CLEARWATER — Charlie Behr rose to wealth and prominence because he knew how to guide his funeral customers through the worst moments of their lives.
He helped them make plans, choose urns or caskets, then attended to every detail. He turned the struggling Moss-Feaster Funeral Home around and sold his interest for millions. Then an unscrupulous stockbroker lost Mr. Behr's fortune.
Mr. Behr, who with charm and resourcefulness helped build what was the largest independent funeral home in the state, died Dec. 17 of lung cancer. He was 63.
A fastidious man with sparkling blue eyes, Mr. Behr grew up in West Palm Beach. He couldn't afford college and got a job with a local funeral home. He was in his late twenties when Service Corp. International, a Houston company, bought two Miami funeral homes in 1972.
Gregory Jewell of SCI offered a job to Mr. Behr, who was then general manager of both locations. With a confident manner and willingness to manage detail-laden funerals, Mr. Behr was a natural.
"Whenever a family has a death, it's usually the worst day of their life," said Rick Chesler, a funeral director at Moss-Feaster. "And you have to take their considerations into account as far as what their needs are, and try to be ahead of them in anticipating those needs to help them get through it. He was a really hands-on guy who knew how to make people feel comfortable."
Jewell brought Mr. Behr to Houston in 1987 as his right-hand man at SCI, which had grown into the largest funeral and cemetery service provider in the world. In 1990 the two men bought Moss-Feaster in Clearwater and the National Cremation Society.
Their partnership flew in the face of another trend — the corporate ownership of funeral homes. But the men drew traffic to Moss-Feaster by diving into community activities.
As his fortunes grew, Mr. Behr helped friends who were down on their luck. He opened his heart and his wallet, whether they could pay him back or not.
In 1994, Jewell and Mr. Behr fielded an offer from the Loewen Group, which with SCI and Stewart Enterprises now controlled the majority of the funeral market. SCI moved first, buying the business back from them.
But a renegade stockbroker lost $6 million of Mr. Behr's money in 1998 on investments Mr. Behr said were made without his knowledge. His savings wiped out, Mr. Behr was also in the midst of a protracted divorce from his wife of 24 years. At one point, the man others had turned to for help was living in an apartment above one of the funeral homes he had once owned.
Mr. Behr sued. In 2000, Morgan Stanley Dean Witter repaid him about $3 million.
In 2004 he married Karinne Martinez, a movie producer who had produced films with Richard Gere, Michelle Pfeiffer and Armand Assante.
Chest pains in September led Mr. Behr to hospital tests. Doctors found advanced lung cancer. Mr. Behr made the funeral arrangements for himself.