Not many businesses can say they have been around for 125 years. Murphy Funeral Home, a fixture on the corner of North and Federal streets for decades, is one of them.
The secret to its longevity: It’s a fifth-generation family business whose members continue to be involved. And they have managed to change with the times, from swapping motorized hearses for horse-drawn ones back in the day, to bringing in a therapy dog to comfort grieving families today.
Three generations help run the business: owner Francis J. Murphy, 85; his son and the funeral home’s manager, Francis J. “Frank” Murphy, 57; and his son, Francis J. ‘F.J.’ Murphy Jr., 24.
On Wednesday, the business, now in its 126th year, will be recognized at an appreciation night celebration at Danversport by the Massachusetts Funeral Directors Association for serving the needs of North Shore families for so many years.
“We are a pretty old business, of any kind,” the elder Francis Murphy said.
“You grow up with it,” he said. “It’s a way of life.”
When he was growing up, the office phone was in their home and it rang at all hours. “When the office phone rang, conversation ceased,” he said, “no matter if it was dinner time or what.”
“What got me going into the business,” Frank Murphy said, “was my father and my grandfather were coming here to the funeral home all the time, and I was old enough to be a tag-along.” He would help set up flowers, and they’d take him to lunch at the Salem Diner or elsewhere around the city.
“I was just happy to be around with my dad and my grandfather,” he said.
Fifth-generation family member F.J. Murphy also grew up around the business. He pursued a career in criminal justice at Salem State University, but began working at the home part time after he graduated. Part time turned into full time.
‘Doing the right thing’
Bob Clocher, the office manager, says there’s another reason the business has thrived for so long.
“It also has a lot to do with the way the Murphy family helps the community,” Clocher said, serving grieving families in a way that provides comfort at a difficult time.
If you are not helping the community and doing the right thing, people are not going to keep on coming. ... “So having five generations in a funeral home is basically telling the community this is the right place to go.”
Frank Murphy said another key to their success is employees who are not part of the family, including Clocher; his son, Brenden, an apprentice funeral director; and Jude Melvin, another apprentice, who began working for the business in December. The business employs 17 people full and part time. Some have been with the business for decades.
“They make us look good, too,” Frank Murphy said.
C.R. Lyons, of Lyons Funeral Home in Danvers, will be there Wednesday when the Murphys are honored. Lyons is being installed as president of the Massachusetts Funeral Directors Association that same evening.
The Murphys, he said, are “great people and provide a great service to the people of Salem, and they have been wonderful members of the association.”
Asked why funeral homes tend to be so long-lasting — Lyons’ Funeral Home is in its third generation — Lyons said, “I think that in many of these cases, and not all of them, when you grow up with Dad working downstairs or Mom working downstairs, you develop the vocational path.”
It’s the same for doctors or lawyers who practice out of an office in the house, he said. Lyons said he was inspired to go into the business after seeing his father, grandfather and uncles help people get through what are some of their worst days following a death.
Patrick Murphy founded Murphy Funeral Home in 1893 at the location of what is now the Hawthorne Hotel. It was one of the city’s first funeral homes.
The business moved later to a building across the street from Immaculate Conception Church on Hawthorne Boulevard. In 1941, they relocated to North and Federal streets; their present funeral home was built in 1965.
Salem has several other long-lived funeral home businesses, including the O’Donnell Funeral Home at 46 Washington Square, a business that dates back to 1934; Berube and Sons at 191 Lafayette St., which was founded in 1940 and has been at its present location since 1973; Levesque Funeral Home, which opened in 1910 and has been at its present location since 1969; and Stanetsky-Hymanson Memorial Chapel at 10 Vinnin St., which traces its roots back to the Hymanson Funeral Home in Lynn in 1910.
While Murphy Funeral Home has been around for over a century, it is not stuck in the past.
“What we do is engage what a family asks us to do,” Frank Murphy said. “They invite us into their life. They come into our building. We support them. And we do whatever we need to do.”
Families have trended away from traditional, “cookie-cutter” funerals, Clocher noted.
Decades ago, the clientele was traditionally of Irish-Catholic background, and the funerals reflected that. About 30 years ago, the industry changed, he said, and so has Murphy’s. They have had held wakes and funerals in the grand ballroom of the Hawthorne Hotel. Or a family may opt for a cremation with a backyard memorial service.
“Today, they are vastly different,” Clocher said. “... We’ll do anything you want.”
Of course, change is nothing new. The elder Francis Murphy cites the example of his father, who, in the early 1900s, was a young man working for his own father in the family business.
In those days, they had horse-drawn hearses. But a funeral director in Peabody got a motorized hearse, and Francis Murphy’s father borrowed it. Not everyone liked the idea.
Someone came over to reprimand him: “Glory be to God, Francis, are you trying to ruin your father’s business?’”
The latest innovation at the home was introduced by Frank Murphy’s wife, Maura, who brought a therapy dog into the home.
Abbie has been certified, and she works part time at the funeral home and part time through a Scituate therapy dog nonprofit called Dog B.O.N.E.S. Abbie also works part time with a group of therapy dogs that visit Salem Prep High, an alternative high school for students with emotional difficulties.
Abbie has not been used a lot, but a few months ago, she comforted a family that had lost a child, walking through a crowd of people and coming to sit by the grieving mother.
“What this dog can do for a family, and what they can sense, goes far beyond what we can see and what we can do,” Maura Murphy said.