Growing up, many children aspire to be firefighters, astronauts or professional athletes. Few would entertain the possibility of becoming an undertaker.
Dwight Terry was no different.
"I was always afraid of dead people, terrified of them," said Terry, who owns Terry Family Funeral Home. "I was adopted by my great aunt and uncle. They were in their 60s when I was 3 months old. We went to funerals probably once or twice a week. Once they told me somebody had died and I had ever seen them, I wouldn't sleep for two or three days. That's how terrified I w as."
Now, Terry has been working in the funeral business for nearly 17 years and has owned his own funeral home since July 2007. He was recently appointed to the Oregon Mortuary and Cemetery Board, an 11 member panel that oversees the state's death care industry.
Terry is licensed as both a funeral service practitioner and an embalmer. His service with the state board will be to represent the perspective of embalmers. He replaces Michael Kimoto, whose term expired on Dec. 31. The board has representatives from the public at large, crematoriums, cemeteries and funeral service providers.
Terry said he hopes to bring balance and professionalism to the board.
"There are so many new things that are coming to light," he said. "People are talking about green burials, you need people on the board who still do ground work in the field, who are involved in other things, that have a working knowledge of where the industry is headed."
"The public members have no idea what funeral directors do, what they go through," he said. "You need that perspective from both sides to debate and argue."
The board provides important safeguards for the way embalming is performed, as well as protecting the public from unscrupulous undertakers.
"You get input from other people, I guess I don't want to see the board go the wrong direction, what the board should do as far as fining or levying, getting people to do the right thing."
On Wednesday nights, Terry teaches a class on undertaking at the Mt. Hood Community College.
"Of the ones that graduate, about half get a job at a funeral home," he said. "There was a girl two years ago, who was applying for jobs down in Vegas for a C.S.I. unit. We learn about the whole body and the circulatory system and certain diseases, so you get knowledge about how the body works and all the different organs and how they function. You can work in the medical examiner's office, so there are other things you can do besides working in the funeral home industry."
Being an undertaker, Terry says he deals with a lot of misconceptions — the most common assumption being that undertakers are largely a morose and stale bunch. Part of that came about because the way past funeral directors operated. They wore suits, they were rigid
"A generation ago, if you didn't have a suit on it'd be 'what's wrong with you?'" he said. "If you even went to answer the door, you'd better have a jacket on. Now, when I'm having a service, I'll wear a suit and tie, but if there's not a funeral, I'll wear my sweater."
Business attire has changed in the broader culture, and that has trickled down to the funeral industry. He says people like it when he dresses down for a family meeting and he tries to be friendly – depending on the family's mood — when discussing funeral arrangements.
"I think it makes people feel at ease," he says.
With the vast majority of his business coming from referrals or families he's worked for in the past, his approach works.
"When I left Portland and went over to Vancouver to manage two places, in a year and a half 25 families from Portland came to Vancouver for me to serve them," he said, quickly realizing his reputation was respected enough to start his own company. "That's when I decided to do it."