TUCSON, Ariz. — Arthur J. Adair's entrÉe into the undertaking business happened by chance when he started working at his uncle's funeral parlor in 1938.
It turned into an opportunity for future Adairs.
Arthur's eldest son, Ron, had a thorough understanding of the inner workings at his family's mortuary by the time he was in elementary school and went on to become a licensed funeral director and president of Adair Funeral Homes. Eventually Ron was joined in the enterprise by his younger brother and two sisters.
Now, 54 years after the founding of the business, a third generation has arrived. Three of Arthur Adair's grandchildren are working in facets of the family businesses — one just finished mortuary school, one starts in the fall and another plans to follow soon.
Adair, which has five locations in Tucson, Catalina and Nogales, is one of the few funeral businesses in Arizona training a third generation, said Alicia Short, executive director of the Arizona Funeral, Cemetery & Cremation Association in Mesa.
Tucson Mortuary on South Stone Avenue has a fourth-generation Carrillo working in the family business. It was founded in 1914, giving the family a 42-year head start on the Adairs.
Fewer than 30 percent of family funeral businesses survive into the third generation of family ownership, according to the Family Business Institute, a Raleigh, N.C.-based advisory firm. Earlier this year an established, family-owned Tucson mortuary sold to a Florida-based corporation because there were no heirs to take over the business. Though privately owned funeral homes are still the majority, corporations and conglomerates are slowly moving into the market.
Arthur Adair, an Idaho farm boy, came west with two cousins in 1938 to visit relatives in Tucson. His cousins went home. Adair, then 19, stayed to work for his uncle, who owned Tiedje Funeral Home, then at 737 N. Sixth Ave. His vacation became a vocation.
He married Martha Kavanaugh in 1948, and after a stint in the Marines during World War II, schooling at a California mortuary college and more than a decade working in the funeral industry in Tucson, he opened his own mortuary. The original Adair Funeral Home opened Feb. 16, 1957, and remains in operation today.
When Arthur died in 1973, Martha took over the company. All four Adair children worked in the family business.
At 85, Martha still takes an active interest in the business and she is a fixture at the office, but day-to-day operations are overseen by her sons, Ron and Hank Adair.
Ron, the eldest son, began working at the family funeral home when he was 7, said his mother. Decades before the industry was so stringently regulated, the local coroner, an Adair family friend, regularly allowed young Ron to observe him as he worked.
"He stood on a bucket and watched," Martha said.
Hank Adair said he was never teased, when he was a boy, for being the son of a mortician. Quite the contrary.
"All my friends found it fascinating," he said. "I think, for all of us, our friends were intrigued."
Now three of Arthur and Martha's grandchildren are working for the family.
"I'm just so happy the grandchildren, on their own, have made the decision" to join the family business, said Martha Adair. "They are going to be so terribly important with all the technology. They understand it, and that's going to be the future of the industry.
"Those who have been successful are those who have changed with the times," she said. "You don't want to still be typing death certificates when they can be updated online."
The next generation's interest also will keep the business in the family.
Family-owned or individually owned funeral homes in Tucson — Adair, Abbey, Angel Valley, Carrillo's, Evergreen, Hudgel's and Martinez — still make up the majority, but earlier this year Bring Funeral Home Inc., sold to Tampa, Fla.-based Foundation Partners Group. Bring had been owned and operated by the same family since 1928.
Foundation Partners owns 24 funeral homes and five cemeteries in 13 states.
"There are parts of the country that are dominated by the publicly owned funeral homes - for example, California and the Southwest part of the U.S. We also see a lot of corporate ownership in Texas and Florida," said Jessica Koth, spokeswoman for the National Funeral Directors Association, headquartered in Wisconsin.
But for now, 90 percent of funeral homes remain privately owned by families or individuals, she said.
In Arizona, about half of the 200 or so funeral homes are now run by corporations. Half of those are owned by the Houston-based Service Corporation International, said Rudy Thomas, executive director of the Arizona Board of Funeral Directors and Embalmers in Phoenix. Service Corporation has more than 1,400 funeral homes and 380 cemeteries in North America and Puerto Rico,
Combined, the nation's funeral homes bring in nearly $12 billion a year.
"When I was really young, I always kind of looked up to my grandma and my uncle and my dad," said Hillary Adair, 32, who wrote about the family business in the occasional what-I-want-to-be-when-I-grow-up essay at school.
"For me it was just how it was. I never thought of it as strange at all. I always saw people call on my family at hard times and they took care of their friends and families and I always thought that was kind of neat. That's why I went into it."
Ten years ago, after trying different careers, she joined the family business. Last year she enrolled in the mortuary science program at Mesa Community College — the only such program in Arizona and one of 56 in the country.
"When I first started going to school I was really nervous. I didn't know if I could do the embalming."
Adair's fears were unfounded, and she excelled.
"You're taking someone's loved one and you're making them the most presentable for their family for the last time they will see them. It's such an art, and to see the human body and how it works, it's really interesting. I did more embalmings than I needed to for school.
"I just kept going. It was so interesting."
Now her brother, Taylor Adair, who spent nine years managing a ski resort in Colorado, is preparing to enter the mortuary science program. And J.R. King, another of the Adair grandchildren, is earning prerequisite credits in anticipation of entering the program.
The yearlong Mesa program can accommodate 40 students annually. For the last two years, the program has filled all its seats; and for the 2011-2012 school year, 66 applications have been submitted to the program. Three and four years ago, class sizes averaged 27 students, said Thomas R. Taggart, program director of the program.
Students in the mortuary program range in age from 21 to 52. Among members of the National Funeral Directors Association, the average age of a funeral home owner is 52, and the average age of a funeral director-embalmer is 42.
The Mesa program began in 1996 and has been growing, especially in the last two years. The down economy has people returning to community college to pursue new careers, Taggart said.
As long as a student is willing to relocate, said Taggart, "there are plenty of jobs out there. There's a shortage of licensed personnel."
However, job availability isn't reason enough to enter the funeral industry. Newcomers have to have a "feel for it," Martha Adair said.
"You don't get used to it," said Ron Adair. "You have to want to do it."