By Larissa Mulkern
Hampton Union, Sunday, March 17, 2002
HAMPTON -- Robert K. Gray Jr. has wanted to be a funeral director since he was 7 years old.
"I always felt blessed that I knew what I wanted to do for a living. It is a very rewarding profession," says Gray, 32.
As a youngster, his grandfather Joseph F. Dineen took Gray everywhere, including wakes and funerals of the elders many friends and associates. Instead of fearing his surroundings, Gray says he became fascinated.
Last month, his career reached new heights when he opened the Robert K. Gray Jr. Funeral Home at 24 Winnacunnet Road, completing a yearlong renovation that transformed the former Friendly's Restaurant into an elegant, state-of-the-art facility.
The showroom sets it apart from other funeral homes in the area. It is a place where the bereaved or those pre-planning their funeral arrangements can view models of caskets, choose personalized decorative items, or see a wide selection of urns and cremation caskets in a price range suited to fit any family's budget and needs. There are even special decorative containers used for burial of ashes at sea.
"I'm trying to promote personal service," Gray says. "Service. Service. Service."
A family can choose decorative items with golfing or gardening themes to personalize a casket, for example.
'This gives a family the opportunity to enhance the funeral experience, as difficult of a time it may be for a family, and make the whole chore a little more memorable," Gray says.
Display pieces showing only a portion of the casket allow the customer to view a wider variety of models and designs.
"This is the first showroom of its kind in the area," Gray says. "It's important to note this is a funeral home for the Seacoast. It's not a Hampton funeral home. We're close to Portsmouth and Newburyport, and licensed in both New Hampshire and Massachusetts."
The funeral home does not operate its own crematory.
Gray has 12 years' experience in the business, having worked in the Farrell Funeral Home in Portsmouth. He also worked with the Republican National Committee for six years and volunteered during President George W. Bush's 2000 campaign.
A graduate of Portsmouth High School, Gray went on to Kents Hill School in Maine, and pursued a communications degree at Emerson College before shifting gears and earning a degree in mortuary science from New England Institute of Mortuary Science at Mount Ida College.
He worked with the Farrell Home until leaving in 1998 to care for his ill grandfather at their Seabrook beach home. Gray was 30 at the time.
His professional mentor was John Leith, with whom he apprenticed at the Farrell Home.
"I considered that to be a rewarding experience for me," Gray says. "Looking back on those days, John was instrumental in shepherding me to where I am today."
The 5,100-square-foot facility includes a showroom, sitting area with a desk, two chapels, the smaller with stained glass windows from a Connecticut estate and the main room that seats 150. A handpainted mural graces the enormous foyer.
"When you walk into a funeral home with a beautiful mural and artwork and flowers in the chapel and stained glass windows, it might help take the sting out of your visit," Gray says.
Most of the restaurant equipment was either donated or sold to businesses. Overall, renovations took a lot of money, and a lot of elbow grease, Gray adds.
"Friends and family stepped up to plate to do demolition work," he says. "And the town was forever involved with every decision." One last-minute requirement was for a sprinkler system.
The entire facility is decorated with restored and re-upholstered furniture, antiques and artwork from all over the world. The light fixtures in the main chapel, for instance, are from London. The tea set in the other chapel is from Czechoslovakia. A restored tapestry is from Argentina.
"The colors I chose were warm and uplifting," Gray says. "I push the mark a bit with my bright ties to try to take the stigma out of a doom and gloom industry.
"Not all death is sad today," he adds, referring to the many who suffer from debilitating illnesses alone in nursing homes.
Final arrangements are often rushed, he notes. "We're in a slam-bang world now. If you can't spend 15 minutes saying a last good-bye to someone, you can sign an online guest book," Gray says. "Yes, we're a mobile society, but we have to remember this individual lived a life. We have to slow down, take a deep breath. That doesn't mean you have to spend $22,000 for last arrangements."
Gray says he doesn't want the elegance of his new funeral home to put off families with limited funds for funeral rites. He says he can make dignified arrangements in any price range, and can even direct the traditional wakes held at the home of the family.
"I'm here to meet the needs of the families," he says. "We are competitively priced and non-denominational."
His commitment to the town includes a promise kept to hire high school students and senior citizens to work the door and park cars.
At a welcoming reception held Feb. 17, Gray greeted between 700 and 800 friends, family and associates. Unfortunately, his grandfather wasn't there to see the magnificent facility and the culmination of his grandson's dream.
"He was absolutely my best friend," says Gray, adding later a comment he heard from many guests: "They said, 'Your grandfather would have been proud.'"