My recent visit to Burton Funeral Homes & Crematory revealed how the business has embraced both tradition and change.
The tradition aspect is readily apparent in the owners, who represent the fifth generation of the Burton family to run the business. The business was founded in 1876, and there are now four Burton locations around the county. The location that we visited, on West 10th Street in the City of Erie, is located in a historic building that has been home to Burton since the 1950s.
As Karen Burton Horstman spoke about the business, however, it became clear that it is now as much about changing times as it is about that deep-rooted family tradition.
The business has adjusted to meet the expectations of modern customers. That might mean offering more ways to personalize a funeral service – including through things like specialized casket accents, a unique urn, or a custom memorial. They’re also keeping an eye on new technology that other funeral homes have used to personalize funeral services.
And, in addition, they find themselves changing to fit contemporary sensibilities – which sometimes treat the grieving process differently than previous generations.
“We’re becoming a less traditional society,” Horstman says. “People are not valuing funeral services the way they used to.”
For any aspect of the funeral business, Horstman emphasizes the importance of the grieving process. In fact, that’s one of the aspects of the business that she finds to be the most important. As she explains, the death of a loved one is one of the life events that has the most impact on a person.
“People ask me, ‘How do you stand this work?’” she says. “I tell them that you’re helping someone through the worst time of their life. It’s very sad, but it’s also very rewarding.”
About Burton Funeral Homes & Crematory: In addition to the main location on West 10th Street in Erie, Burton operates funeral homes on West 26th Street and on Norcross Road in Millcreek Township, and on Main Street in Girard. The funeral home employs 40-some employees, almost equally split between part-time and full-time. Burton had one of the first crematories in the area, opening its crematory at the West 10th Street facility in the 1980s.
Why Erie County: Clearly, Burton has strong roots in Erie County. And the owners see that as a distinct advantage. “We have been here a long time, so our name has a good reputation,” Horstman says. But she also emphasized that Erie County is a desirable place to live. As she describes, it has big-city assets without being a big city, while also offering advantages like the natural environment and affordable housing.
Challenges of Erie County: Horstman describes a need for a regional view in Erie County, pointing to her experience of operating businesses both inside the City of Erie and in the outlying areas. As she explains, the City of Erie is home to all manner of nonprofits and services that pay no taxes, limiting the tax base – but residents of other Erie County municipalities also use those services. She sees reginonalism as a possible solution to revitalizing the city and its public schools. “If you don’t have schools, you don’t attract people,” she says. “And then how do I stay in business?”
Fun fact: Burton was founded by A.P. Burton, the son of a shipbuilder who helped construct Oliver Hazard Perry’s War of 1812 fleet.