Michael Hodges ran off the conglomerate behemoths of death when he sold his funeral business last month. Although a national trend continues of family operations selling to corporations, Hodges handed his keys to a longtime employee, leaving money on the table.
He came to Dade City in 1999 and engraved the name Hodges Family Funeral Home into a black granite sign to declare his commitment to the community. He had purchased the venerable 1909 Sears catalogue kit-house property on Fifth Street and transformed it into a 3,000-square-foot funeral home with a 220-seat chapel, mortuary and office space.
Then he sat at his desk and watched the traffic flow from the post office.
"I was hoping someone would come in," Hodges said. "I was the janitor, yard man, driver, purchasing agent, embalmer and funeral director."
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Randy Bush, with a sixth-generation east Pasco pedigree, was general manager at Canadian Alderwoods Group doing business as Coleman-Ferguson Funeral Home seven blocks away. Bush, 48, remembers holding an office lottery to predict how long Hodges would survive. At the same time, he rode a ripple effect that Hodges created by lowering prices to compete.
Within five years Hodges prevailed, taking over the giants at Coleman-Ferguson and luring Bush to his team as vice president and general manager. Their business of "death calls" expanded every year from 37 to more than 700 in 2013.
By 2006 Hodges had bought out Alderwoods Group interests in two funeral facilities and a cemetery, a mile south on U.S. 301 and in Zephyrhills at County Road 54 and Dean Dairy Road. He brought those facilities' prices down to his, instead of the other way around, and he installed what remains the only crematorium in east Pasco.
With a thriving business, Hodges found he could start to give back. He reduced or waived his fees for indigent families. He bought steers and hogs at the county fair, supported the local Little League and provided calendars for area churches.
Last week he recalled the challenge of acclimating to a town where he knew no one.
"I met my Realtor," Hodges, 63, said. "And then my new insurance agent, Scott Black. Scott helped haul and install my heavy office desk."
Eventually this outsider joined the chamber of commerce, city government committees, and rose to the boards of directors for Rotary, Hospice and Habitat for Humanity.
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Hodges admits that he's a type A personality with intense attention to details. Bush is a self-described type B, with an affable, easygoing exterior.
They collaborate on the art of embalming, which is a lot more complicated than the public realizes. Fluid formula and dyes return the deceased to a natural color. Then there's the science.
"Every person is special," Hodges said. "Our mixtures depend on weight, time of death, refrigeration and medical treatment prior to death."
"Randy is an expert at hair and restoration," he added. "I concentrate on relaxing the eyes and the mouth's expression. We also use fillers to plump up."
Referrals come from families, hospitals, nursing homes, churches and the police department.
Dade City police Chief Ray Velboom describes Hodges and Bush as "great guys."
"They always take good care of our families," Velboom said. "The one thing a small city police force can do is to provide free escort services (for funerals), whether there's 10 or 500 people."
In contrast to corporations with records of trading financial favors with religious dioceses, Hodges established personal relationships with every church and members of the clergy.
"We know which ministers have allergies to flowers," Bush said. "We understand their practices and restrictions. Any funeral in Lacoochee? You know there's going to be a lot of good food."
The same get-it-right approach applies to families too: "It's important for us to impart peace of mind and comfort to loved ones," Hodges said. "You get do-overs in marriage but not in death."
Their services come with precise warnings on occasion. For example, inviting people to speak at an open microphone is a risky practice.
"People can ramble on or share inappropriate details about the deceased," Hodges said.
Bush added: "It's in poor taste to badmouth. Save it for the bar. Not at the funeral."
Hodges says 25 percent of their business involves negotiating on living individuals' predetermined plans. He recommends irrevocable trusts during end-of-life preparations.
"After Walkin' Lawton (former Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles) was put to rest in a pine box, it became a trend," Bush said. "Some people prefer custom casket materials and linings. We honor requests, like ... color shades from hair, to lipstick, to nail polish."
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Hodges spent months last year recovering from a bleeding ulcer, heart procedures and other complications.
The least of his worries was Bush, who smoothly managed the funeral home during his absence. On March 13, with the help of Florida Traditions bank, the business was restructured and the torch was passed.
"My attention to details suffered from retrograde memory loss," Hodges said. "It was time to work on my bucket list."
Hodges, who retains 10 percent ownership, drives a shiny red Ford Mustang Shelby and plans to travel.
His son Michael, 25, just returned from Afghanistan and is helping at the funeral home before entering Navy officer training.
His daughter Courtney, 27, is a pastry chef in Chicago. He'd like to write a book of stories to follow up on his personal essay "What Happens When You Die" by a "death survivor and professional undertaker."
Bush, along with fellow board member and part owner Lindsey Palmer, oversee a staff of 24. Their annual payroll of $750,000 stays in Pasco County.
Thanks to Hodges, so too will the ownership.
"I started at 18 years old earning $5 an hour washing cars and taking out the trash," Bush said. "When I came to work this morning I washed the cars and took out the trash."