When one makes a living in the funeral industry, it might seem forgivable to have a funereal outlook.
But the funeral industry is one that could never be considered a “dying” industry, and one Southampton Village funeral home continues to look on the sunny side—toward growth and expansion.
In recent years, O’Connell Funeral Home, on Little Plains Road, has seen more customers hail from outside the village. It also has been asked to do more funerals in communities such as Bridgehampton, Hampton Bays and Riverhead, according to Ken Rothwell, the funeral home’s owner for the past nine years. (He is quick to point out that funeral director Jack O’Connell is still involved. Mr. O’Connell took over the business from his father, Joseph O’Connell, who founded the funeral home in 1929, before selling to Mr. Rothwell a decade ago.)
The funeral home also entertains hopes of expanding to other nearby locales.
As part of this vision, the business is looking toward its two newest funeral directors—the aunt-niece team of Kari Gainey and Stephanie Seay-Smith—to help the business branch out to a broader demographic.
In fact, Mr. Rothwell said he believes the two women are the only full-time female licensed funeral directors in Southampton and East Hampton towns who run the full gamut of duties of a funeral director.
Mr. Rothwell noted that some grieving family members, particularly women, feel more comfortable working with female funeral directors. “As great as I have tried, some women just like the comfort of another woman,” Mr. Rothwell laughed.
The trailblazers, both black, occupy an even smaller circle of being minority females in a profession that is traditionally not. Ms. Gainey added that she does not believe there are any other black female funeral directors on Long Island. They are now part of a team of funeral directors at O’Connell that numbers five.
Since they started in January, the women, both of Riverhead, have been busy acquainting themselves with local ministers and delving into the duties required of always being on call. They do not need to be reminded that people could call, wishing to make funeral arrangements for their loved ones, at any time of day or night, holidays and weekends included.
Those duties encompass everything from answering that so-called “first call,” to providing a solid display of support for grieving families when they are at their most vulnerable. They must also rely on their extensive training in matters relating to anatomy, pathology and embalming, among others.
Mr. Rothwell glowed with enthusiasm for his newest funeral directors: “We have wanted to expand, and it’s important to us that now with them joining us, we have the ability to do that, while making sure that each and every family gets the utmost perfect care.”
Dressed elegantly in black, their hair short and stylish, Ms. Gainey and Ms. Seay-Smith spoke recently of their passions for their new chosen profession.
“I’ve always liked helping people, and this is one of the toughest times to deal with a family, period,” said Ms. Seay-Smith. “Through my own experience, I know that people need someone who’s really there for them and really understands, or is at least empathetic, toward what their needs are, genuinely.”
The women have another goal too: “We want to encourage other women to go into this non-traditional field, to go for their dreams,” said Ms. Gainey, who did her residency in Jamaica, Queens. Before earning her mortuary science degree from Nassau County Community College in 2009, Ms. Gainey worked as a nursing assistant. She said she was inspired to transition into the funeral industry by her niece. Now, at 45 years old, Ms. Gainey is starting on her second career.
Ms. Seay-Smith, 29, earned her mortuary science degree from the same college in 2006, before doing her residency in Medford. She is continuing her education by working toward a bachelor’s degree in funeral home management via online courses run by Mount Ida College in Massachusetts.
The pair grew up in the funeral industry, in a sense. Ms. Gainey’s father, the late Albert E. Seay, who died in 1991, started the Seay Memorial Chapel funeral home in Riverhead, which is now run by her brother, Carlton Seay. So their coming to O’Connell represents a following in the family footsteps.
“We just want to get out there and let the community know that we are here to meet their needs and be more active in the community,” Ms. Gainey said. She added that certain “progressive” practices at O’Connell, including cremation, were a draw for her and her niece.