One Christmas morning nearly three decades ago, Ruple Harley III got a call. As a funeral home director, he had to forgo the usual festive trappings with his wife, Carol, and daughter Kerri.
“I had to go to work, and she didn’t understand,” Ruple said of Kerri. “’Why can’t we open presents now?’” Carol remembers Kerri asking.
It’s the nature of the business. People die all the time, so a funeral home never closes.
“The doors may be locked,” Ruple said, before Carol added, “But the phone’s always being answered. Somebody’s always available.”
Ruple is the third-generation co-owner of Harley Funeral Home & Crematory on Main Street in Greenwood. Ruple Harley Sr. started the business in 1947, and, later, Ruple Harley Jr. helped run operations. The founder died in 2012, and Ruple Harley Jr. plays a smaller role these days.
Ruple Harley III started washing funeral home cars when he was 14 and sometimes went to cemeteries to set up tents.
“When I first started, I was just doing it because I thought it was what I was supposed to do,” Ruple said. “I was a kid.”
Working around his grandfather, though, helped him better understand the role.
“He kind of got into it because it was what was expected of him, but, over the course of time, he’s felt that same understanding of why his granddaddy started it,” Carol said. “At first it was just a job, but very quickly he found out that it wasn’t just a job. It’s a way to reach out and help people.”
Ruple went to Gupton-Jones College of Mortuary Sciences in Atlanta in 1986 and then returned to Greenwood to work at the funeral home when he was 20 years old. Ruple and Carol are licensed funeral home directors, and Ruple is also a licensed embalmer.
Although Ruple serves in mostly an administrative role — while Carol serves as the office manager — the two still take part in just about every aspect of the business.
“I wear a lot of hats,” Ruple said. “This morning I was at the cemetery marking a grave. I guess that’s one good example I got from my granddad.”
“He (Ruple Harley Sr.) would never ask anybody to do anything he wasn’t willing to do himself,” Carol added.
Back in the early days, the founder pretty much did it all.
If there were two or three funerals during a day, he was at every one of them. Back then, visitations were from 7 to 9 p.m. Supper would be on the table at 6. He would sit down and eat and then return to work.
“If he was in Greenwood County, he was going to be at the funeral, for every service and every visitation, no matter what,” Carol said. “Ruple watched and grew up with that example.”
While it took Carol a while to get used to having dead bodies in the building, it never really bothered Ruple.
“It’s the live people walking around that you have to worry about,” Ruple joked.
Carol answered a blind job ad and went to work at Harley at 19. That’s where she met Ruple, who later became her husband. Carol has been at Harley for 36 years.
Kerri is now finishing her apprenticeship to be a funeral home director. She’ll have to pass state and national board exams.
“The people that get into this have to be committed to understanding that kind of schedule — that it’s not a 9 to 5 job,” Carol said.
The funeral home has eight full-time employees and several part-time workers. Ruple holds a high standard for his coworkers.
“I’ve always said that if you are in this business and don’t have a sense of compassion for the family and what they’re dealing with, then you need to find something else to do,” Ruple said. “It’s all about showing them that you love them and care about them. We hug a lot.”
Ruple said it’s unlike any other business. Funeral home workers develop a very close relationship with people over a short period of time.
“Sometimes you know them, but sometimes you don’t,” Ruple said. “Over the course of usually about three days, you’re spending a lot of time with them, so you need to really listen to what they want and what they need.”
Meeting the needs of family and friends of the deceased starts with listening and picking up cues. If the family wants giant pink elephants at the funeral, Ruple said, then they make it happen.
“If it’s legal and it’s possible, we really try to make it happen for them,” Ruple said. “It could be something you think is really insignificant. But those little things mean a lot to people.”
Every death is different.
“Everybody just doesn’t lie down in the bed and die. There’s all kinds of different ways people die,” Ruple said.
He said unexpected deaths and the death of children are especially hard.
“The challenges can be different, depending on the situation,” Ruple said. “We try to help people and listen to what their wishes are to take care of their loved one. Sometimes it can be one family, and sometimes it can be four families that we have to talk to in a day.”
Ruple, who owns the business with his father and sister, said he would love to be able to talk to his late grandfather now.
“There were things I wasn’t mature enough to understand or ask him back then,” Ruple said. Carol added: “I wonder how he was able to do it so long by himself, without very much help. There’s no way we could do that now with the number of services that we handle.”
Ruple calls the funeral home “a big family.” They work closely together. Dealing with death on a daily basis can, at times, be hard.
“We totally encourage our employees,” Carol said. “They’re off every other weekend for four days, and we try not to bother them. It’s very important for them to just step away and kind of clear their heads because sometimes it’s some really hard stuff we’re dealing with. For all of our mental health, you’ve got to step away from it.”
Ruple likes to go home and relax on the porch, but he’s always ready to take a call and spring into action, if needed.
“No matter what time it is, somebody from here is on the road,” Ruple said.
Receiving bodies at the hospital might require just one person because of ramps, but other situations — such as removing bodies from homes with stairs — require at least two people.
Receiving the body is just the start of the process. Workers have to get information for a death certificate, help work on the obituary, plan funeral and burial arrangements and more. All of the time, the funeral workers are looking for ways to make the process as smooth as possible for friends and relatives.
“When you can help a family through the grieving process — and, after that, everything is done — they appreciate that,” Ruple said.
Carol added: “You’re actually helping them begin the process of grieving. We try to give them the tools they need to move forward and hopefully grieve in a healthy way.”
The couple said their faith helps them in the work they do.
“We serve all people, no matter what kind of faith or not they have,” Carol said. “It’s not our place to push any kind of religious factors on people, but I think it helps us personally just to be able to accept that there is life after death. If I felt like it was the end, it would be hard.”