July 1, 2007

Death has always been a part of Thomas Brett’s life.

He saw a body in a casket for the first time when he was 3.

At 16, he started learning the basics of preparing bodies for cremations, burials and viewings. His very first body arrived from a nursing home, still warm.

“It really bummed me out for, like, four days,” he recalls.

Thomas Brett’s father and uncle run the family’s St. Petersburg business, Brett Funeral Home. Growing up, he didn’t expect to follow in their footsteps. He dreamed about life as a professional drag car racer.

Instead, he became the third generation of men in his family to become a licensed funeral director. Brett, 24, has been working in the business for two years. His age makes him a rarity. The average age of funeral directors is 51, according to a survey by the National Funeral Directors Association, the largest such professional organization in the United States.

Eighty-nine percent of funeral homes are family or privately owned, says Jessica Koth, communication coordinator for the association. Most children of funeral home directors must face the question of whether they want to join the family business.

“I didn’t see myself as a funeral director,” Thomas Brett says. “That’s the funny thing.”

Even now, he’s not sure if this is the career for him.

Brett’s grandparents started the funeral home at 4810 Central Ave. in 1960. Brett’s father and uncle were raised in the funeral home.

“All of the funeral homes had ambulances,” says Thomas’ father, Timothy Brett, 54. “It was exciting seeing an ambulance pulling out, sirens blaring.”

But it also had its limitations. During his childhood, Timothy Brett rarely had friends over. But he always knew he would join his father’s business.

“I never gave it a second thought,” he says.

His younger brother, Terrence, is his business partner. He hopes his son, Thomas, will carry on the family tradition.

Thomas Brett is the likely heir to the business. His Uncle Terrence has two sons and a daughter. The youngest son is in high school and the older in college. Neither has expressed an interest in the funeral business. The daughter has already said no way.

Thomas Brett went to the University of South Florida in Tampa, but didn’t like the city or dorm life, and moved back home after a few semesters.

He got an associate’s degree of arts in business from St. Petersburg College. But he needed a job, so he went back and got an associate degree in mortuary science. He was poised, if not enthusiastic, about joining his father and uncle.

Having his name on an established business and a steady paycheck improved his outlook.

Still, he’s torn about his future. A funeral director at age 24. Going to work in a suit and tie every day. Working with clients twice, even three times his age. Guiding them through their grief and distress. Sometimes, he feels locked into his job.

“It’s just that you don’t want to let your elders down,” he says.

Timothy Brett says the choice is up to his son. Even though he made the same choice at the almost the same age, that was years ago. Today things are different.

“I encouraged him: To each his own,” Timothy Brett says. “If he has other dreams and aspirations, he needs to follow them.”

Still, as a father, he has faith his son will commit. And he isn’t cutting him any slack.

As the lowest man in the company, Thomas Brett is assigned the most unpleasant work. He typically does the embalmings. He does about 10 a month. He says his dad or uncle helps him, if necessary. The last one he did was about two weeks ago. He tries not to remember the details.

“That’s not something you want to dwell on,” he says.

Brett juggles his long hours at the funeral home with an active social life. He likes to restore and detail cars. And currently he and a friend are restoring an old boat.

“I don’t foresee myself getting out of it (the funeral industry) completely,” he says. He’ll always help his family out, even if he’s not running the company.

There have been some advantages. Thomas Brett may be the only 24-year-old who has already selected his casket.

“It’s all chrome with a black and white velvet interior,” he says as if he’s describing a car.

Well, it’s not exactly chrome. More like nickel-plated.

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