GERMANTOWN — After 48 years of running the funeral home at 209 Main St., George Fox in retiring and looking to sell the property — possibly ending a long-established institution of the community.
Fox, 73, bought what is now known as the Yadack-Fox Funeral Home from the Yadack family in 1971 and kept the tradition going for another 47 years. Fox is looking forward to retirement in Maryland.
“This is me, this is my life,” Fox said. “This is not a job — never has been.”
The challenge of running a funeral home in small-town upstate New York is a 24-hour, seven-days-a-week, year-round task and requires treating the funeral home as a second home. Fox also takes the late-night calls and travels all over the state to collect bodies.
Fox first brushed with the funerary business while working for a florist that delivered to a funeral home. He was originally studying to become an optometrist, but switched to mortuary science at the Simmons Institute of Funeral Service in Syracuse.
After completing school and earning his license, Fox joined the U.S. Army and served first with the 25th Infantry Division and then with Special Forces in Vietnam from 1968 to 1970. He was honorably discharged holding the rank of sergeant.
After returning from combat, Fox searched for a funeral home to buy, and in 1971, found a place that felt like his childhood home in a small town in the Finger Lakes region — Germantown.
“Fortunately, I was accepted by the local people here when I first moved in,” Fox said. “The tough part of leaving here is all these years I’ve made so many friends here. I’ve been able to help them through hard times in their lives and they have helped me.”
Fox served local families long enough that he knows 99 percent of the people who come to him for services, he said.
“So when someone passes here, they come to me, not the funeral home,” Fox said. “They come to me to help them, and that is exactly what I’ve done.”
But Fox suffered a heart attack due to exposure to the herbicide Agent Orange while serving in Vietnam, as determined by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Once he was back on his feet, he had to get back to work and realized it was time for him to retire.
Fox tried to sell the business, but could not find a buyer who had the money or interest in running a 24-7 operation.
“Nobody wants this anymore,” Fox said. “Running the business, physically running the business — there is so much here that it is unbelievable. And a lot of the people coming out of school now don’t want it. They don’t want to mow the lawn or wash the cars or clean the home. Nobody is ever going to get rich doing this, but you can have a good life.”
Fox pointed out new trends in the ways people grieve and the rites of the dead have prompted changes in the funeral home business, which adds stress to his job, including the shift to cremation over burials.
Bob Gaus manages Millspaugh Camerato Funeral Home in Catskill, but has worked as a funeral director since 1978 when he bought Simpson-Gaus Funeral Home in Kingston.
Gaus managed Simpson-Gaus in Kingston for 30 years before selling to another funeral director.
“Being a funeral home director has never been an easy task,” Gaus said. “The industry is changing, but people still require our services. We are still the ones people look to at a time of need.”
Funeral directors need to adapt to provide a new set of options to people such as decorating with photographs and the use of videos and music.
Millspaugh Camerato Funeral Home has been family-owned for four generations, but has managed to stay relevant, Gaus said.
“The local funeral director is still an important part of the community and is respected and relied on,” Gaus said. “I lament when a funeral home closes its doors. It leaves the community shaken.”