George Gulas spent 25 years in the restaurant business. He and his two brothers were the third generation of the local family restaurant dynasty begun by his grandfather, Pete Gulas, in the early 1940s.
The reputations of all their family-named restaurants were built on meat-and-threes that offered plenty of comfort.
George Gulas retired in 1997, but now he's serving families again, offering a different type of comfort food -- coordinating food services for Lane Funeral Home.
When a family requests refreshments during visitation hours, finger-food trays following a memorial service or even a seated dinner, Gulas makes it happen.
"We're here to try to help the families, we're not trying to make a living off catering," he says.
Funeral directors around the region say offering catering services is a new trend locally but one already established in larger cities. The service, they say, is meant to help alleviate stress on families grieving the death of a loved one.
A survey of two dozen funeral homes in this region found that five offer catering services and two accommodate families with setups for meals brought in by churches or friends. All provide at least a kitchen area or break room where families can store the gifts of food often brought to visitations.
The catering service is outsourced -- each funeral home has a list of licensed, inspected caterers with whom they work. The caterers prepare food off-site and bring it to the funeral home, where the staff sets up (and cleans up afterwards), so the emotionally and physically drained family can return to the funeral home after burial to find dinner waiting.
Southern humorist Jill Conner Browne, author of the Sweet Potato Queen series, once wrote: "For everyone left behind after a passing, there's the unmistakable comfort of funeral food. ... Everybody who has ever known anybody in the family has to take food to the home of the bereaved. It's practically a law."
Arriving at a funeral home with food in hand is a long-standing tradition when paying your respects in the South. Trays of desserts, bowls of potato salad and platters of fried chicken are just as much an accepted sign of sympathy as a floral spray.
Often these dishes are brought by church members and friends to provide a meal for families following the interment or memorial service.
"It's called the 'repast,'" says Anita Taylor, owner of Taylor Funeral Homes. "The repast is not new; it's as old as funerals. A long time ago, it would take place at the home or back at the church, and the church members would feed the family."
Laura Cooper, a teacher at Barger Academy of Fine Arts, says her family held a repast following the interment of her father, Dr. Wallace McGill. Part of the food her family purchased, the other half of their meal was prepared by a family friend.
"We didn't want our relatives and friends from out of town to just leave," she says. "We wanted to have time to be together. We felt comforted that the meal brought a lot of different people from our lives together to share memories of dad."
All 24 funeral directors surveyed say a repast is still provided by many churches but, as society's lifestyles change and as baby boomers age, it's no longer a given.
MEETING DIFFERENT NEEDS
Gene Pike, owner of Chattanooga Funeral Home, says he began offering catering services three months ago after seeing a need based on his own Sunday school class' experiences.
"If we had someone in the class pass away, all the members would fix a dinner and take it to the funeral home. But we're all getting to the age where we're not able to do that anymore," he explains.
"When I grew up, everybody came in and made meals for the three days when anybody went through a death in the family," Pike adds. "We've gotten away from that type of relationship. I don't think it's because people don't care; I think it's because of time constraints and people don't know their neighbors like they used to."
Funeral directors say that, as baby boomers age, they may be living on fixed incomes, may not drive anymore, may not have the physical mobility to get around as they once did. Many families don't have "a church home" to provide a repast, they say. Even boomers downsizing to condo living is a factor.
"In the early days, visitation was done at the home. Today, there's not many houses you can get a casket into, much less 40 or 50 people," Pike notes wryly.
In three months, Pike estimates 20 percent of the grieving families have used Chattanooga Funeral Home's catering service. In larger markets, such as Memphis and Nashville, almost 50 percent of clients do, he says.
"We've had a lot of success with this," he says. "A lot of times, when families come back from the cemetery, we have a meal waiting for them. It takes the burden off of people going back to their homes, especially families with homes not big enough to accommodate all the relatives."
During visitation, some families request snack foods such as fruit or cheese trays set up in a room adjacent to where the body lies in state, he says. Others may ask for a seated dinner in a room for the repast before out-of-town relatives catch a plane home.
His son, Stephen Pike, says catering services are offered as one of many options presented families when they make funeral arrangements. It is an elective for which the family pays just as they would their flowers or coffin choice, he says.
At Chattanooga Funeral Home, catering plans start at $295 for a minimum of 25 guests and range to $695, says Stephen Pike. Additional guests are added in increments of 10.
"Everyone who operates a funeral establishment is regulated by the Federal Trade Commission as well as the state of Tennessee, and Tennessee Board of Funeral Directors and Embalmers," says the younger Pike.
"Prices we offer to the public are itemized and disclosed under FTC rule. Prices can vary from place to place, but you have to adhere to what you say you are charging."
Mike Kellar, managing partner at Lane Funeral Home, says he has found it most common for families to choose food for visitation; the second most-popular is food after the memorial service. When churches provide a repast, he adds, it is more common now to have dinner served after visitation, before the service.
Two funeral homes apply comfort-food aromatherapy to ease the stress of clients and welcome those visiting.
Vanderwall Funeral Home in Dayton and Hamilton Funeral Home in Hixson keep chocolate-chip cookies baking in their kitchens whenever a visitation is scheduled so the welcoming aroma permeates hallways and rooms throughout the building.
"We found it was comforting during visitation. They gather around with coffee and cookies and reminisce," says Josh Jennings, funeral director at Hamilton, which also added catering services in August.
Tom Vanderwall, owner of Vanderwall Funeral Home, says he began cookie comfort when he bought the business almost 30 years ago.
"I'm chicken when it comes to going to the dentist; I don't like the smell of the dentist office. I'm sure there are people who think they don't want to go to the funeral home as well," he explains. "So how much better is it, when they walk in, to get this nice, comforting smell of baking cookies? It tends to relax them a bit and change their thoughts."
Jackie Reed, Vanderwall secretary, says staff keep cookies baking throughout the day, every day of a family's visitation and service. Any remaining cookies are sent home with families at night.
Vanderwall orders the chocolate-chip cookies from a food supplier who delivers them unbaked to the funeral home. His last order was for eight cases, 300 cookies to a case.
"We order every couple of weeks," he says.
Vanderwall has become so synonymous with the comfort food, that "we have people who come by to see if we have a funeral going on so they can grab a cookie," adds Reed.