, Tom Wittenberg would join the firm becoming its president in 1983 and sole owner by 1997. Today the family legacy lives on in Justin Wittenberg, Tom's son. The third generation family-owned funeral business continues to offer its facility now on West Markham, its equipment, and its staff for immediate response to Central Arkansas families of every religion, race and socioeconomic circumstances.
It is a pleasure to welcome to the table, third generation owner, Mr Justin Wittenberg of Ruebel Funeral home. And you are on-call all the time, because you have just been talking to your answering service and
Said, “I'm going to be off the grid for one hour.” Hey, Justin.
[00:02:03] JW: Hey, Kerry. Thank you for having me.
[00:02:04] KM: You're so welcome. So Ruebel Runeral Home, when I’m researching it a little bit – Who is Ruebel? I couldn't figure out why it's called Ruebel Funeral Home.
[00:02:15] JW: Mr. Ruebel started Ruebel Funeral Home in 1901 at Sixth and Main like you pointed out. From what I understand, he was a furniture maker. And he was filling a need for caskets for other funeral homes. And he decided that he would start his own funeral home. And when he only had one daughter, Catherine, who didn't want to take the business over.
[00:02:44] KM: The furniture business or the funeral?
[00:02:46] JW: The funeral home.
[00:02:47] KM: Building the casket business.
[00:02:49] JW: Right. Right. Right. Her husband, Walter Lymer, who was a prominent banker here in town at the time inherited the funeral home. And he didn't know what to do with it, and he reached out to my grandfather, George, and my grandfather's future partner, Jack Reed, and confronted them and asked them if they would like to run the funeral home. And they ended up purchasing it after many years of
running it for them.
[00:03:18] KM: Well, I wondered how George Wittenberg, who is an architect, right?
[00:03:25] JW: George Senior, his father, started Wittenberg Delony & Davis, WD&D. And his son, my grandfather, was an insurance agent for Massachusetts Mutual. And a large portion of the funeral
Business is insurance-based. In fact we are governed in the state of Aarkansas by the Arkansas Insurance Commission.
[00:03:48] KM: Really? Are there a lot of rules?
[00:03:51] JW: There are a lot of rules, yeah. Yeah. The number one rule is our customers come first.
[00:03:56] KM: Oh! That’s a good rule. How much competition do you have? Have how many other funeral homes are there? There's Drummond, yours.
[00:04:03] JW: I like to say we don't have any competition, but there are other funeral homes here in town. There is uh Roller, which is owned by Renata. And that's Roller-Drummon. Roller-Owen
North Little Rock, Roller-Chenal out in West Little Rock.
[00:04:19] KM: They're an out of state company?
[00:04:22] JW: No. In fact, Renata's father, Denver Roller, if I looked far enough back in our records,
had his apprenticeship for his funeral director's license at Ruebel Funeral Home.
[00:04:34] KM: Get out of town.
[00:04:36] JW: So we're all connected if you go far enough back. It’s a trend in Little Rock. If you go
far enough back, we all know each other.
[00:04:44] KM: That’s right. We’re all cousins.
[00:04:47] JW: And then we had Griffin and Leggett. That was another funeral home here in town. And Harry Leggett, whose son is Brad, they sold out to a big international corporation many, many
years ago. And brad started Little Rock Funeral Home, which was just purchased by Jeff Smith, which was North Little Rock Funeral Home.
And he now has Smith Family Cares, and they have Smith North Little Rock and Smith Little Rock. Several other funeral homes throughout the state.
[00:05:20] KM: Are you thinking about branching out? Having another location? Have you talked about it? You've got one location on West Markham Street.
[00:05:26] JW: I’ve got one location on West Markham Street. I've got a very loyal group of clients. And I spend the majority of my time making sure that they are well taken care of. And I think that if I expanded too much, I wouldn't be able to give them the personal care that they are wanting and deserve.
[00:05:50] KM: Did you think you were always going to – So your grandfather started it or bought
it from Mr. Ruebel. And then your father went into the business and ended up being the sole owner. And did you always think I'm going to grow up and go into this business too? Or did you think I was going to do something else?
[00:06:08] JW: It's funny. My knee-jerk reaction would be no. I didn't always think I was going to be in this business. But my dad showed me a drawing one day. I was in kindergarten at the Cathedral School, and they had us draw what we wanted to be when we grew up, and it was stick figures carrying a little casket and it said, “I want to grow up and be like my dad.”
So I would say yes at that point. Now, did my education and my immediate future reflect that? No. No, not at all. I went to Hendrix, got a chemistry degree. Was going to be a dentist. And –
[00:06:49] KM: That's a caring job too though.
[00:06:51] JW: Yeah. I enjoyed it. I worked for a dentist during college as an apprentice, and really enjoyed it. But my dad's friends, his colleagues, his contemporaries kept saying to me, “Please. Please. Please. Take over for your dad one day. Who are we going to come to when we need your help? There's not going to be a Wittenberg there when we need you.” And I wisely listened to them after many, many confrontations like that.
[00:07:22] KM: How old were you when you came to work there?
[00:07:25] JW: It was in 2007. So I was 27 years old.
[00:07:30] KM: So what had you been doing from college till 27?
[00:07:32] JW: I had driven an ambulance in Denver, Colorado.
[00:07:36] KM: Oh really?
[00:07:39] JW: Quite the adventure.
[00:07:41] KM: So have you got an EMT license I guess it's called? Certification?
[00:07:45] JW: Yeah. I did that in college as an elective at Hendrix. I could take PE or get an EMT license. So I went to Conway regional two nights a week and ended up with an EMT basic license, then decided to go on an adventure.
[00:08:01] KM: To Colorado.
[00:08:02] JW: Yeah. Why not, right?
[00:08:04] KM: Because you like to snow ski probably.
[00:08:05] JW: Yes, I love it. I love it actually. And then after that, I came back and worked for Willis Smith & Associates and appraised real estate and got to see the bubble grow and then burst.
[00:08:19] KM: The Little Rock real uh real estate market bubble.
[00:08:22] JW: Yeah.
[00:08:22] KM: Yeah, it did.
[00:08:23] JW: Yeah. And Willis was a great guy, and Beck Kaiser. They were partners. And they were my employers at that point, and what a great experience.
[00:08:34] KM: Are there any other Wittenbergs working in the business?
[00:08:36] JW: No.
[00:08:37] KM: Dad's retired.
[00:08:38] JW: Dad’s retired. Sisters are full-time moms with careers of their own. So they both are doubled up on – I don't see how they do it. I don't think they get any sleep.
[00:08:52] KM: Probably not.
[00:08:53] JW: Right.
[00:08:54] KM: What does a person need like from within to be a good funeral director? Do you call yourself a funeral director?
[00:09:02] JW: Yeah, definitely. That's our title and –
[00:09:08] KM: What does a person need from within to do that well, you think? Because not just anybody could do that.
[00:09:14] JW: Right. I would say the best way to draw on what a person needs to do that well is to look at my employees, because I can see what it actually takes by looking out rather than in. Sometimes it's difficult to look in, and introspection is a difficult thing I think for people. So I look at my employees and I've got one employee who's been doing this his entire life. And he is devoted endlessly to the deceased and their families.
And then I've got another employee who was a great friend of mine through playing soccer at Burns Park, and he had an experience close in his family with death, and I could see that he was having like a hard time with it. He was struggling with it, but he wanted to know more. And so we started talking after our games and I offered him a job. And oh my goodness! He is the most compassionate person when it comes to dealing with the families. He goes into the arrangements and the first calls with – Nothing takes precedent over what you're doing right now. And he really devotes himself a hundred percent to his families.
[00:10:36] KM: And when you say arrangements, you mean the funeral arrangements.
[00:10:39] JW: Yeah. The funeral arrangements really start when we take the first call.
[00:10:46] KM: What does the first call sound like?
[00:10:48] JW: The first call is usually in the middle of the night and we're getting a call from –
[00:10:53] KM: So most people die in the middle of the night?
[00:10:55] JW: It seems like it. It really does.
[00:10:56] KM: Okay. That was one of my questions. I wondered. Okay, go ahead.
[00:11:00] JW: It really does. We sit at the funeral home all day and wait for the phone to ring. And then as soon as we go home and go to bed, the phone starts ringing. And so you have to be able to say it doesn't matter what time of night it is or what I need to do the next day. I've got to stop everything and care for this family and their loved one that's passed away.
[00:11:20] KM: And what does that mean? Does that mean you go to their house? Does that mean you meet with the funeral home? Does that mean you just talk to them on the phone and say, “I'll see you at eight o'clock tomorrow?” What does it mean?
[00:11:29] JW: That's really changed a lot actually. When my dad was at the helm, so 20 years ago, it was you got up and went to their house right then. When I started in this, it was, “Hey, we're going to send the person that's on call and they'll be there and we trust them, and they are our number one crew, and they're going to come over and take very good care of you, and we'll see you in the morning.”
[00:11:55] KM: And take care of you, does that mean they pick up the deceased body?
[00:11:57] JW: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. And we bring them into our care and we treat them as if they're our own family member that's just passed away. And now in the time of COVID, it is a, “We'll talk to you on the phone tomorrow and we're going to send you an email, and you can sign an e-document, and you can look on our website for merchandise,” and it's all very removed. And I think we have adapted and made it easier for our families to sit in their home and not take a risk of going outside and meeting with people that they don't know and exposing themselves to things. And it's uh it's made it easier on our families. But at the same time, I don't think it gives them the full service that we need to give them and that they expect.
[00:12:53] KM: Yeah.
[00:12:54] JW: So it's a balance that we're trying to do that we haven't found the balance point yet.
[00:13:01] KM: It sounds like you have to me. All right, this is a great place to take a break. When we come back, we'll continue our conversation with Justin Wittenberg, third generation owner of Ruebel Funeral Home in Little Rock, Arkansas. Still to come, how to manage the stages of grief. I look forward to talking about that. What you need to do in preparation or after an end-of-life occurrence, and leaving a business legacy. How have the Wittenberg’s done it so successfully? We'll be back after the break.
[00:13:34] GM: You're listening to Up in Your Business with Kerry McCoy. A production of flagandbanner.com. Over 40 years ago with only $400, Kerry founded Arkansas Flag and Banner. During the last four decades, the business has grown and changed along with Kerry’s experience and leadership knowledge. In 1995, she embraced the internet and rebranded her company as simply flagonbanner.com. In 2004, she became an early blogger. Since then, she has founded the nonprofit Friends of Dreamland Ballroom. Began publishing her magazine, Brave, and in 2016, branched out into this very radio show, YouTube channel and podcast. And today, in 2020, Kerry McCoy Enterprises acquired ourcornermarket.com, an online company specializing in American-made plaques, signage and memorials for over 20 years. If you'd like to sponsor this show or get involved with any of Kerry McCoy’s enterprises, send an email to me, Gray. That's email@example.com. Telling American-made stories, selling American-made flags, the flagandbanner.com. Back to you, Kerry.
[00:14:46] KM: Thank you, Gray. You're listening to Up in Your Business with me,
Kerry McCoy. I'm speaking today with Justin Wittenberg, third generation owner of Ruebel Funeral Home. The oldest funeral home in Little Rock, Arkansas, founded in 1901 in downtown Little Rock, Arkansas. Before the break we talked about Justin's family legacy. Their family is old. Old family. I don't know if you could say old money, maybe old money. I don't know. But they've been around a long time. Wittenberg Delony, Davidson was your grandfather?
[00:15:20] JW: Great grandfather.
[00:15:20] KM: Great grandfather, and founded in the early 1900s. And then Ruebel Funeral Home was his next business venture. And then he passed it to his son, and then he passed it to his grandson, and
it's just been a wonderful family legacy. So we talked about how Justin kind of evolved and got into the business. But now let's talk about grief. You were kind of leading into that about how COVID has changed things. How people grieve and what they grieve.
So I went on your website and I kind of looked at the stages of grief. You have some good information for people there. And the first one is shock, then denial, then guilt, which I didn't realize everybody feels guilt. Sadness, acceptance, and then the rollercoaster of renewal as you get there. So let's
talk about shock. Why are you shocked? Why are people shocked? They're just never ready for it even
when you see it coming?
[00:16:21] JW: Yeah, I think that there's no way to totally prepare for your family member, the person you've been in love with for 40 years passing away. And even though you might have had the opportunity to prepare because they have a long demise, there's never any way to actually say to yourself, “When this person is gone, what am I going to experience?” And everybody experiences that differently. And so that is a shock to your system. And I think it's a very common term, but I tell lots of my clients that it's going to take a while to find your new normal. And that all of a sudden I'm this person and I have this support system, and I live in this household with this person. And all of a sudden that is gone and it'll never come back and there's nothing you can do to make it come back. It’s a shock to your system.
[00:17:17] KM: So then they go into denial.
[00:17:21] JW: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah, denial. It's, “This didn't really happen, or my life isn't going to change as a result of this, or I'll wake up tomorrow and this will be a bad dream that I had.” And you see one of the reasons we do funeral services is because it's a direct, “You can't deny this anymore. We’re all sitting here in this church together with your friends, your family, your community, and this is real.
[00:17:53] KM: So the service, the visitation, the memorial, the service is for the living.
[00:17:59] JW: Oh, 100%. Now my faith, my Catholic faith says that we do ceremonial things that prepare the dead for the transition into the afterlife. And everything that we do other than those very ceremonial things are for the living. And it gives the family members and the community an opportunity to mourn and show their support for each other. It brings us together as a community.
[00:18:33] KM: You did talk about grief, that having a memorial or visitation to share and remember the deceased is really important. How do you do that now that we’re in this pandemic?
[00:18:46] JW: I guess we've been doing it two ways. And we never – A year ago, I wasn't sitting in the break room talking with my employees or having a drink with my dad talking about, “Hey, when the pandemic hits and we can't go to church and have services or we can't have people in our chapel and have services, what are we going to do?” So it was a wake up one day and where everything shut down. So it's been a very reactionary environment.
I can tell you, at first we didn't do a good job of it. We told our clients one thing, “Hey, we'll take care of the immediate needs, and when they open everything back up, we'll have a service.” And since then, we've adapted and overcome and we've got a YouTube channel. Who would have ever thought a funeral home would have a YouTube channel?
[00:19:49] KM: What do you do with the YouTube channel?
[00:19:51] JW: We live stream the services. So the family is all sitting there. We have some of our churches that we service, and they tell their parishioners these family members that have lost someone that, “Yes, you can have a service at the church, but you can only have your immediate family members there.”
And so their extended family, their friends, their neighbors can't come and be a part of that service. And so we take an iPad on a tripod and we set it up and we live stream it to our YouTube channel. And they can sit in the comfort and safety of their own home and be a part of that service. And then they can reach out to the family later and say, “Hey, we were there. We saw it. What an amazing eulogy. What a beautiful service. We're so sorry we couldn't shake your hand or give you a hug afterwards, but we were there virtually.” And so we've really expanded the way we're able to virtually do services.
[00:20:55] KM: You talked about on your website how to be a friend to someone who is grieving. And it was call two days after the funeral, which I think was very great, was really good advice because it does seem like after everything's over with, the funeral is over, everybody goes home, the bereaved just sit there in their home and the phone's not ringing. And it says call your friend two days after the service and ask them if there's anything you can do to help.
[00:21:30] JW: That's great. I'm really glad you focused on that point. When I meet with the families, I often tell them that your friends are going to reach out to you and ask you what can I do to help. And we have a list of things that we tell them to tell their friends to do.
[00:21:45] KM: Because they can't think.
[00:21:47] JW: Right.
[00:21:47] KM: When you're depressed like that, you can't think. You're like nothing, but you really do have a whole list.
[00:21:52] JW: One of the most basic things that we have at every funeral is a register book, and it seems weird that you would go to your friend's mom's funeral and sign in. But I have had many clients that come to me afterwards and they're meeting me for a follow-up, and they're disgruntled because their business partner of 40 years didn't even show up for their mom's funeral. And I say, “Hold on.
I'm pretty sure I saw him there. Let's look back through the register book,” and sure enough, there's their signature. And they go, “Oh my goodness! I can't believe it. I just didn't have any idea. I forgot that we had that conversation.” You get this tunnel vision and everything's clouded and you really don't know what's going on.
And so that whole point of reaching back out to them. You might have been there with them the whole time, but there's so many things going on and there's so many people coming up to them, and then that's all coupled with the grief of the loss. They have no recollection of what's really happened. And so reaching back out to them and saying, “Hey, I know we talked yesterday. But how are you doing today? And what can I do now for you?”
[00:23:10] KM: And it's odd to me that people are afraid to mention, “I saw you lost your brother.” And people are like, “Oh, I didn't want to mention that.” And you're like, “No. No. No. The bereaved want you to mention the fact.” I think people are confused about that. I think if anybody is listening, be sure to mention the fact that you saw they lost a family member and that you're sorry or whatever. Just say, “I heard about your brother.” Boom! That's all you have to say.
[00:23:42] JW: Yeah. I think people really – They feel like they're going to reopen a wound or bring up a bad subject.
[00:23:49] KM: Yes.
[00:23:50] JW: It’s a wound that's already open, and by you coming up to them and telling them that you saw and that you're here for them, it helps close the wound. It doesn't reopen it.
[00:24:00] KM: Exactly. I think a lot of people are confused about that. So the other thing about grief is guilt. This one caught me by surprise. I mean, I've lost both of my parents and I had no idea the guilt that would come up later on just because for – I mean, it’s just part of it. I mean, you could think of anything. You could think of the smallest thing like, “Oh, should have passed them the salt when they asked.” I mean, it can really just be almost anything. And I thought that was interesting that you said guilt was a big one.
[00:24:36] JW: Yeah, I think it's the hardest one. I think that's the one that it goes unresolved for the most amount of time, because usually the guilt is rooted off of some unresolved issue. Maybe you got in an argument, or maybe you had a disagreement, or maybe you hadn't spoken to your sibling in four years, and now they've passed away and you wished you had done this, or now looking back on a thought that something should have been done differently, but there's nothing you can do to change that.
[00:25:11] KM: So how do you get rid of it? What do you tell people? Mine is not that. Mine is I should have done more.
[00:25:19] JW: Okay. Yeah.
[00:25:19] KM: I should have done more. I should have done more. I should have done more.
[00:25:22] JW: Right. Well, there's nothing more that you can do. And I think that faith has a lot to do with that overcoming it, that one day I will see them again and we can resolve this issue, or I know that they loved me and I have faith that they were a good friend or a family member and they would have forgiven me, and I have to forgive myself.
[00:25:50] KM: Oh! I like that one. They would have forgiven me, and I have to forgive myself. Those are pearls of wisdom. So do you think being a funeral director makes it easier or harder to be religious with all you see? With all you do?
[00:26:03] JW: I think it makes it a lot easier. I go into church services and I see some very, very tough situations where someone's passed away from an accident or a self-inflicted wound, and everybody's very, very upset and very hurt. And they get into their church, their home, and their religious leader stands up in front of them and leads them in prayer and you can feel a calm come over the people. And standing as an outside observer and witnessing this, I think my faith has done nothing but grow
through this since 2007, 13 years. It has really helped me realized that there is a higher being and that our religious faith is important to not only us individually, but us as a society as whole.
[00:27:14] KM: Sadness. After the shock, after the denial, after the guilt. Well, maybe not after the guilt,
but next comes the sadness. Do you warn everybody it's coming? It's coming and you're just going to wallow in it until it passes. Time will heal. What is the advice you can give to somebody who's got so much sadness?
[00:27:34] JW: It's so difficult. So many people in societies suffer from depression already and then you throw sadness on top of that and you feel so sorry and helpless. And what can I do to help you? And you try and give them as many resources as are possible. And there are so many resources out there.
[00:27:52] KM: Are there?
[00:27:53] JW: Oh my goodness! We give out an aftercare packet, and the largest section of it is grief resources.
[00:28:00] KM: Find a group. Find friends who experience the same loss and get in a group.
[00:28:04] JW: They don't even had to be friends. They just have to be other people, peers in your society to know that you're not alone.
[00:28:10] KM: So there's grief groups, I guess.
[00:28:12] JW: Oh, every church, every hospital, they all have multiple groups that, “I've lost a child. I've lost a spouse. I've lost a friend,” and you're not the only person that's lost someone. And to know that other people are out there and they suffer on a daily basis, just knowing that you're not alone I think helps people and being able to connect with someone that's experiencing the same thing is so important. On my phone, if you pull up my Safari, the one thing I've saved is an article from – I think it's been on my phone for five years, and it's says, “Everyone around you is grieving. Go easy.”
[00:29:03] KM: Oh, that's nice.
[00:29:05] JW: And I've never closed that page. I opened that article somebody sent it to me, and I opened it, and it was like, “Wow! This really makes sense.” Somebody might be rude to you in the line at the grocery store, but it might be because their dad died yesterday and they are just overcome with grief. Go easy. Everybody's lost something. It might have been their dog that they lost. It might have been their cat that they lost. It could have been their son that passed away. Everyone has lost something, and knowing that and being compassionate to people's grief really helps you understand society.
[00:29:43] KM: And be a better person, and not be so mad all the time.
[00:29:46] JW: Yeah. Right.
[00:29:47] KM: Over silly stuff. You put in there on your website live a healthy life and exercise. But when you are sad and depressed, you can't get off the couch to go exercise. You can't get off the couch to go fix a meal. I mean, that seems to me like you're on moving into the acceptance. Once you start moving into the other level, you talk about acceptance. And I love this thing you said, acceptance is growth, and then they began to turn their loss into something meaningful. I just hate it that you have to go through strife in life to grow. But you mentioned that if you get through this and you get to the acceptance, the growth that comes out of it can give new purpose and some meaning to your life, a different life.
[00:30:36] JW: Definitely. And I think that that holds true to every aspect of life, right? If it’s not tough, if you don't have to work for it, it doesn't really have any meaning. You fail over and over again and then you succeed, and that success is so much greater and so much rewarding because of the failures. And that translate directly into grief. You take this loss and you suffer, and maybe you hit rock bottom, maybe you don't, but you hopefully –
[00:31:13] KM: Does anybody ever come in and be angry with you?
[00:31:16] JW: Oh, definitely.
[00:31:17] KM: They do?
[00:31:18] JW: Yeah, definitely.
[00:31:19] KM: I mean, how can they be angry? I mean, are they just trying to find somebody to be mad at?
[00:31:24] JW: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. They're not angry at us. We’ve done nothing wrong. We've done nothing to make them mad. But they're mad at the situation they're in. And one of the biggest things I talk with my employees about is don't take anything personal. You might know this person personally, but 90 of the clients that they're going to meet with, they've never met before in their lives. And so if they come in and they're mad at you, it's not because something you did. So just sit there and understand that they're upset. And it really helps them help the other person, because they see this person that they're mad at and they're sitting there going, “Okay. All right. Okay.”
[00:32:06] KM: I wondered if in the funeral business if you ever got disgruntled customers, because I know in every business you do almost, but it seems like during that one, it would be so broken-hearted that it just didn't seem like they had much energy for anger.
[00:32:20] JW: Right. So I talk with my employees about how we have one chance to get it right. There's no retakes on a funeral. If we mess up and play the wrong song or do something that the family wasn't expecting or don't do something that they were expecting, that they're going to get hung up on that mistake and they won't be able to grieve properly because they're not experiencing the entire process, because they're thinking about that one mistake.
[00:32:50] KM: They’re probably looking for something to take their mind off.
[00:32:53] JW: Well, that's the one-percenters, we call them.
[00:32:55] KM: They’re trying to find something else to focus on.
[00:32:58] JW: They’ll find something wrong with everything they do that they experience in life, and we know that and we go, “Okay. We're sorry.”
[00:33:05] KM: Yeah. So before we take a break, let's just go through dealing with grief. You said have a memorial visitation to share and remember the deceased. Talk about your grief with others. Find friends who've experienced the same loss. Live a healthy life, exercise. Make small plans. Get out, which is hard to do. And this one a lot of people have problems with, allow yourself time. Don't think it's going to be overnight.
And then the other thing that I liked on your website about how to be a friend to someone who's bereaving is be an active listener. That's a great one. Call during holidays and often. Call two days after the funeral. Say the deceased's name out loud during conversations and ask how you can help. Those are great advice. This is a great place to take a break. Still to come, preparation. What you need to know before or after an end-of-live occurrence. And leaving a busy legacy, how have the Wittenberg’s done it so successfully? And I want to remind everybody, we broadcast live every Wednesday from 6 to 7 PM central time on Facebook, and podcasts are made available on all popular listening sites and Up in Your Business with Kerry McCoy’s YouTube channel. We’ll be back after the break.
[00:34:22] ANNOUNCER: Long before Beyonce sang this song to the Obamas at the Inaugural Ball, Eddie James sang it on the Dreamland Ballroom stage. Located on the top floor of the flagandbanner.com building in downtown Little Rock, there lies a historical treasure called the Dreamland Ballroom where musical greats like Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, and Eddie James once played.
30 years ago, this magnificent venue was destined for the Wrecking Ball, but since 2009, the nonprofit Friends of Dreamland has worked to restore this piece of Arkansas heritage. They’ve made it their mission to bring back its history and culture by providing tours, artistic performances, musical education and cultural outreach.
As you walk to the entrance of Dreamland, you’ll notice the paver bricks that are engraved with commemorative names and phrases chosen by donors to Dreamland. The Pave the Way Fundraiser is an ongoing project of the nonprofit Friends of Dreamland. Paver bricks are available for you to be a part of this restoration project. Visit dreamlandballrom.org to find out how you can contribute.
[00:35:32] KM: You’re listening to Up in Your Business with me, Kerry McCoy. I’m speaking today with Justin Wittenberg, third generation owner of Ruebel Funeral Home, the oldest funeral home in Little Rock, Arkansas. Founded in 1901 in downtown Little Rock, Arkansas.
Before the break, we talked about grief, being a good friend to someone who's bereaved. So if you miss that, you should go back and listen to it, great tips. You can also go to Ruebel Funeral Homes website, click on their links. You can follow the process. After my father died, hospice gave me a book. Told me when you’re taking care of someone’s who’s dying and how they pull away and what they began to do. And I wish I had gotten that before my father passed. They gave it to me afterwards. And I looked back over my father passing and I thought, “Oh, that's what he was doing.” So that's a nice tip out there that hospice has this book if you are caring for somebody or you feel like you're going to get there. They can kind of help you with the stages of life. Because I couldn't figure out why my dad won't talk to me all the time. It’s like he's pulling away from this world, you know?
But anyway, let's talk about the process before and after death. Before, what should we all do while we're still living?
[00:36:44] JW: You should all have the conversation with your family members and tell them what you want when you pass away and what you expect your funeral to look like and what you –
[00:36:57] KM: What if you don't know?
[00:36:59] JW: Tell them that.
[00:37:01] KM: Whatever you want to do?
[00:37:02] JW: Yeah. Give them to give them permission to make that decision on their own.
[00:37:06] KM: Have you done that? You're so young. Have you already done that? No.
[00:37:12] JW: It’s strange. I think coming from the inside-out, it's kind of like doctors make the worst patients. Funeral directors, they give great advice but they don't listen to their own advice. My dad says, “Y'all do whatever you want,” and now been a funeral director for 40 plus years. He's got an honorary funeral director's license from the state of Arkansas. He's been a funeral director for so long. And he's always said, “I don't care what you do. Do whatever makes you happy.”
But the fact that he says that to us means that when he passes away, whatever we decide to do, we know that he's happy with. And the hardest decisions that are made are when family members sit down and I say, “Okay. Where are we going to go now? What are we going to do next?” They go, “Oh, we don't know. We don't we don't want to make a decision that would upset my mother.” And then they're left hanging, and we direct them. And that's why we're funeral directors, but they might leave those arrangements with us and think, “Did I make the right decision?” And that's where the guilt stage comes back in on them even after they’ve done their best job to support their loved one that's passed away and do what they think was right. They don't know for sure that's what they wanted, and it leaves them with a bad feeling of, “Have I done the right thing?”
[00:38:45] KM: So my mother had picked out the funeral home. She wanted to be cremated, and she wanted to be buried in the North Little Rock Veteran Cemetery next to dad. That made everything so easy for me.
[00:38:59] JW: Yeah.
[00:39:00] KM: I mean, so easy for me.
[00:39:02] JW: Aren’t you lucky?
[00:39:04] KM: I felt so lucky that I didn't have to make any of those decisions, because I probably would have buried her if she hadn't said, “Oh! No. No. I want to be cremated.”
[00:39:14] JW: The easiest funerals that we direct for both my myself my staff and the families that we are there supporting are the ones that we pull a file out and say, “Your mom chose this, this, this and this, and here's her obituary that she wrote.” And they go, “Oh my goodness. We don't have to worry about anything?”
[00:39:34] KM: Writing an obituary is tough.
[00:39:37] JW: I can imagine. I wrote my grandmother's, and it wasn't easy, but she and I were the best of friends. And so I took joy in it. But I was in the funeral industry and I got a lot of experience of reading many, many obits, and I could pull from those. But yeah, writing an obit is a very difficult thing.
[00:39:59] KM: So you should even write your own obit, I guess.
[00:40:01] JW: Yes.
[00:40:03] KM: They used to let us lay in state. I kind of like that. Why are we not laying in state anymore?
[00:40:08] GM: Of course you like that.
[00:40:11] KM: I want to lay in state in the living room.
[00:40:12] GM: Don't worry mother, I'm taking notes.
[00:40:15] KM: Okay. Ruebel Funeral Home. Go to Ruebel Funeral –
[00:40:16] GM: Lying in state.
[00:40:17] KM: Lying in state at Ruebel Funeral Homes. And y’all have a big part.
[00:40:22] JW: We still do have people that lay in state for.
[00:40:25] KM: For how long?
[00:40:26] JW: I have state rooms.
[00:40:28] KM: Is that what that means on your website when it says you how many state rooms?
[00:40:33] JW: Three.
[00:40:33] KM: Three. Yeah. So three state rooms. I didn't know what that meant.
[00:40:37] JW: Where the person lays there and their friends come and see them and they come throughout the day and sign the register book. I have families that still do the what we call old school traditional way. And we take their mom and dad to their house.
[00:40:52] KM: That’s what I want.
[00:40:54] GM: Just right on the front porch.
[00:40:56] KM: I want to be in the dining room.
[00:40:58] KM: Oh, on the table? Like what’s her name?
[00:41:00] KM: Aha.
[00:41:01] JW: I love it. I think it's amazing. I think it really completes the grieving process. It's a complete acceptance of the fact that this person has passed away and they're now in a better place.
[00:41:15] KM: Americans are so weird about dying to me.
[00:41:20] JW: We have so many different faith directions in our country and so many different people telling us what we should do and believe, and that it's hard for people to say, “I don't care what you want. This is what I want and this is what makes me happy. And I'm going to do it.”
[00:41:39] KM: How long can you lay in state before you start to smell? Sorry, I just wondered.
[00:41:45] JW: Weeks.
[00:41:46] KM: Weeks. That embalming fluid works.
[00:41:48] JW: It works. Yes.
[00:41:49] KM: So why do we use embalming fluid?
[00:41:53] JW: To preserve.
[00:41:55] KM: I have a friend that’s Jewish. She's probably listening. She doesn’t want embalming fluid. She wants to she wants to go straight to burial within I think 24 hours, it has to be.
[00:42:06] JW: It's 48.
[00:42:07] KM: 48 hours.
[00:42:08] JW: 48. I would say that she's probably not Orthodox Jewish. She's probably Reformed Jewish. But the Orthodox Jewish faith says that there's no preservation of the body and they're buried within 48 hours of death. The state of Arkansas health department says that if we're not going to do anything to preserve the body, then yes, we have to bury within 48 hours of death. But we don't have to be embalmed to preserve. We can do refrigeration.
[00:42:38] KM: But you can't lay in state without embalming.
[00:42:41] JW: I wouldn't suggest it.
[00:42:43] KM: You have to burn a lot of candles.
[00:42:46] JW: Oh God!
[00:42:49] KM: Justin is grinning.
[00:42:50] JW: I was about to say I love this interview all of the sudden.
[00:42:55] KM: So after someone passes, what happens if it's in your home while under your care? Who do you call?
[00:43:02] JW: The police.
[00:43:03] KM: Oh, right.
[00:43:04] JW: And you tell them I’ve had a non-emergency death. And if you don't tell them the non-emergency part, the fire department and the mems and the police are all going to come light your neighborhood up in the middle of the night.
[00:43:17] KM: And everybody will know.
[00:43:18] JW: Yeah. Well, just the sight of the light and sirens are just overwhelming.
[00:43:24] KM: Yeah. And so uh my mother passed away like two o'clock in the morning in the middle of the night. I waited till morning to call, because I just thought I just kind of wanted to be with her and I also thought I didn't want to wake everybody up.
[00:43:40] JW: It's fine.
[00:43:42] KM: And so that was okay. I wondered if that was okay to do that.
[00:43:44] JW: I think it's great.
[00:43:47] KM: It's funny when someone dies in your home even if they're 95, like mother. You do kind of feel like, “Am I doing everything right? Am I doing everything lawfully the right way?”
[00:43:58] JW: Am I breaking the law? Yeah, that's the big fear.
[00:44:01] KM: I never thought about that until that happened with mother.
[00:44:04] JW: So have the conversation with your mother and then call the funeral home and have the conversation with them. This is what my mother wants. This is where she is. What do I need to do when she passes away? Okay. Well, what if I want to do something else? Can I do that? Yes or no. And we're there to direct you and allow you to grieve in the way that you want to grieve.
[00:44:32] KM: So everybody should have a funeral home in mind and should have called them and should have asked these questions, because I did not do that and I should have done that. And you get all those questions answered.
[00:44:43] JW: So there comes another hard part. That’s the denial part that we talked about before, and your mother hadn't even died yet.
[00:44:50] KM: I think it kind of was.
[00:44:51] JW: But by you calling the funeral home and asking them these questions that was you accepting that your mother was going to die, and that's a very difficult thing to do.
[00:45:02] KM: Even if you're ready. Even if she's 95, even if she's ready to go, it's still –
[00:45:06] JW: You weren't ready. You're sitting here telling me that what you did meant you weren't ready. You think you're ready, but you're still not completing the process. And that's okay.
[00:45:19] KM: Yeah. So if you're going to make decisions about – I notice on your website there're religious considerations to think about, which you already talked about. But what about you offer caskets vaults and urns. Caskets for in-ground burial?
[00:45:36] JW: Right, and vaults are for what the casket goes in. And it protects the casket. It keeps it from allowing water into the casket and it keeps the casket from being crushed over from the weight of the earth on top of it.
[00:45:51] KM: Do we care about that?
[00:45:54] JW: I do.
[00:45:55] KM: Does everybody get a vault or do most people?
[00:45:57] JW: No. No, definitely not.
[00:45:59] KM: Some people just put the casket straight in the ground. And then what about
– What are those rooms that you go into?
[00:46:08] JW: Mausoleums?
[00:46:09] KM: Mausoleums. I didn't see anything on your website about mausoleums.
[00:46:11] JW: Well. So that's above ground burial, and um those are provided by the cemetery.
[00:46:17] KM: Does Ruebel own a cemetery?
[00:46:18] JW: No. But I inherited a position on the executive board at Roselawn Cemetery when my dad retired, and it is one of the oldest cemeteries, not the oldest, in Little Rock. It's down at 17th and Woodrow. And it's across the street from the Catholic cemetery, which is Calvary Cemetery. A lot of people think they're the same cemetery, because there's just 17th Street Asher Wright Avenue, whatever name you choose to get.
[00:46:49] KM: We’ve only got a few minutes left. What is the weirdest request you've ever had?
[00:46:54] JW: I would say that it was a request my dad received from Craig O'Neill on a prank call.
[00:47:02] GM: Oh my God!
[00:47:04] JW: To embalm his pet turtle that had passed away.
[00:47:09] GM: That’s a prank call? Okay. I was hoping maybe somebody actually followed through.
[00:47:16] KM: All right. You're working for your family. We're wrapping it up now. I cannot thank you enough. I want to tell everybody that your facility has four state rooms on your website. Three or four state rooms?
[00:47:27] JW: Three.
[00:47:27] KM: Three. Three chapel seats 300. There's an arrangement room. Do you
[00:47:33] JW: Yes.
[00:47:33] KM: Oh, you do. You embalm there. There's a casket showroom.
[00:47:37] JW: No.
[00:47:38] KM: No.
[00:47:39] JW: No casket showroom anymore. We've converted that into a visitation/reception space. It's actually bigger than our chapel, and it's used more often than our chapel. And we have fully catered events with music and live music or recorded music. I mean, we’ve had open bars there where there's a bartender and people have drinks and they have a great time celebrating the life of their loved ones.
[00:48:05] KM: My favorite. All right. I want to give you a gift. Thank you so much for coming on. You get a US and an Arkansas desk set to put on your – Do you have one for the Ruebel Funeral Home?
[00:48:14] JW: I do not. I love it. I love it. Thank you so much.
[00:48:16] KM: You're welcome. Thank you so much. I really enjoyed talking to you. I hope everybody's gotten something out of it. It's really been – You're a really laid back guy.
[00:48:25] JW: Well, thank you. Thank you for the invite. I really appreciate you bringing me on your show.
[00:48:31] KM: You know, I think it's been a very rewarding show for everybody that got to listen. I just want to say to our listeners in closing, thank you for spending time with us. We hope you've heard or learned something that's been inspiring or enlightening, and that it, whatever it is, will help you up your business, your independence or your life. I’m Kerry McCoy, and I'll see you next time on Up in Your Business. Until then, be brave and keep it up.
[0:53:40.30] TB: You’ve been listening to Up in Your Business with Kerry McCoy. Want to hear today’s program again or want someone else to benefit from it? Jot this down. Within 48 hours the podcast will be available at flagandbanner.com. Click the tab labeled “Radio Show”, there you’ll find today’s segments with links to resources you heard discussed on this program. Kerry’s goal: to help you live the American Dream.