Ritchie brothers pool their resources to become undertakers

Published 7:30 pm Saturday, December 1, 2012

Rob Ritchie, the son of Harold Ritchie, president of Poole-Ritchie Funeral Home in Bogalusa, was the guest speaker on Tuesday at the regular meeting of the Bogalusa Rotary Club.

Ritchie, who had indicated he would talk about the funeral business, said he had decided against that while thumbing through binders of information, thinking that it would be “too boring.” Instead, he told an interesting story about the origins of his family’s funeral home and how he and his brother, Lewis, became a part of the business.

In 1906, Ritchie said, Poole-Ritchie Funeral Home was established on Austin Street just across from the railroad tracks.

“It was the Poole Livery Stable and Undertaking Company,” he said.

Continuing, Ritchie noted that the funeral home moved from Austin Street to where the Masonic Lodge is now located on Masonic Drive.

“That lasted until about 1939,” he said, “when the current funeral home was built at 216 Alabama Ave.

Not many people know that there’s an elevator right in the center of the building, said Ritchie.

“In the elevator shaft there are big weights and it’s got the year 1939 and the initials of the men who worked on it,” he said. “So it was started in 1939. They finished it in the 1940s.”

Ritchie told the story of how the Ritchie brothers — Harold, Bill and Doug — came to own the funeral home.

“My grandfather worked for the Pooles selling insurance whenever it was the Poole Insurance Agency as well (as a funeral home),” he said, noting it has since been sold to Security Industrial. During that time, Ritchie’s father, Harold, spoke to owner Gloria Poole, asking her to let him know if she ever wanted to sell the funeral home.

Eventually, she and the family decided to sell.

Continuing the story Ritchie said Lewis Rawls and James Warner were the two main people on the staff at that time and they had already heard it was going to be sold and were in a position to buy it as well.

“It wound up being pretty heated, because James and Lewis thought they were going to be able to buy it.”

However, Harold started working on a deal with the Poole Insurance Company and the insurance company, in October of 1980, financed the Ritchie brothers buying the funeral home.

The new owners had a difficult time the first few years making ends meet, with just three funerals the first month of ownership. November was a bit better, with 15 calls, said Ritchie.

One bit of advice given to the brothers by someone who had been in the business for many years was this: “Make sure the front door has a window, so you can see people coming. Stand at that door whenever people come in, open it, and let people in. Shake their hand, tell them your name, and hope to learn theirs.”

According to his dad, Ritchie said, for 15 years the brothers were always at the funeral home, apprehensive that they might lose the business.

By 1989, the company had divested itself of the Slidell and Franklinton locations, selling the building in Franklinton to Crain & Sons Funeral Home. The other building, in downtown Slidell, has been turned into medical offices, said Ritchie.

Through the years, James Warner had continued working at Poole-Ritchie. Rawls came back for a little while, Ritchie said, but already had plans to retire, which he soon did. In 2001, Warner passed away.

A few years later, Lewis Ritchie, Rob’s brother, left his job as a golf pro and came back to Bogalusa to work in the funeral business. Before long he persuaded his brother to come join the family business.

Now, the younger Ritchie brothers are working, learning the business, and just waiting for their elders to retire so they can buy the business, said Ritchie, noting that his father had made it clear that the business would not be handed down to he and his brother, but would be for sale.

“I’m ready,” he said, “and I know Lewis is ready. When he first came to talk to me he said it would be a five-year plan. He said, ‘Five years and they’ll retire.’

“That was nine-and-a-half years ago,” he deadpanned. “In the first five years they were working much harder because Lewis and I didn’t know anything. Now, at least they can take time off and not have to worry about leaving it with us. Hopefully, Lewis and I will get the opportunity to buy it in the near future.

“It’s come a long way from the Livery Stable,” he said.

“It’s neat. I’ve enjoyed it. I don’t know if we’ll ever get any relief. I don’t know if I’ll talk my kids into doing it or not. Dad never talked me into it, but I’ve enjoyed it ever since I’ve been here.”