Heafey Heafey Hoffman Dvorak & Cutler Mortuaries

An Interview with Mr. Bill Cutler, Funeral Director at Heafey, Heafey, Hoffman, Dworak & Cutler Mortuaries
By John R Curtin ITM Candidate and Kwasi Twum-Fening PharmD/MBA Candidate

We sat down with Mr. Cutler in his office at the headquarters of the company and asked him some questions about how his ethical standpoints guides the manner in which he conducts himself personally and in his career.

Background – where were you raised, family life, education, career trajectory.

I was born and raised in Council Bluffs, Iowa. Went to school around there and then at what I guess is now the University of Nebraska, Omaha. From there I went to Mortuary School in Texas. I’ve had it easy, my family has been in the business since 1901 and I’ve always wanted to do it [funeral director]. I figure I’m fourth generation and my son is fifth, so it’s really a family business.

What do/did you like most about your work (past or present)? What do you like the least?

Working with families, helping families through what is usually the worst time of their life. Wouldn’t say there is a worst part. Has always wanted to do this sort of work since 4th grade.

Very generally, when you think of “ethics” what does it mean to you?

Doing the right thing, all the time. You can’t pick and choose. You have to be consistent in life and your business career, if you always do the right thing you never have to worry about not doing the right thing.

What core values are important to you?

Sincerity, honesty, and empathy.

Have you always done business in Omaha? If not, where else have you done business?

We have always done business in Omaha and Council Bluffs. We have ten locations scattered among Omaha, CB, and some of the smaller towns around the area.

Do the moral values you see in the Omaha business community live up to your ethical standards?

Yes, for the most part.

What types of pressure do you feel on the job (past or present)?

Never dealing with a willing consumer, someone who is happy to see you. Many times our customers are angry because of a death, and not all the time, but sometimes, they take it out on us, because we represent death. Funeral service is kind of like a ministry but it is also a business.

When the topic of ethics comes up on the job (past or present), in what ways does it usually surface? Is it in key issues, key people/departments, or key words?

As it comes, my basic philosophy when doing business with other business people is based off the assumption that everyone is honest. Sometimes it has not worked out that way.

Our funeral home had a tradition (begun by my grandfather), of asking for a 50% deposit from families, with the balance of the funeral costs payable after the service. When I was just starting out in the business, I challenged my father about this payment philosophy. My father responded by having me go through our records to research account histories much to my surprise I discovered that around 99% of the accounts had been paid. When I asked about the remaining 1%, my grandfather told me a story about a relatively poor farming family that lost nearly everything one year when there had been significant flooding in the area. About nine months or so later, the family came to the mortuary to arrange the burial of their four-year-old daughter. Because the family had endured such extreme hardship already at that point, and because the mortuary had already buried 8 great-grandparents and 4 grandparents from that same family, my grandfather simply waived the entire cost for the four-year-old. Here’s how I think this bears on business ethics: It’s important to set guidelines and establish policy for your business, but there are situations where the human element trumps policy for me, ethics means recognizing these situations and acting with compassion rather than adhering rigidly to policy.

Describe an ethical situation in business (past or present) you have faced that was relatively easy to handle – who was involved, where, what did you do, why?

Almost everything I do involves me projecting my sense of ethics into a situation.

Describe an ethical situation in business (past or present) you have faced that was hard to handle – who was involved, where, what did you do, why?

Friend’s passing as a result of a private plane crash, telling the family of a friend about the accident and the passing of the husband/father. The profession is pretty simple and straight forward. Family wishes are respected to the letter. The purpose is to maximize respect and ease of mind. For example, an old woman, with no family to speak of comes to the mortuary, picks out everything for the funeral, including a pricey casket to be interred in. Both the customer and the mortuary know that there will be no family or significant witnesses at the service, but the mortuary sees it as a point of honor and honestly that they provide the customer with what was charged for, as a source of professional pride.

Why do you call the two previous situations ethical?

They center on doing the right thing for the right reasons.

How does it feel talking with us about ethical quandaries you faced? Is it easy? It is uncomfortable?

It’s easy, I feel as though it’s something I’ve held in mind for 40+ years, so talking about it is pretty natural.

Talk about the ethical culture at your organization (past or present): What are the unspoken ethical rules in your organization? (What is tolerated, what is not?)

It’s pretty straight forward. It is mostly about representation to the customers and families. The mortuary’s role in the mourning and burial process is to represent the deceased according to the wishes of the family and to ensure that the process is a dignified and seamless transfer.

How is ethics infused in your organization? (Practices, policies, training, etc.)

This is usually the last interaction a family has with their loved ones, and it’s a passing interaction, a one off sort of interaction lasting only 3 days or 5 days and you’re gone. It’s a unique business in that respect and it’s really hard to screw up, you need to concentrate to screw up (your ethics).

Do you feel the concept of business ethics has changed over the years?

No, it’s an enduring thing, and in a business such as this you cannot change the rules. It is rooted in our upbringing and culture.

Have you had an ethics mentor? If so, who and why?

Father, grandfather, coworkers and competitors. Everyone in the business gives examples on which personal improvement and growth can be made, and from those lessons can a successful and morally secure business be made.