A study in Southern gentility, Gale Robinson strikes me as an Atticus Finch-type, with a slight tweak in choice of profession. By day he presides over Davidson County courts as a judge (as he has for 25 years), and by night he operates the crematorium behind Gallatin Pike’s Phillips-Robinson Funeral Home, in the same spot since 1932. (The original house at 2707 Gallatin Pike still stands, but has been built onto many times over the decades.)
The funeral director’s Southern pedigree runs deep; his grandfather and great aunt were two of the funeral home’s original owners, and today, after 85 years and three generations of ownership, it has the distinction of being Nashville’s oldest funeral establishment continuously operated by the same family. One can’t help but imagine that Robinson’s predecessors wore the same style of long black overcoat, smoothed the same comb through their dark hair, cupped that same unlit cigarette in their fist, waiting for the right moment to step outside with it. Robinson’s is a graciousness that comes in handy when working in an industry where being considerate is everything, and when discussing a topic that is as morbid, and inevitable, as they come.
Gale Robinson: The first funeral home in 1929 was located in Old Hickory. When we first got into the business, people were either brought into the funeral home and prepared—the embalming process—or we went to the homes with portable embalming machines and embalmed the people there at home, laid ’em out in bed, and they visited laying out in a bed, and then the day of the service we would casket the body. And then we would have the services either at the home or at the church, and then we would take them to the cemetery. You didn’t have funeral establishments like you do today, so most of the time visitation was done in the home. We moved here to East Nashville in 1932.
The original owners were Dayton Phillips and my grandfather, Garner Robinson, and his sister Maude Robinson. As time went on, Dayton Phillips married one of my granddaddy’s sisters, Nora. … Phillips-Robinson ran an ambulance service until 1974, when the fire department took over the ambulance service for the county. Most funeral homes back then also ran ambulance service, but we had probably the largest ambulance service in Davidson County.
When I was growing up, we had a big dormitory upstairs where all the ambulance drivers and helpers slept, so I’d come down and hang out. … [After Dayton, Garner, and Maude passed away, they left their interest in the funeral home to their respective children and siblings.] We woke up one morning with eleven owners. In 2009 I bought them all out. Family businesses statistically cannot survive the third generation because of the diversity of ownership. Eleven people can’t run a business. So they agreed to let me buy the funeral home.
We moved over to Inglewood in the early ’60s. East Nashville got pretty rough and run-down. But it’s kind of like history repeats itself. Back before the big fire in 1916, East Nashville was the Belle Meade of Nashville. You can see that if you go down through and look at these big old stone houses on Eastland. It’s amazing the property values and the folks that are moving in and what they’re doing. East Nashville is the place to be, and I’m just glad I’m here.
That’s just about the best thing that you can say, in my opinion—and ‘If there’s anything I can do, if you need anything, I’ll be there for you.’ The worst thing that you can say is ‘I know how you feel.’ Because you don’t know how they feel, and I don’t know how they feel. Everybody grieves differently. People have said to me, ‘I don’t understand this; why did this have to happen?’ After my best friend in life had passed away, I was grieving, and a guy told me one time—he wasn’t a preacher, he wasn’t anything—he said, ‘You know, Gale, you can’t put a question mark where the good Lord put a period.’ And I thought, ‘That makes a lot of sense.’
We can’t question why. I mean, there’s a period. In speaking with folks that have lost folks, everybody’s different and families are different. Sometimes when folks have been sick for years and are suffering, it’s a blessing and families say, ‘Well, I love Mom, but Mom hasn’t been Mom for several years. And she has suffered so much; it’s a blessing.’ And some—especially those that are sudden or very, very young—are different.
Well, I’ll give you an example. My mother, when I was thirteen years old, was killed in a motorcycle accident. I ride my motorcycle. I’ve been riding motorcycles since I was 10 years old, and I didn’t ride for a long time, but I finally figured out if the good Lord wants me, He’s going to take me whether I’m asleep or driving a car. I mean, my father was killed in a car wreck.
My wife asked me one time, she said, ‘How do you deal with this?’ Because I’ve lost a lot of folks in my family over the years. I don’t know that I look at death any different than anybody, but the most certain thing in life is death. We are all going to pass that way. There’s no escape from that. I just look at it as a part of life. Does it hurt? Absolutely, it hurts. And it hurts me when I lose folks that I care for—not only with family, but with dear friends who I’ve been called upon to take care of their earthly remains.
As a funeral director, we’re not supposed to show emotion. We can cry privately, but we’re supposed to be here to guide our families through one of the most difficult times in their life. That’s what our purpose is. And it’s difficult because as you get a little bit older, you get more emotional. I grieve just like everybody else. My wife says one day I’m going to wake up and just be completely crazy.
We've had an on-site crematorium for 20 years, and we’ve cremated over 6,000 people. When my family installed it they really did it right. The first thing they did is put this viewing room in. If our families want to see their loved ones one last time before they’re cremated, we invite them to this viewing room. And if they want to see their loved ones placed into the retort, there’s a curtain where that can be viewed. Some people want to view the container going into the retort.
We also have a big walk-in cooler; you are required by law that if you’re not going to be embalmed or cremated within eight hours, then you have to be refrigerated. So our cooler will house sixteen.
In our crematory, we have two big retorts; they are hot hearth machines. Hot hearth heats from inside the chamber and from underneath the floor. The hearth is heated from above and below. By law, underneath that floor has to heat up to 1,650 degrees before I can place someone into the chamber. Once it reaches 1,650, the doors open, and we place the body into the chamber. It has to be in a rigid container.
Let me tell you something: if you call a crematorium and ask them if you can come down—just like you just did, and I told you to come right on down—if they tell you, ‘We’ll have to schedule you an appointment,’ stay away from that crematory.
Because they’re scared for you to see it. It’s probably dirty and nasty. I mean, you don’t smell anything do you?
I don’t have anything to hide. Our industry is really highly regulated.
Cremation. The Cremation Association of North America did a study; statistically folks 65 to 85 and above have planned for a traditional ground burial and have bought their cemetery plot; their cremation rate is about 13 percent. For Baby Boomers--my age, 45 to 65--the cremation rate is about 25 percent. And below that it’s just going to blow up. With cremation, the cost to the family is less because you don’t have to buy cemetery property, you don’t have to pay the opening and closing, you don’t have to purchase a casket, and you don’t have to purchase an outer burial container.
I do feel personally that even with cremation, even if the body’s not present, it’s important to have a life celebration or a memorial service because it brings closure to the families. The general public is becoming more aware of what we call ‘traditional cremations,’ where the body is prepared and placed in a rental casket. You have a visitation, a funeral service, and instead of going to the cemetery, you go to the crematory. I think it’s important for families to have the closure of seeing that Daddy’s gone and going through that process. That’s the way I look at it.
There are a lot of options with cremation that 25 years ago weren’t options in the funeral industry. For instance, you don’t have to have that traditional funeral at 10 o’clock in the morning or 12 o’clock or 2 o’clock; that is traditionally because of the cemetaries, which have to accommodate you and dig the grave and prepare the grave and accept you, but with cremation you don’t have them involved. So we can have a memorial service at 7 p.m. Everybody goes home from work, gets something to eat, comes down to the funeral home. They can be present and don’t have to take off work.
I want a traditional cremation. That’s going to be my choice of disposition. I want my body prepared and I want a visitation for anybody who wants to come pay their final respects. And then I want a funeral service, and then I want to be cremated. I want my cremated remains to be buried with my family.