From the April 5, 2018, issue of the Memorial Business Journal
Editor’s note: NFDA Past President Robert J. “Bob” Biggins died suddenly last week at age 61. One month earlier, from February 23-25, Biggins served as facilitator of NFDA’s Cremation Conference, which was held in St. Pete Beach, Florida. He offered the introductory and closing comments. As his family and friends take him to his final resting place today, we offer his full remarks, only slightly edited, in this issue. At the opening of the conference, a video from the Funeral Service Foundation touting its new Youth & Funerals initiative, was played. Bob Biggins, a member of the Foundation's Board of Trustees, began his remarks.
How powerful is it to have something for your community, for your consumers to be able to see that you really believe in the value of the funeral, number one, and two, to believe in the power of children participating in funerals.
Lots of times you’ve seen parents say, ‘I’m not going to bring the kids.’ We have to have tools in our tool belt that explain why it is so important for kids to be at funerals. I am living testimony to why it’s important. At 12 years of age, Ella Agnes Biggins died, and I went to her funeral. She was my grandmother. I was so fascinated by what took place at that ceremony and ritual, so fascinated by how beautiful she looked. She had been a very sick woman for a long time, and the folks at O’Connor Brothers Funeral Home in Worcester, Massachusetts, made her look beautiful. I am a funeral director today because, at 12 years old, I went to my grandmother’s funeral. My dad said that afterward, all I talked about was funerals. Kids are important. Use the tool we’ve available to you.
My role here the next day and a half is going to be as moderator, as a cheerleader for the folks who are going to come up and speak. But I want to share with you what I call in my firm the Three Ps. We use these all the time.
The first is purpose. We have to have a goal, we have to be driven to do what it is that we believe in – our core value, our core essence of what it is that we do in our communities. We try to enfold in our staff the knowledge that they have a purpose in what it is we are doing.
Secondly, we want them all to be proud of what they do. Because if we are proud of what we do, if we are proud of our service, then the last P is absolutely going to fall into place.
Are you passionate about what you do? Do you get up every morning and say, ‘I get to go help people today’? Or ‘I get to serve my community’? Or, if you have a tough case you’re working on, are you passionate about your purpose and your pride? All three of them work together.
Keep in mind those three Ps as you listen to our presenters today and tomorrow because they all have it. I know they do. And all we’re trying to do here today is share that pride, purpose and passion with you.
Sunday, February 25
Editor’s note: At the conclusion of the Cremation Conference on February 25, Biggins offered his closing remarks.
We have about 30 minutes left before we leave this place to go home to preach the gospel, if you will. Before we do that, I’d like to thank everybody for being here.
My role in this conference is to moderate and keep everything on track and kind of just wrap things up. Notice I don’t have a PowerPoint presentation because I don’t have a whole lot of statistics that I want to share with you. I don’t have a whole lot of bar graphs and I don’t have a whole lot of photographs. But what I do have are those three Ps that I live by and work by every single day.
Every one of our presenters gave us some real, valuable information we can take home, we can share, we can incorporate and we can learn from. That is the value of doing these things. You heard Cody talk about being in a Meet the Mentors program when he was newly licensed and what he took away from it. He visually showed us how he has incorporated that into his career. That is what this stuff is all about. If you take the notes home and just put them on the side shelf, your time here has been wasted, other than enjoying the warm weather and fellowship.
Before I send you off, I want to tell you a little about me that I hope can impact you – literally infect you.
I told you yesterday that when I was 12 years old, I attended my grandmother’s funeral. That funeral director made an impact on me. That experience made an impact on me. My Dad, who is going to turn 90 on Tuesday, we’re from an Irish-Catholic family in Worcester, Massachusetts, right in the center of Massachusetts; it’s actually called the heart of the Commonwealth. My dad worked for the phone company. When I started high school, I’d come home and say, “I really want to be a funeral director.” His response to me was, “Undertakers are all a bunch of drunks.” This was from a guy who worked for the phone company. But I was passionate about what I wanted to do.
I met my wife in high school when we were 15 years old. I told her what I wanted to be, and she still dated me. Amazing. But I, like many of you, had sought out what I had passion for. It started with interest. It started with just pure interest. And as I went along, it became pure passion. It became a burning desire to do what we all do for families every single day, to make a difference in my community, to make a difference in my profession.
I went to New England Institute in Boston and studied funeral service. I didn’t get a degree; back in those days, you didn’t need one. I got a diploma. To this day, I don’t have a degree. But I had passion to do what I wanted to do.
I graduated in the middle of my class. I got by. I always did what I had to do. I passed the state board exam. Back in those days, you didn’t have to take the Conference exam; it cost $300 to take the Conference exam, and I was saving to get married, so I wasn’t going to spend $300 on the Conference exam. So I took the Massachusetts State Board, and I flunked. I came back and told my boss that I flunked and he said, “I didn’t know you were taking it this week. You should have told me. The chairman of the state board is a friend of mine, and I would have called him.” That’s the way it worked back then. Honestly, that is the way it worked! I should have told my boss because he would have called his friend, the chairman of the state board, so I wouldn’t flunk.
In Massachusetts in those days, you could only take it once every six months. It was a written exam, so you had to go sit in a classroom. So I went back and I studied and studied and took the exam again, and I passed.
So I am here to tell you that I became president of NFDA, and I flunked my exam! Do you think that when I flunked that exam that I would ever be president of NFDA? I can tell you today absolutely, positively no!
But why did that happen? Because I was passionate. I wanted to continue to learn, I wanted to continue to get better. And by the grace of God, I met people who encouraged me to become active in my state association and then encouraged me to become active in my national association.
I can remember when John Carmon swore me in as NFDA president, and I thought, “Holy *&#@, how did this happen? How could this be?” It’s because of purpose, pride and passion. I got infected. It was the best infection I ever had, and I am not taking an antibiotic to get rid of it.
I learned over the years some really important things. We saw some really awesome facilities that Kurt [Soffe] has, that Bill [Wappner] has and that Cody [Jones] has. The asset of those facilities helps them shine in their communities.
But I would challenge each of them and each of you to say that those facilities they showed are not their best asset. I will say that again. Those beautiful facilities they showed us are not their best asset.
Before I tell you what I think their best asset is and what I know my best asset is, I want to share a story with all of you. Charles Plumb, a U.S. Navy jet pilot who flew 76 missions over Vietnam during his service, was a very successful and decorated airman. On his 77th mission, his plane was hit by a [ground-to-air] missile. The plane exploded and he ejected. He parachuted to the ground and was held as a POW for six years by the Viet Cong. He suffered severe injuries and was so very lucky to be alive.
When he retired from the Navy, he went on a speaking tour and talked about the importance of training, the importance of teamwork – all of the things he had learned by being a POW. One day, Plumb was in a Denny’s restaurant with his wife. A server came up to him and said, “That man over there thinks he knows you.” The man was sweeping the floor. Plumb looked at the guy and said, “I don’t know him.” The server said that the man insisted.
Plumb said, “Bring that guy over here. I want to talk to him.” The gentleman who was sweeping the floors came over to Plumb and said, “You don’t know me, do you?”
Plumb responded, “I am sorry, I don’t remember you. How do I know you?” The man replied, “On the day of your 77th mission, I packed your parachute.” Plumb stood and said to him, “Without you in my life, I’d be dead.”
A simple act like packing a parachute suddenly was recognized by Plumb as a life-saving event, and here he was confronted by the man who did it. So I take that story and I bring it home to me. Who are the people who pack my parachute? It’s a long list. First and foremost is my wife, my children and now my grandchildren.
I don’t know how many of you were in Boston [at the NFDA International Convention & Expo] and heard the [opening session] speaker. He was all fired up, giving us this motivational speech, and he stopped right in the middle of it. I don’t know if it was scripted or not, but he stopped right in the middle of his presentation and said, “You know, before I left, I spent the night with my grandkids. You know what grandchildren are? Grandchildren are God’s reward to you for not killing your own children!” I’ll take that to the bank.
Let’s talk about our employees, the people who are at home right now answering the phones, taking care of our businesses, serving families. The stuff we are learning here, we need to take home and share with that wonderful asset. They are our parachute packers.
I would never have been able to be away 180 nights the year I served as president of NFDA if it wasn’t for those parachute packers. They’re our best asset. That building is awesome, Cody. But that picture of your staff, that’s what makes you a [successful] man. Kurt, Bill… same thing.
Without your staff, you wouldn’t be here. You wouldn’t be successful. None of us could be.
Let’s talk about other relationships, too. I think what makes me so passionate and so proud of what it is I do, and what it is all of you do, are those relationships we make in our community, those relationships we make on that day that someone with the deepest despair, on the toughest day of their life, they hand to us their greatest treasure. They hand to us their loved one.
How many of you can say you truly feel you have become part of those people’s families many, many times over the course of a year. I can. I can tell you times that I would go into the grocery store, which I hate to do but have to, and people see me and say, “Thank you so much. I remember what you five years ago for my mother.” Or, “My mom died two weeks ago and you were in the British Virgin Islands because I saw it on Facebook. But your son took such good care of us.” He packed my parachute, didn’t he?
Hopefully – and I know it’s true – I pass on my purpose, my pride and my passion to these people. It’s my challenge to you today. When you leave here, take all of the things you’ve learned and incorporate them so you can better serve families. Also, take home passion. Take home pride. I guarantee you it’s infectious. I guarantee you. Because you know, I love what I do.
A funeral director is not what I do. A funeral director is who I am. And when you get that burning passion inside you, you have never worked a day in your life. If you love what you do, it is not work. And I hope you can become that passionate, that infected with this burning desire.
Bear with me for this. You know, I thought I was a good funeral director. I read all of the books on death and dying, I read all of the books on bereavement. I read all of the books by Elizabeth KüblerRoss and Bill Lamers, from all of the people who really know stuff about death and dying. I can tell you about countless widows and widowers I have put my arm around and explained grief to them. I knew it. I studied it. I went to school for this. I thought I was the specialist.
And you know what? I didn’t know jack – until May 12, 2015, when my beloved wife of 37 years [Christine] died after a valiant battle with breast cancer. I was a fish out of water. I didn’t know what to do, what was up, what was down, which way to turn.
But you know what? I had those parachute packers. They got me through it. And they still get me through it. Because they understood the value of what we do every day. I didn’t have to worry about a thing. The guy who takes care of our landscaping stepped up and helped direct the funeral while my son and I were grieving. The retired phone man made sure the cars were spotless so we could have a beautiful celebration.
My CFO, the woman who really is the boss, in the two weeks before my wife died, she had every curtain and rug in our chapel replaced. We had talked about doing it, but she made sure it was done for Chris’ wake and funeral.
The other parachute packers – and this has turned out to be a wonderful thing for me – turned out to be the people who came to support us, the people who came to say they cared. I can’t tell you the number of people who came through and said, ‘You probably don’t remember me, but you buried my mother six years ago and I had to be here for you.’ The people who came in and said, ‘Remember when our son died in that tragic car accident? You made it so smooth for us. We had to be here for you.’
Bill Wappner was in Hong Kong at the Asia Funeral and Cemetery Conference. I knew he was going; we had talked when he’d call to see how Chris was doing. As I stood there greeting people, Bill’s wife walked into the visitation. She flew home from Hong Kong to be there for Chris. Bill Wappner is a parachute packer.
All of us are parachute packers for the families we serve. All of us save lives. When Charles Plumb ejected from that plane, he never thought about who packed his parachute. It took being in Denny’s decades later for him to finally put two and two together.
Let’s not wait decades. Let’s leave St. Pete to go back to Wisconsin, to Kentucky, to Maine, to Virginia or wherever you’re going with pride, purpose and passion – and now the new P – packing parachutes. Thanks so much for coming, we really appreciate your effort to be here and your input, and we wish you nothing but the best.