At Weed-Corley-Fish, the family business is a ministry

Laurens Fish III, managing partner at Weed-Corley-Fish Funeral Homes & Cremation Services. (Photo by Shelly Wilkison)

Laurens Fish III, managing partner at Weed-Corley-Fish Funeral Homes & Cremation Services. (Photo by Shelly Wilkison)

By SHELLY WILKISON

Living fast in a highly mobile world, it’s often difficult to make decisions about the end of our lives. But, planning a funeral, and making choices about cremation or burial are decisions that can ease the pain for those left behind.

For Laurens B. Fish III, being called into service at the most difficult time in someone’s life is a “unique and humbling experience.”

Fish is managing partner of Weed-Corley-Fish Funeral Homes and Cremation Services — one of Austin’s oldest funeral companies, which recently opened a funeral home in Leander, just minutes away from Liberty Hill on Bagdad Road.

“I remember pieces of every funeral, and regardless of how many we do, it never gets any easier,” he said.

With more than 20 years experience directing funerals in Central Texas, Fish said it is an honor to be asked to step in to help a family through the crisis of losing a loved one.

“This is a humbling experience to be part of these events,” he said, adding that sometimes the grief and stress can be overwhelming. “We give each family 100 percent and we have one shot to get every detail perfect. Then, we have to do it all over again, sometimes one or two more times in the same day.”

Fish’s grandfather, Jack Corley, grew up in a funeral home family in Mexia and later moved to Austin where in 1931 he purchased the Weed Funeral Home downtown. In 1954, Weed-Corley opened a second location at 3125 N. Lamar. Fish’s father, Laurens Fish Jr., married Corley’s youngest daughter and joined the family business in 1968.

Fish said he grew up understanding the serious nature of his father and grandfather’s work.

“I didn’t spend a lot of time at the funeral home as a kid,” he said. “It was a place of reverence, and what they did was serious work serving families. It wasn’t a place for kids to run around.”

Fish said he didn’t set out to become part of the family’s business, but while a business student at the University of Texas, he worked part-time at the funeral home helping set up funeral tents and delivering flowers to cemeteries prior to services. One day, he was called on to drive a car during a service when a staff member called in sick.

“I came to love the ineraction with people. I saw how my father helped people,” he said.

Fish said he decided to follow in his father’s footsteps shortly after the funeral of former Texas Gov. John Connally. Weed-Corley was selected to handle the arrangements  in June 1993.

But it wasn’t the high-profile service that captured his interest. Instead, it was watching the care his father gave to another family who lost a loved one about the same time.

“He gave as much attention and care to that family as he did to the Connally family,” Fish said, adding that he understood then that the family’s business was truly a ministry.

After completing his education at the University of Texas, Fish attended mortuary school in Dallas and joined the funeral home staff in 1991. Three years later, the company added the Fish name to the business.

He said Gov. Connally wasn’t the first high-profile Texan to be cared for by Weed-Corley. The funeral home was selected to handle the arrangements for former President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1973 and later for his wife, Lady Bird Johnson, who passed away in 2007.

Fish said looking back, he believes Weed-Corley-Fish was chosen to care for those families for the same reason many other families choose them.

“It doesn’t matter who we serve — from governors of Texas to President Johnson and Lady Bird to families working from job to job — they are all just as important as the next person,” he said. “It’s how we care for families.”

Fish said just as advances in technology have made the world more mobile, the changes have also impacted how Weed-Corley-Fish cares for the deceased and those who grieve for them.

He said the biggest change he has seen in the industry has been an increase in cremation services. He said cremation has become popular not only because of the cost savings, but because of the mobility of society.

“People aren’t committed to one community anymore,” he said. “I think I’m rare in that I still live in the town where I grew up.”

Fish said cremation is becoming a more popular choice over burial in cities with higher levels of education such as Austin. Perceived to be more ecologically friendly, the carbon footprint for cremation is significantly less than with a traditional burial.

He added that some cemeteries now offer space for “green” or natural burials. Some allow for the deceased to be placed directly into the ground without a casket. With no embalming fluid and no casket, or one made without glue or lacquers, no chemicals are placed into the ground.

At the same time society has become so mobile and people are busy, he said attendance at funerals is also down somewhat.

“It’s sad in a way that people are too busy to attend a funeral, but we have become such a global world,” he said.

Advances in technology have enabled Weed-Corley-Fish to do live webcasts of funerals for those unable to attend the service in person. It’s also possible now for families to make funeral selections on websites avoiding some of the more painful decisions traditionally made at the funeral home.

“Going into the casket room is one of the most painful things a familh has to do,” Fish said. “Walking in a room of empty caskets is so hard. Now, they can do this virtually by viewing them online.”

Technology has also made it possible to play music without having to hire singers and to show videos or slideshows.

Fish, who served six years on the Texas Funeral Services Commission as an appointee of  Gov. Rick Perry, said he was grateful for the experience. The Commission regulates the funeral industry in Texas and licenses directors and funeral homes. As a member of the Commission, Fish said he heard complaints from families across Texas and was pleased to have the opportunity to help people solve problems they were having in the industry. The experience also made him better at operating his business.

Weed-Corley-Fish opened the Leander location earlier this year after purchasing what was formerly the Wrench Funeral Home at 1200 S. Bagdad Road. Fish said it was an easy decision.

“We have four employees who live within a half-mile of here, two in Lago Vista and one between Leander and Liberty Hill. They were commuting to Austin and now, they are able to work in their own neighborhood,” he said.

Fish said the four funeral homes employ 35 people, among whom are 15 licensed funeral directors. The average staff tenure is 10 years, he said.

“We do everything ourselves and we feel very strongly about this,” he said. “We do all our own work. When we bring a person into our care, they never leave our care. It is paramount to us that we have 100 percent control over the decedents.

“We’ve been at this (business) a long time, and we have an unbelievable staff,” he said. “We aren’t a big corporation accountable to a bunch of (absent) stockholders. We are a small family-owned business and our focus is on a high level of family service. This business is a ministry and is our way of helping families.”

Fish, a husband and father of three young children, admits that sometimes his business takes a toll on him.

“This is very stressful,” he said. “I go home and there are days when I’m just done. Children are the worst, it’s heartbreaking. And people killed in tragic accidents…it takes a toll on everybody here.”

Although now managing partner in the firm, Fish said he still spends most of his time directing funerals and caring for families. He said those who make funeral arrangements while they are still living make death so much easier on their loved ones.

“With a sudden death, it’s especially hard on family when no decisions have been made. They struggle with what that person would want,” he said, adding that choosing the right funeral home is equally important.

“At the most diffult time in their life, we become part of that family,” he said.