One thing Rep. Steve Southerland has noticed since coming to Washington last year is that people in the halls of Congress don’t laugh nearly as much as those who visit his family business. Which is odd, given that his family owns a funeral home.
“Everyone here is so serious,” the Florida Republican said. “Sure it’s a serious subject matter, but no more serious than the subject matter we deal with at the funeral home. And you should hear the amount of laughing that goes on at our funeral home. Congress could learn something from that.”
Southerland, the only certified mortician in Congress, meant that if his colleagues could loosen up a little, see the bigger picture, and try to have a good time, a lot more could be accomplished. It’s one of the many lessons he says that Congress should take from an unlikely place: the death industry.
Sure, a funeral service is a bit creepy. There are embalmed bodies and anti-worm caskets. Southerland’s grandparents used to live above the place where dead people went before they were buried, and as a kid the congressman played hide-and-seek with his brother in the coffin room. When asked if he can remember the first time he saw a dead body, Southerland responded, “I can’t remember not seeing them.” But with this eeriness comes an ability to deal with difficult and sensitive situations. And, according to Southerland, if Congress could act more like a funeral home, the country might be better off.
“I think it would be very wise for a member of Congress to go to a local funeral home and see what success looks like,” he said. Both jobs are really about trust, the freshman member of Congress continued, arguing that undertakers have proven themselves more trustworthy than lawmakers. Southerland hopes he can help bridge that gap.
The first piece of advice Southerland says he would bestow upon his colleagues is to recognize that many of their constituents are dealing with loss. Just as people grieve a lost family member, they go through the same stages of grief when they lose a job, a house, or their trust in government, Southerland said.
“If Congress could do anything better, it should be to tell the American people that they matter,” he said. “Congress does a pathetic job at conveying this message.” This means, he says, not only spending time in the districts speaking with and listening to constituents but also proving to the American people that they are actually willing to do the difficult work in Washington.
“Funeral service does a great job at repairing broken relationships,” Southerland said. “I’m extremely bothered, my heart is bruised, that some are determined to fan the flames of division here in D.C. I would note that the best way to honor a grieving mother is to bury the hatchet of the past.”
These divisions are primarily between Democrats and Republicans, but Southerland admits that there are plenty of intra-party factions as well. This internal discord brings him to the second core lesson from the funeral industry: “Don’t leave a funeral home with regret.”
“It’s always important to say what needs to be said, even if it’s tough,” he said. Southerland took this message to heart after being quoted disparaging leadership during negotiations to fund the government. Knowing it might be awkward, Southerland says he still made his way to the speaker’s office to apologize for his remarks.
“Even if I disagreed with leadership, you can still do that with respect,” he said. “I’ve found that funeral homes are just a much more civil environment. If people acted like people have to act in our funeral home, it would produce better results for America.”
To that point, the only thing Southerland says is more important than knowing when to speak is knowing when to shut up.
“There are plenty of times that the Republican Party has had great disagreements, whether about the budget or the debt-ceiling deal,” he said. “At that point, people typically know where we stand. All the griping only made things harder…. I’ve learned in funeral service that sometimes there’s nothing to say.”
This story is part of a yearlong series that examines America’s crumbling foundations and how to rebuild them. Find more on the Web at nationaljournal.com/restoration-calls.
This article appears in the April 26, 2012, edition of NJ Daily.