Thinking Outside the Final Box

The fifth generation of his family to run Jacob Schoen & Son funeral home, Patrick Schoen is bringing new life and a “no request is too strange” spirit to an industry that’s become all about tailor-made farewells.
Photographs by Cheryl Gerber

 

DID YOU KNOW?
Embalming in the U.S. began in the Civil War as a way to preserve fallen soldiers for their journey home.

 

New Orleans isn’t short on beautiful old mansions, but there’s one that’s just a little different from the rest.

For one thing, it’s built in a Romanesque style not common to the city. For another, 3827 Canal Street enjoys a prime location few can boast, just steps away from the rumble of the streetcar and almost directly across from one of New Orleans’ culinary icons, Mandina’s restaurant.

“It doesn’t get much more New Orleans than this,” says Patrick Schoen, whose family has owned the home since 1936.

Standing in the cream-colored foyer, Schoen is proud to point out the home’s open floorplan, original crystal chandeliers and elegant furnishings.

Schoen is right, the home couldn’t be more New Orleans — it’s beautiful, it’s elegant, and it has both a deep sense of history and more than a touch of the macabre — it’s exactly what you’d expect from one of the city’s largest funeral homes.

“These lamps over here, see how the light is red on the bottom, these used to go on the sides of a casket,” Schoen says. “The red light makes the person inside look better. Funeral homes don’t use them anymore, but we still have them. They’re really beautiful.”

The lamps are just a few of the items his family’s company, Jacob Schoen & Son, have purchased from other funeral homes that themselves have become deceased.

“As family-run funeral homes around the city slowly disappeared or were bought up by out-of-town companies, we collected a lot of their items,” he says. “Like these pictures here, they’re actually of Napoleon’s funeral. We acquired them from House of Bultman.”

The Schoen mansion was originally built as the home of the Virgin family. Mr. Uriah J. Virgin was once known as “The Flower King.” The florist grew to prominence in the early 1900s selling his wares to Mardi Gras krewes. Sadly, the family lost their twin children to yellow fever.

“They’re in the fireplace,” Schoen says. “You can see them carved into the marble here. It’s interesting, because yellow fever was actually why my family got into the funeral business.” (More than 41,000 people died of yellow fever in New Orleans between 1817 and 1905).

In 1874, Jacob Schoen (Patrick Schoen’s great great grandfather) along with a friend, Henry Frantz, started a funeral business at 155 N. Peters Street. The business soon outgrew its location and moved to 527 Elysian Fields. In 1897, Schoen bought Frantz out and took his oldest son from his first marriage as his business partner. In 1915, the company expanded into Covington, and then into Slidell in 1963.

“In 1969 we were doing more than 2,600 funerals a year, operating five funeral homes,” Schoen says. “That was also when I started working.” One of seven kids, Schoen was 12 when it became his job to help transport flowers from the funeral home to various cemeteries.

“I grew up in this place,” Schoen says as he walks around some of the back rooms. “This table right here, for example, this came from an antique shop that my aunt owned in the French Quarter. When I was about 19 or 20 I had the job of touching up all the gold leaf. It was a horribly tedious job, so when I finished I decided to write my name on the underside of the table. I know it’s awful and I probably ruined the value, but hey, I was a kid.”

In 1986, Jacob Schoen & Son was among the homes sold to out-of-town buyers who did not have any success. In 2014 the home was back up for sale.

“I walked in and I couldn’t believe it,” Schoen says. “It was all dark and moldy and closed up. The ceiling in here was black, the walls were orange and the carpet was all stained. My first thought was that I had to transform this back into a welcoming, family home.”

After three years and approximately $3 million spent in renovations, Patrick Schoen is now the managing partner of Jacob Schoen & Son, the fifth generation of his family to lead the business, and business, he says, has changed — a lot.

There is one thing that hasn’t changed, however; You won’t find an embalming room at Jacob Schoen & Son.

“We’ve never had one,” Schoen says. “They require a lot of space and they give off that sweet odor that people associate with funeral homes. We didn’t want that. We contract that [service] out.”

The Schoen business instead is solely about event planning and serving as a rental space. Like any other event company, it’s important for the company to respond to the needs of its clientele while also offering something no one else can.

On this note, the home’s original chapel — built in 1967 during the second major additions to the property, the first being the grand foyer in 1957 — holds the distinction of being one of the first funeral homes in the country permitted to hold Catholic Masses.

“My cousin, J. Garic Schoen, talked to the archbishop and they must have worked all of that out,” Schoen says. “It was a really big draw.”

Just a few years after purchasing back the property, in 2017 Schoen decided to add another chapel on what was known as the North Lawn.

“This is now the third major addition to the property — all three, incidentally, have been with Lachin Architects,” Schoen says as he enters the new, 5,000-square-foot chapel. A complete contrast to its small, modest counterpart, the new chapel soars high into the air, propped by wooden trusses stained to match the solid cherry pews below, which seat 350. The front of the chapel is adorned with a crucifix carved from olive wood, which dates over 150 years old and last hung in the Vatican. It was a gift from the Marianites of Holy Cross from the Academy of Holy Angels.

“It’s so beautiful,” Schoen says, adding that the only time it is removed is for Jewish funerals.

Although the chapel is clearly Schoen’s favorite of his changes to the building, its creation was a well thought out business decision.

“So many people now want to hold their services in a funeral home, but up until now we weren’t large enough to accommodate a lot of them,” he says. “Now we can. This is the largest chapel inside a funeral home in the South. We get a lot of comments that other funeral home chapels look more like a courtroom. I’m proud of how ours looks. I feel good about what we’ve done here. You can see it, when people walk in. My dad always said that people are not going to leave remembering the details like the flowers and things. They only leave remembering how they felt.”

On the business side, the chapel brought in 70 of the home’s 450 services last year.

“That’s huge for us,” he says.

Jacob Schoen & Son can handle up to 13 services a day on the property, and up to three at one time.

“Our biggest competition really is Lake Lawn Metairie Funeral Home,” he says. “But they’re run by a big outside company.” (Lake Lawn Metairie is part of a network of licensed funeral home, cremation and cemetery providers based out of Texas that includes more than 2,000 locations.)

To stay competitive, Schoen focuses on what sets his family’s business apart, which he says is not just a deeply rooted New Orleans legacy, but the kind of hospitality and friendliness the city is famed for.

“We do things differently here,” he says. “We know that and we’re proud of that. For the first 115 years, every funeral was done exactly the same way. Now, it’s all about personalization.”

Schoen says that in a city known for “putting the ‘fun’ in funeral,” the focus now, more than ever, is to have a final goodbye to a loved one serve as more of a celebration of life than a mourning of death.

“We host jazz bands and parties,” he says, “and then, of course, there are instances like with Mickey Easterling’s funeral, where we can get really creative.”

In a 2014 funeral that gained worldwide media attention for its outrageousness, New Orleans socialite Mickey Easterling was placed not in a casket, but per her request was sitting upright on a wrought-iron bench inside the Saenger Theatre.

“She was always the life of the party, so we created one big final party,” Schoen says. “She was surrounded by orchids with a champagne glass in one hand and a cigarette in the other.”

Out-of-the-ordinary requests have become much more common, Schoen says.

“We had one lady who just wanted to have her foot panel open at her funeral because she always had her toes done nice.”

No matter the request, Schoen says there’s nothing he and his staff of 15 won’t do.

“When I go to conferences and conventions, everyone wants to hear about what we’re doing, in New Orleans,” he says. “The jazz bands, the parties — they think we’re crazy, but to me it’s always about making sure our customers get exactly what they want, whatever that may be.”

When it comes to setting up his showroom of caskets and urns and such, however, Schoen says what he sees other funeral homes doing around the country is just too much.

“These rooms look like Mardi Gras hit — there’s just stuff everywhere,” he says. “In my view, people coming in here have enough on their minds. I don’t want to overwhelm them with too much choice. I like to keep it simple. And you know what? It’s led to higher sales than many of those other guys.”

Schoen offers many of the most popular personalization methods — like metal decorative pieces that magnetically adhere to the sides of caskets and embroidered panels for interiors, but notes that when it comes to caskets, New Orleans is already very different.  

“For one, we don’t do metal caskets here like they do everywhere else,” he says. “Metal doesn’t allow for the decomposition that we need to have happen in order for a family to keep reusing a tomb. We have to use wood.”

Size, too, is a factor.

“We always have to consider where someone is being laid to rest,” he says. “There are so many old tombs in this city that require a smaller, or what we call ‘state-size’ casket. We have to make sure we know the measurements of what we’re dealing with.”

When it comes to caskets, prices can range dramatically.

“The most economical option we carry is $1,595,” Schoen says. “Then, on the highest end, the Rolls-Royce of caskets runs $15,995. That one is solid mahogany with a champagne custom velvet interior.”

Noting that nationally, more and more people are choosing cremation instead of a burial, Schoen says New Orleans, again, is a little bit different.

“This city has traditionally been about 85 percent Catholic, and until fairly recently the church didn’t approve of cremation,” he says. “As things changed, of course, we’ve seen more, but we’re still not at the level of other areas around the country.”

While burials are more commonplace at Jacob Schoen & Son, in terms of sales Schoen says cremation figures were higher than burials last year.

“People don’t realize that just because you decide on cremation, that doesn’t mean you can’t have things like a graveside service with a casket, or a hearse,” he says. The company offers caskets available for rent for cremation services and both hearses are equipped with panels in the back that flip up to reveal a contraption designed to hold an urn.  

Among an array of different urn options, Schoen offers something unique — items handcrafted by another Schoen.

“My uncle Tommy makes these captain’s chests,” he says. “They’re handmade replicas of the kind of small chests where boat captains used to store their navigational instruments.”

For Schoen, everything comes back to family — both his and all the families that five generations of Schoens have touched.

Among the last stops on the tour was his office, which currently resembles more of a museum curator’s space. Piled everywhere are various old items, from an original framed business card belonging to Jacob Schoen, to old advertisements featuring the company, as well as letters, photographs and funeral records.

“This piece talks about my great aunt, who was the first female mortician in the state of Louisiana,” he says.

“Since we opened, people have just been bringing things to us that they thought we might want now that we’re back,” he says. “Many don’t even leave their names, just maybe a note of thanks. It’s really pretty amazing. All of this, it just means so much.”


BY THE NUMBERS

The Funeral Business

19,177
Number of funeral homes in the United States in 2018

$16 billion
value of the industry in the U.S. in 2017

$9,000
cost of average American funeral (Economist, 2018)

86
percentage of funeral homes in the U.S. that are privately owned by families or individuals

60%
of current mortuary science students are women


Cremation Popularity Projected to Continue to Grow

2018
53.5% cremation
40.5% burial

2025
64% cremation
30.1% burial

2035
79.1% cremation
15% burial

(Source: National Funeral Directors Association)


Patrick Schoen, the fifth generation of the Schoen family to run Jacob Schoen & Son funeral home, shows off a special lamp that features a red hue at the bottom designed to make the deceased look better.

The business’s original founders: (left to right) Philip J. Schoen Sr., Jacob Schoen and Henry Frantz.

DID YOU KNOW?
Many of the earliest undertakers were furniture makers who chose to expand their offerings to include caskets.

(Funeralwise.com)


Volume Handled by Funeral Homes

58.4%
150 cases
or less a year

24.5%
151-350 cases

8.6%
351-500 cases

5.2%
501-1,000 cases

3.3%
1001 or more cases

(Numbers represent National Funeral Directors Association Member caseloads – 11,000 funeral homes within the U.S. and 49 countries)


A gift from the funeral homes’ employees celebrates the company’s 100th anniversary.

Patrick Schoen points out the building’s beginnings as a family home in a collection of photographs the chronicles the home’s multiple major renovations.

DID YOU KNOW?
The difference between a casket and a coffin lies within the shape. A coffin is six sided and tapered at the top and bottom (like what you’d see in old Dracula movies or old westerns). A casket is rectangular in shape and is what is typically used in modern burials. The term casket used to refer to a box where treasures were held.

In 2017, Schoen constructed a 5,000-square-foot chapel on what was formerly known as the North Lawn to accommodate what he says is a growing number of people looking to hold their service in the funeral home instead of at a separate location.

 

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