ImageAs you talk to David Penepent he repeatedly emphasizes his mission statement: 'Nothing but the best care and compassion for the living and the dead.'   "When we get a call -- even if it's an institution and we could wait until morning -- we immediately go out," he says.  "We don't hesitate.  We provide immediate response to care and compassion from the very beginning from the very first phone call and long after the bill is paid we still extend that care and compassion to the living and to the dead.  We show respect at all times."

Penepent is the Funeral Director at Herson Funeral Home.  Founded by Matthew J. Herson in 1935, the mansion is located in the center of Ithaca on Geneva Street, back to back with Matthew's parents' Albany Street home where he began practicing the funeral business.  Because most funerals were conducted at the deceased's home, the building was used primarily to conduct business and provide indigent services.  But as times changed so did the business, and Herson added a wing to conduct funeral services in 1955.

David Penepent with pictures of Founder Matthew and  Helen Herson

Penepent says that the business continues to keep up with changing mores.  "What really impressed me when I learned the history was that Herson was always the innovator in the new trends in funeral directing," he says.  For example, he says that people today don't like to choose coffins, so he has set up a wall of samples that show the style by displaying a corner with details of each in a drawer below in the showroom.  He says that approach is less upsetting to bereaved customers.  He also points to new products such as laser-cut bronze markers with a color likeness of the deceased.  Video tributes are another innovation that is beginning to catch on.  But even with a spacious, diverse showroom filled with the things you might need when a loved one dies, Penepent says Hersons is not in the business of selling expensive funeral accoutrements.

"We took that element out of our business," Penepent says.  "The only thing we sell here at the funeral home is our building and ourselves, what we do to care for the bereaved and the dead.  With respect to caskets, vaults, and markers we don't care if you buy it from us.  How many funeral directors will say that?  Not very many."

Penepent says he charges $250 above his cost for coffins, which is what it costs to have it shipped.  "We sell caskets and vaults at wholesale price and the reason why we do that is because we really don't care if you select a casket off of the internet for example.  That's your choice.  Ours are cheaper because we don't mark our caskets up.  We took it out of the equation because the last thing a family needs is to be labored with the fact they are spending $3,000 on a casket when we don't care what you select.  If you select a $450 casket for example, you're going to get the exact same service as a person who selects a $3,000 casket."

A spacious show room in the back is laid out to show
what is available while respecting bereaveds' feelings

A native of Batavia, Penepent went to college in Wisconsin to study theology, planning to become a Catholic priest.  But after meeting his Susan, who he has been married to for 20 years, he switched to psychology, expecting to become a therapist.  "I went to the dean of the college, I'll never forget this, in the college of psychology," he recalls.  "I said I wanted to become a therapist.  He said, 'no, you don't want to do that.' He said, 'Listen you are a brilliant person, you have great people skills, you need to get into a profession that's going to apply psychology and your theology in a way that is going to help people in difficult situations.  You don't need to become a therapist to do that, we got enough of us, you need to find something you can apply it to.'"

So Penepent enrolled in the Simmons Institute of Funeral Services in Syracuse, apprenticed in Rockford, Illinois, then practiced for six years as a licensed funeral director in Chicago.  When an opportunity to practice in Batavia opened, he moved back home, then three years later he was hired to head up Herson Funeral Home in 2003.  He and Susan live upstairs with their three children Philip (17), Gina (15), and Carrie (13) along with their dog who is appropriately named Spirit.  With an exuberant sense of humor in private life, he is professional and caring on the job.  Penepent says that living on the premises makes him available at all hours when a family is in need.

Living with your family in a funeral home can have its unusual moments, though.  "There is an amusing story that I always love telling about little MJ Herson," he says of Matthew Herson's son who went on to skate in the Ice Capades.  "Shortly after they built on the new edition, MJ and his sister Jane decided, 'hey the roof is a pretty flat skating rink.'   So they put on their skates and went up on to the roof up there and they started skating around and doing the figure 8 on top of the funeral home.  Matt Herson didn't find that too funny especially when he was carrying a casket out the front end and the bereaved family looked up and here's little MJ and Jane doing figure 8's on the roof upstairs.  They were little kids.  To this day, I laugh because it's so typical of raising a family in a funeral home."

Penepent says that the people and situations he encounters make him see his job differently, and that he uses the perspective he gains in his work.  Early in his career he encountered a woman who knew she was going to lose her child the next day.  She told him, 'Tomorrow I'm going in because the baby inside me is dead.'  Penepent was stunned.  "I said, 'The only thing I can say is that I'm going to do my best to provide you with nothing but the best care and compassion for your child and for you'," he recalls.  "She found comfort in that and we buried her little girl.  It was probably the saddest thing I ever had to do.  But that really affected the way that I practiced."

Preparing for a service

He says he especially likes it when a funeral is a celebration of the loved one's life.  He recalls a 21 year old farmer who was torn apart by a machine.  The coffin was set on three bales of hay, and as the 1,400 visitors came to the funeral home to pay their respects they passed his prize winning cow.  The body was dressed in his milking clothes.  "It was the most beautiful committal service that I ever went to," Penepent says.  "The tractor that he plowed his fields with led the procession to the grave.  It took 45 minutes to get to the grave with the tractor leading the procession but it was him.  When we got to the grave they opened up the door and out came his little dog bolted right to the grave and laid at the foot of the grave.  Three cows overlooked the casket with cow bells on and the beautiful sounds of the minister saying the committal rite with cow bells in the background waving a sound of farewell.  This was the celebration of the accomplishment of this person's life not just the tragic death experience."

Penepent is active in professional organizations as well as the Ithaca Rotary Club and Tompkins County Chamber of Commerce.  He is currently writing a book about how dysfunctional family members deal with death.  He enjoys working for the current owner, Greg Myer, a funeral director who runs another funeral home near Binghamton.  And he takes obvious pride in his work and the history of the funeral home and the family who founded it.  "I run it as if it is my business," he says.

Penepent says the business conducts between 65 and 75 funerals per year, and provides preparation work for about  20 more at other funeral homes.  He notes that with a 78% attrition rate you have to have the right kind of personality to be a funeral director.  "I can always spot a funeral director who is just in it for the money because the way they present themselves -- the care and compassion is just not there," he says.  "That's why I focus on training my employees that they are just as much a part of extending that care and compassion as I am as the funeral director.  It's just not me, it's everyone that has to engage in that process."  Those employees include three licensed funeral directors, one resident, and three part-time ancillary staff.

He now sees Ithaca as his home.  "I love it here," he says.  "My boss asked me, 'How long do you intend on staying?'  I told him, the day that I come in and tell him it's time for me to retire is the day that I am going to be leaving, or the day he pushes me out the front door in a casket!  This is my home now, this is not just my business, this is my passion.  This is what I love to do."