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Matters of life & death: Phillip A. Maher

A portrait of funeral director Phillip A Maher and interiors shots of his funeral home in Tinley Park, Illinois

Ever wondered why funeral directors love their job and how working closely with death shapes their own philosophies about life?

Funeral director Phillip A. Maher owns and runs the Maher Funeral Home in Tinley Park, IL, supported by Funeral Director Alan Quitman and his right-hand man, Robert J. Maher, who is known with great affection by the family – and the Southwest Chicago community the funeral home is at the heart of – as “Uncle Bob”.

Phillip, who served as an Intelligence Specialist in the U.S. Naval Reserve Counter Terrorism Unit for more than a decade, has been a licensed funeral director since 1991 and opened Maher Funeral Home in Tinley Park three years ago. Here, he opens the doors to share a glimpse inside his world.

Funeral director Phillip Maher and his team

Becoming a funeral director wasn’t necessarily the plan: I was an undergraduate at Bradley University in Peoria Illinois studying Political Science. My mother, Marian Maher, did not take kindly to me spending my semester breaks in pursuit of leisure activities or members of the fairer sex. My mother was an organist/office manager for a local funeral home and arranged for me to fill in twice a week for an employee out sick for the summer at the casket showroom of their casket supplier.

“Get out of bed, put your suit on, head over to Curtis Casket to meet your new boss. You’re selling caskets this summer”.

This is not the typical phone call an 18 year old receives from his mother. She ended with: “I think I have them convinced to hire you, do not open your mouth and dissuade them of this”.

This part-time summer gig led to me meeting my future mentor the late Andrew J. McGann Sr. who owned another funeral home in our working class Chicago neighborhood and used the same casket supplier. Mr McGann was a Veteran of both WWII and Korea. In addition to his very successful funeral home he was also a lawmaker in Illinois State House of Representatives.

I was fortunate that Mr. McGann was a took me under his wing. He became my mentor and talked to me about attending Mortuary College. And I have absolutely no regrets that I did.

Funeral directing is a caring profession. Some of the best advice I received from my late mentor was that “funeral service is about serving families, not about selling funerals.” I worked for McGann Funeral Home for 24 years and when it was sold to the second corporation after his passing, I felt the time was right to find a family owned opportunity and return to the way things are supposed to be done.

It’s alarming when people are given bad service by a funeral home or a bill three times higher than they were expecting. This kind of thing reflects badly on the entire industry as a whole.

A photo of Maher Funeral Home's cosy family area

A year after we opened, our mom got sick and passed away. Marian Maher was an organist, office manager and community activist. Her illness and subsequent passing were quite a blow. Nothing in my career prepared me for her death. Yet the local community of funeral directors rallied round and all came together to support us. My main concern during her funeral service was hearing her voice in the head: “You’d better have made those windows sparkling and the funeral home better be spotless…”

Our funeral home was a municipal library and even has guest rooms. It is 26,000 square feet over two levels, so we have a tremendous amount of space. We decided to transform some of the space and put in an entire apartment. It’s a family suite and even has a bedroom, so when families are here all day, they can have a private space or let the kids watch TV or play video games.

We’ve even had out-of-town guests who’ve been attending a funeral stay in the suite. One family who traveled here for a funeral also had to attend a wedding in town, stayed for a week. You have to be willing and open-minded in this industry.

We proudly serve veterans in our community We are proud and thankful to be in the center of a very active veterans community in Tinley Park, Illinois. As a US Navy Veteran, we felt the veteran community was not receiving the respect they deserved.

Few veterans knew of the various benefits they were entitled to. So I realized there was a great need for a veteran-friendly funeral home. We’ll make sure there is a Honor Guard, burial flag, etc, at every veteran’s funeral and ensure the families know about VA burial benefits. I found a lot of veterans were not aware didn’t know about this and were paying for a plot at a private cemetery when they didn’t have to.

For one veteran who died alone without family, we arranged the funeral and donated the casket. My view was that this man had put his hand in the air and made a promise he would care for our country and lay down his life.

There’s a living component and a death component to a funeral. Most people think the focus on the funeral is death, but I think it’s the opposite. It’s about the start of the bereaved family’s journey towards healing.

We support families who are mindful of their finances Each family’s situation is different. For some of our families who are planning a funeral, finances are an issue.

Once they end up at our place, whatever their budget, we will give them the service they deserve. This means steering families to economical options or discounting our services to help make a family satisfied, and it’s a way of building trust, so that families know they can turn to you in the future.

One of Maher Funeral Home's well-appointed reception areas

Funerals are changing, With a focus on personalization, celebrations of life and more people choosing cremation. As a funeral director, I don’t see the upward trend of cremation is a threat, but an opportunity. There are so many ways to make a cremation funeral unique and meaningful. The baby-boomer generation is demanding personalization and we ought to be doing more. It’s a great opportunity.

We relish the opportunities to assist in creating a unique and different funeral or a celebration of life or a service. The words “no” and “cannot” are not in our vocabulary.

The biggest parts of your life should be part of the funeral service. The more we include of people’s lives the more that families will respond in a positive way and by that, I mean they’ll leave the funeral with a positive memory.

The more that the family members are included in a funeral, the more it will have a positive response. If they did a reading, or acted as a pallbearer for their loved one, then that’s the warm memory they are going to walk away with.

Yes, there’s plenty of laughter in our funeral home. Yes, contrary to popular believe. We oftentimes have a little laughter, even in a business that’s surrounded by sadness. If anything laughter can be a defence/coping mechanism.

Many moments stay with you. It’s the young people that stick with you. For example, presiding over the funeral a 96 year old, while sad for the family, is honoring a full life well lived. The passing of a young person or a child is heartbreaking. To lay to rest potential and memories never made seems unnatural.

We had a young girl who passed away suddenly and unexpectedly Her Mother and Father naturally took this very hard. Days later, after the funeral, a note arrived in the mail. They had written: “We felt that the Maher Funeral Home with its uplifting atmosphere made our dear Bridget's spirit feel safe, well cared for and at peace. We felt Phillip was following a much larger calling than just fulfilling his funeral director responsibilities.”

I got goosebumps when I read that.

People ask how we can handle death day in, day out. My satisfaction is in the helping families who are grieving and hopefully start them on a path towards healing. Most often when you meet with them they are strangers, but after spending three or four days together, things change. They’ll hold my hand at gravesite and say: “We couldn’t have got through it without you”. That’s our job and it brings me great satisfaction.