The king of caskets: Johnson celebrates 60 years servicing funeral homes

Al Johnson, funeral director of Starks Family Funeral Home, is pictured Friday. He’s had a hand in funerals for 60 years. (Don Campbell | HP Staff)

Al Johnson, funeral director of Starks Family Funeral Home, is pictured Friday. He’s had a hand in funerals for 60 years. (Don Campbell | HP Staff)

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

ST. JOSEPH — Allen “Al” Johnson has been laying people to rest for more than half a century.

Johnson, who serves as the funeral director at Starks Family Funeral Homes, has spent 60 years in the funeral home business as of Friday.

At 80 years old, the St. Joseph resident has directed or assisted on more than 10,000 funerals and embalmed more than 7,000 bodies.

Staff writer Tony Wittkowski sat down with Johnson to discuss how he got started in this profession and how he came to work in Southwest Michigan.

How long have you been working at Starks?

I came here in 1963 with Bob (Starks), but had to slow down because of a heart condition. So, I went up and bought my own small, one-man operation in 1984 in Belding. I was there for 25 years before I retired. Then I came back here in 2008.

How did you get started in the business?

Well, I was out of high school for two years and I wanted to go into bible school at Moody Bible Institute. It was my dream. Working in a factory I was getting laid off and called back. In those days you had to go to the unemployment office to pick up your check every week and give them a place where you had tried to find a job. A friend’s wife worked there and she said “Al, there’s a job opening right down the street at a funeral home.” I went down for an interview on Sunday, April 14, and started Monday, April 15. This was in 1956.

Does it feel weird looking back on how you got started?

It does. I came from a very poor family of 12 children. When I told my dad, he said “Well, I guess you’ll never have to worry about being laid off again.” (laughs)

When you first started, did you imagine yourself doing this 60 years later?

No. After I was there a year, they said I could make a funeral director. Adrian College was right there, so I took my pre-mortuary school there and transferred down to Cincinnati College of Embalming.

How long were you in school for?

It was a four-year program and I served my residency. In ’61, the firm I was with wasn’t big enough for another licensed man. They helped find me a job. I had five calls the next day. There were three in Detroit and turned them down right away. I was afraid of a big city. I looked at one in Jackson and then came over here and looked at one (in Benton Harbor).

Anything interesting people might not know about you?

I turned down a chance to try out for the Tigers. I played in two-year legion ball. A scout invited three of us from the team. The other two guys went but they didn’t make it. They told me, “You know Johnson, at least we went.”

What’s your favorite part about working here?

Serving people. They expect us to serve them, not to mourn for them. They don’t come to us for sympathy, they come to us for empathy. We’re here to serve people.

Contact Tony Wittkowski at twittkowski@TheHP.com or (269) 932-0358. Follow him on Twitter: @tonywittkowski.

(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on April 18, 2016)

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