After 32 years of helping families through their most difficult days, Gary Anderson is retiring. Most recently the manager of Roller-McNutt Funeral Home in Conway and Greenbrier and west regional manager for the company, Anderson has a depth of knowledge and experience about the industry matched only by his compassion for the grieving.
In 1976, Anderson began pastoring a church in Marianna, Ark. Six years later Jimmy Boyd, owner of Citizens Funeral Home (later to become Roller-Citizens), approached him about doing some part-time work at the mortuary.
"I had officiated a lot of funerals, and he was impressed," Anderson said. "He said he would teach me anything I wanted to know about the business. When I got in there and saw the ministry of helping people at the most difficult time of their lives, it literally became my ministry."
He said the job can be stressful at times, but he does not focus on the stress. He focuses on the people who need his help.
"The first thing is a very compassionate ‘I’m so sorry for your loss, but we’re going to help you get through this. To take them by the hand and walk them through that process — that’s what’s made me tick for 30 years."
While some might not understand the attraction to a career in Anderson’s field, he explained it easily with a story.
In 1996 he arranged a funeral for a 19-year-old boy who was killed in an accident. Everything went smoothly, and a week or so after the service, the boy’s father came by the funeral home and spoke to Anderson. He will never forget what the man said.
"He said, ‘I used to have a bad feeling about you. I used to think, these guys make a living waiting on someone to die. But I don’t know what I would have done without you.’"
He added, "Some of the best friends I have today are people who I never knew who they were until they had a death and I was able to help them get through that process and have a meaningful funeral."
Anderson said he has served hundreds of families and worked hundreds of funerals, from small gravesides to packed-out churches. From the time he started to work, he learned all that he could. He became licensed as a funeral director, went to school and earned an associate degree in mortuary science and became an embalmer. He later became a certified crematory operator by the Cremation Association of North America. He also earned the Certified Funeral Service Practitioner certification, an elite and difficult-to-maintain credential awarded by the Academy of Funeral Service Practitioners.
He became manager at Roller-Citizens in 1992 and served there until he was transferred to Roller-McNutt in Conway, where he was regional manager for Conway and Clinton and Crestlawn Memorial Park and Crematory. In 2001 his responsibilities were increased as west regional manager, which added the locations of Clarksville, Paris, Booneville and Searcy.
Through the years, Anderson has trained others who have gone on to be successful funeral directors and embalmers, he said.
"I’m not the best at anything, but I have been able to mentor some people who today are far better than me," he added.
He said he has been privileged to work with many different cultures and learn about different funeral customs.
"While I’ve never understood some of their customs, the one thing you can understand is that the pain is the same," he said.
The job is not without its funny moments, however, he said. Once he and Boyd conducted a funeral at a Baptist church, and afterward an elderly lady came up to them as they were rolling the casket out of the building.
"She slapped the casket and said, ‘Jimmy, y’all do a great job. I can’t wait for you to do mine.’ We nearly cracked up," he said.
As for retirement plans, Anderson said he and his wife of 46 years, Kathy, will move to Russellville to be near their daughter, Cindy, and her husband, Mike, and their two children, Mikayla, 15, and Gentry, 12. They will also spend time caring for his aging mother-in-law, he said.
"I plan on doing nothing and doing it real slow," he added.
(Staff writer Rachel Parker Dickerson can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 505-1236. To comment on this and other stories in the Log Cabin, log on to www.thecabin.net. Send us your news at www.thecabin.net/submit)