Laurens Fish III was born and raised in Austin. A fourth-generation funeral director, he is following in the tradition of his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather. He is the managing partner of Fish Funeral Services, which handles more than one thousand funerals each year and has buried many notable Texans.
I’m not the stereotypical pale, pasty, morbid funeral director portrayed in movies or on TV. I’m just as normal as the next guy. But people always have a big reaction when I say what I do. I hear the same bad jokes—you know, “Oh, I bet people are dying to get into that business!” Or the same comments over and over, like “How do you do that?” and “You must just be callous.” But I’m not callous. My wife can attest to the fact that I sometimes come home an emotional wreck. If there ever comes a day when I don’t feel empathy for the deceased or their family, then I’ll know it’s time to quit.
I was in the funeral home a lot as a kid. My father’s office was the room I’m in right now, and my grandfather’s office was down the hall. The business was started in 1886, the same year as Austin’s Driskill Hotel. As kids, we always had to have the utmost humility and reverence when we were within these walls. We didn’t get to do things like run around and play in the casket room; we always had to be quiet. I didn’t even step into the chapel until I was in high school.
I was a sophomore in college when I decided that I wanted to be a part of the family business. I was working here part-time, and I got to help my father, step-by-step, with all the planning when Governor Connally died. Afterward, I had an overwhelming sense of pride about what my family did. I started out learning the business from the very bottom: I set up chairs and tents at cemeteries, and then I drove limousines and funeral coaches, and then I got to work with the people in the back room on the preparation of the deceased. After I graduated from the University of Texas with a bachelor’s in economics, I went to mortuary school and earned associate’s degrees in embalming and funeral directing.
A lot of people say, “Why don’t you have pictures of the LBJ service hanging in your funeral home?” We’ve buried eight governors, Congresswoman Barbara Jordan, Bob Bullock, and, most recently, Lady Bird. I’m proud of that legacy, but it’s not something we toot our own horn about. While we feel privileged to have served all those great Texans, why single anyone out? The man who worked at the gas station his whole career is just as important to his family as anybody else. It’s our job to care for everyone. We do a lot of services for indigents who have no family at all.
When a death occurs, in a hospital or at home, we get a call, whether it’s two in the afternoon or two in the morning. We immediately send a car to bring the individual into our care, and we secure permission from the family to either embalm or not embalm. After that, we have what we call an “arrangement conference” to get more information. Who is this person we’re taking care of? What were their likes and dislikes? How can we help the family plan a service that is meaningful for them? We talk about burial and cremation, we look at caskets and urns, and we talk about financial information. This meeting can last up to three hours. Then we write obituaries and place them in different newspapers, and we prepare the deceased.
A funeral is like a wedding: It brings out the best and worst in people. Everybody grieves differently, but one of the steps of grief is anger. And how that anger is shown to family members and to us as funeral directors—because we have their loved ones and they don’t—can be interesting. Probably well over 50 percent of my job is the people side. There can be conflict when, say, a parent has been ill and one sibling has been the caretaker and the other has not been involved. Or there’ll be friction between a current spouse and the children from a previous marriage. It’s an emotional time, and then you throw in finances. So we have to strike a delicate balance. Sometimes when I’m meeting with a family, the best thing I can do is say, “I’m going to excuse myself for a little bit. You all need to talk. We need to come together and do something we all agree on.”
We’ve had jazz bands, motorcycles, and horse-drawn carriages lead us to the cemetery. Pretty much anything you can think of. What makes my job interesting is those kinds of details, the small, neat things. It’s handing out golf balls after a service as a remembrance for an avid golfer. We’ve handed out wildflower seeds and favorite recipes. We’ve scattered ashes out of airplanes, we’ve loaded ashes into fertilizer spreaders, and we’ve done burials at sea. We’ve donated bodies to science and sent them to a cryogenics institute. It’s all about executing whatever the deceased and the family want. We’ve placed weird items in caskets: jewelry. Cash. A fifth of Scotch. Someone’s favorite boots. A flashlight. My grandfather wanted his hunting license, so we buried it with him.
The funeral business is very different today from what it was during my grandfather’s time. We see more families now than ever before who don’t have a religious affiliation, and we have to plan a service that is meaningful to them. Can we get a minister or a priest, if they want one? Or do they not want any religious element whatsoever? Technology has changed everything too, and we’ve incorporated it into what we do. For example, we present caskets virtually. We don’t have a big room that you wander around in with twenty open caskets to pick from. Some families don’t want to come here at all, and they make all their arrangements online. My grandfather would have had a problem with that, but we’ve had to change with the times.
I love what I do. It’s definitely a 24/7, 365-day-a-year job. People call me in the middle of the night and say, “Hey, I need your help.” And instead of complaining, I feel honored. To be able to help a family with the loss of a loved one is rewarding. We can’t fix the situation; we can’t bring the person back. But we can make a tough situation a little bit easier. I’d love for my son to do this—if it’s something he wants to do. That’ll be his decision. The funeral business will have changed in twenty years, so who knows. He’s only seven, so I’ve got a while.