Many decades ago, Bird S. Owen Jr. was working with a funeral home in Pleasureville, Kentucky, when Edith Roberts entered the building and began playing the organ. When Bird laid eyes on Edith, he was immediately smitten. The two began courting and later wed. The pair moved to Louisville and built their first funeral home, opening in 1939 in the Parkland neighborhood.
One of Bird’s brothers was postmaster, the other a dentist. Bird’s parents thought he was crazy to want to be a funeral director, but that was his dream. The couple lived above Owen Funeral Home in Parkland with their daughter, Linda, until 1953, when Edith became pregnant with their son, David. As the years passed, it was assumed that David would take over the business from his father.
David was a keyboard player and vocalist for many bands. “My grandpa told him he could have a year, but unless he became a superstar, he needed to return to the business,” says Rachel Barr, David’s daughter and chief operating officer for the business.
Ultimately he did both, running the funeral home and playing in bands, even now at the age of 69. Though David battled some health issues that knocked him out for a year, Barr says he’s back, full-throttle. He not only runs the funeral home, but also still sings in a group called the Monarchs. The group regularly plays at the Derby Dinner Playhouse and Turtle Run Winery. They also get booked for New Year’s Eve and Valentine’s Day parties. In the past he’s sung in other local bands including the Wulfe Brothers and the Fanatics.
Music has helped David navigate life in this business. Barr believes it’s crucial for funeral directors to have some sort of hobby to help them decompress after what they face daily. For David, that outlet is music. For Barr, it’s photography. Another funeral director on staff restores cars.
Barr calls her dad one of the most giving people she’s ever known. David has always been extremely active in the community, having worked on the boards of Kosair Charities, Wednesday’s Child, Harbor House of Louisville, and Gilda’s Club, a cancer support organization. David was a past potentate of the Kosair Shriners in Louisville, and the funeral home is active with an organization called Southwest Community Ministries.
Kids in particular have always tugged at David’s heartstrings. Barr recalls the time he saw a story on television about a 2-year-old boy who was shot by his brother.
“He said, ‘I want to do that family’s funeral for free,’” says Barr.
Taking special care of families who have lost children has always been a must at Owen Funeral Homes. Back when Bird ran the business, if anyone lost an infant, he’d do that funeral for free. Linda Owen Miller was a forerunner of tailoring funerals for infants and children.
“We still do that,” says Barr. “We provide a tiny casket and cremation at no charge. We’re able to do that because we are family owned.
They also handle a lot of miscarriages free of charge.
In addition, if they meet with a family who doesn’t have funds or needs help, they try to work with them to come up with a solution that won’t break the bank.
“It’s building off of what my grandfather has always done,” says Barr.
David is the one who suggested hiring a bereavement services specialist for Owen Funeral Homes, which they did in 1999 when they brought licensed therapist Genene Nisbet on board. Nisbet, a native of Louisville, cultivates their after-care program, which includes grief support groups, individual counseling, events, and breakfast and lunch outings for anyone they have served who has experienced a loss. Nisbet also takes them on trips to places like Churchill Downs, Mackinac Island, New York City, and Branson, Missouri.
“We’re lucky to have Genene,” says Barr. “I don’t know of many other funeral homes that do this.”
Each year they also treat the community to a gospel concert and free lunch, where they invite folks to donate toys and toiletries for families served by Southwest Community Ministries, as well as their annual car show for nonprofit Operation Toy Solider.
Owen Funeral Homes has locations at 5317 Dixie Highway, and at 9318 Taylorsville Road in Jeffersontown. The former serves between 400 and 500 families per year, while the Jeffersontown location serves about 120. Jeffersontown has just three employees, and offers more of a small-town feel.
“We see a lot of families, but we’re not moving them in and out like they’re another number,” says Barr. “I just had a family call this week to arrange a funeral. They have experienced three losses in the last eight months. That takes a tremendous amount of trust for a family to keep coming back, but we are here for them.”
It all comes down to compassion and empathy, which is at the heart of what they do.
“People ask me all the time, ‘Isn’t it sad working in this field?’” says Barr. “Honestly, I would struggle to be a nurse or a doctor and have to see humans suffering. By the time they are here, they aren’t in pain anymore.”
For the past 11 years, Barr and her father have been instructing a newer generation of funeral directors. Barr wants the transition to be smooth because she insists that the service remain top-notch.
“It’s like ‘The Karate Kid’ when Mr. Miyagi had his apprentice doing all these things that helped him perfect his discipline – none of which were practicing karate,” says Barr. “If I tell an apprentice to get lunch, they’d better get the order right because it trains them to listen to what families want and need.”
At Owen Funeral Homes they make sure everything is just right, from the outdoor landscaping to the indoor decor. Barr’s mom, Pam, who runs all of the social media for the business, is an interior designer by trade, so she makes sure the funeral homes are bright rather than dim. They don’t leave the lights off if a room is not being used, because who wants to see a dark room when they’re feeling sad?
Barr insists those types of details make a difference, especially when one is facing the daunting task of trying to fulfill a loved one’s last wishes.
Barr and the rest of the staff do all they can to help make life a bit easier for families who are muddling through difficult times. They do that by asking questions and getting to know the person who passed away, in order to personalize the service. For instance, it’s not unusual for them to set up a motorcycle or car in the room if those items were important to the deceased.
“It’s all about understanding who that person was,” says Barr.
Owen Funeral Homes celebrated their 80th anniversary in 2019, which means that throughout the last 83 years they have heard some pretty special stories.
“We hear from families who say, ‘Your grandfather took care of my infant,’” says Barr. “We want to continue to be a comfort to our community.”
Contact the Dixie Highway location at 502-447-2600, and the Jeffersontown location at 502-266-9655. Also visit owenfuneralhome.com or follow them on Facebook.