When people die, they pass through a funeral home. But what happens to a funeral home when it dies?
In the case of venerable Pope Dickson & Son Funeral Home in Jonesboro, which closed its doors on May 5 after more than six decades in business, the final trip was long and painful, brought about largely by Clayton County’s changing demographics and a declining economy.
“The decision wasn’t made until the very end, but we knew that business had dropped off over the years,” said Ed Wise, one of Pope Dickson’s managers.
How much had it dropped off?
When Wise joined Pope Dickson in 1985, the funeral home had 38 employees, seven funeral directors, two groundskeepers and a secretary at both locations.
By last month, only two full-time employees — Wise and and a single funeral director — remained. Pope Dickson also employed the occasional “call-in” director, but none was full-time with Pope Dickson.
It wasn’t always that way.
“Back in the old days, that was pretty much the central funeral home,” said Jonesboro Mayor Joy Day, who has lived in Clayton County for 40 years. “I’ve been in the chapel many times, been to viewings many times.”
Abner Pope Dickson Sr. founded the funeral home bearing his name in 1946, with the help of his wife Edith and a few hundred dollars in his pocket from a relative. He’d just learned the trade at another funeral home in Fayette County and wanted to open one of his own. To avoid competing with his old employer, Dickson moved to Jonesboro.
From there, the Dickson family and its funeral home became “an integral part of the community,” Day said. They donated money publicly to Jonesboro’s volunteer fire department and more quietly elsewhere.
“Someone told me once they’d like to have 10 percent of the money Pope Dickson, Sr., gave away in funerals for people who wouldn’t afford them,” Wise said.
He recalled the story of one funeral Pope Dickson served in a church with a rough gravel parking lot. The next day, Dickson paid a paving firm to put asphalt down in the parking lot — but he didn’t tell the church members who had done it.
“They were good people in Jonesboro,” said Mayor Pro Tem Bobby Wiggins, whose parents socialized with the Dicksons.
Pope Dickson’s place in Jonesboro was so prominent that most judges and prominent Clayton County officials passed through its doors on the way to their final resting places.
Unfortunately, the passing of the old guard helped lead to the passing of Pope Dickson. Wise said the decline became obvious in the 1990s as Clayton’s newer residents started using other funeral homes.
A shrinking economy and the growing popularity of less-expensive cremations also helped do in Pope Dickson. And the failing health of second-generation owner Ab Dickson, Jr. — currently “very ill” at Piedmont Hospital in Atlanta, according to Wise — was the final blow.
“It was a hard decision,” Wise said. “It was a very hard decision to close that chapter of my life.”
The latest chapter in Wise’s life is selling tornado-warning sirens. Wise, who’s also a storm spotter for the National Weather Service, restored one such siren and donated it to the city of Jonesboro. That was about 12 years ago, and he’s been hooked ever since.
The lone remaining funeral director has moved on to another home in the area, Wise said. And the future of the building itself is uncertain.
“We hate to see a tradition end, but everything in life changes,” Day said. She may as well have been delivering the funeral home’s eulogy. “We have to accept that and move on.”