For nearly 60 years, the Freeman family has comforted families through hard times.
Caring for the people in this community has been a lifelong endeavor for the Freeman family. For nearly 60 years, they’ve owned and operated the Freeman Mortuary in Jefferson City and cared for families during some of the hardest and saddest moments of their lives. It has been a family investment built on hard work and heartfelt determination, plus a shared commitment to serving this community for the long term.
After serving in WWII, Donald Freeman used his GI Bill benefits to go to mortuary school, and then in 1961, he built the Freeman Mortuary at its current location at 915 Madison St. The building was the first in Jefferson City to be built specifically as a funeral home. It also served as the main ambulance service for the community for the first 15 years. Donald’s son, Phil, graduated from mortuary school in 1974 and joined the family business right after. Phil and his wife, Amy, had two sons, Don and Ryan, and both were active in the family business from an early age.
“We grew up here at the funeral home, but I didn’t really know what my dad did at the time,” says Ryan. “We would always be working with the outside crew, including mowing and painting, and taking care of things around the building.”
Phil began talking to his sons at an early age about the family business, including opening the conversation about transitioning the business in the future. It was never assumed, but it was always on the table, if the boys gained an interest. Phil and Amy both felt strongly about their sons pursuing their own personal and professional passions.
“You can’t force your children to do an occupation they are not comfortable with,” Phil says. “If you would like to transfer your business, talk to your kids early about your plan to have them run it. My oldest son never had an interest, but Ryan went to college and then came to the decision to go into the business.”
“Dad gave me the ability to get a firm foundation underneath me, which I am grateful for.”Ryan Freeman
Ryan graduated from the University of Missouri with a double major in finance and real estate before attending a mortuary school in Chicago. While he came back to Jefferson City immediately after completing school to join the Freeman Mortuary team, the transition of the business to him as a third-generation owner was a well-planned, methodical process.
“The transition of the business didn’t happen right away, and I worked for dad for several years,” says Ryan. “Those first years, I was figuring out how to be the best funeral director I could be versus only learning to run a business. Dad gave me the ability to get a firm foundation underneath me, which I am grateful for.”
While Phil provided a strong foundation, Ryan brought a new perspective on growing the business and enhancing the experience for the families they serve. It was a learning curve for both of them, especially with the funeral business changing more in the past five years than it had in the previous 50. It was a challenge they both tackled with mutual respect and an admiration for the strengths each brought to the table.
“I was getting to a point where I didn’t want to move into more technology and keep up with the changes,” notes Phil. “It became easier for me to let him do it and to begin turning more and more over to him.”
Even though Ryan was all about change and new ideas, including renovating the main chapel, which closed completely for 10 weeks during the remodel, he also wisely understood the expectations on both sides of the decision-making process.
“I think the younger generation has to respect the amount of energy the older generation has put into this business. You put your heart and soul in. You have to respect that 30-year commitment and that things may be slower to change, but sometimes you also need to slow down the change,” says Ryan.
With Phil and Ryan working seamlessly side-by-side, the final transition of ownership to Ryan was a quiet one with little fanfare. One day Phil owned it, and the the next day Ryan owned it. While the community and the families they serve may not have marked the milestone, the entire family was aware of every detail of the transition. It’s an important step the Freemans would encourage any family who wants to transition a business to consider.
“Mom and Dad were so good at keeping the whole family updated on the transition with full transparency, including all the kids and spouses,” Ryan remembers. “It helped my brother’s and my relationship to be in this together. A family business isn’t worth losing relationships over.”
Many in the Freeman family still work together daily. Ryan oversees day-to-day operations, Phil helps guide the funeral services, Amy keeps the office running, and Ashley, Ryan’s wife, serves as a graphic designer. Ryan’s sister-in-law also helps with pre-planning the services. The Freemans are also blessed with a multi-generational team, including many members who are not part of the family, to help keep the business running smoothly.
“There’s a lot of family here,” Amy laughs.
“Yes, there is. I get a lot of honest feedback, and I also know they will always love me,” Ryan chimes in with a smile.
It’s that good-natured camaraderie and genuine love that also extends to the families they help through tough times. That’s the glue that has kept them serving this community for 60 years in the same location Donald first set eyes on. This strong legacy is never lost on Phil or Ryan, who both have learned to appreciate it for the beautiful gift it is.
“There’s a lot of family here.”Amy Freeman
“To get a business started is tough, and that was my father. He started it from scratch and he built it,” says Phil. “I came in and advanced it. Then to get it to a third generation, which research says can be difficult, is exciting. We are very proud of Ryan and the future of this business.”
Without a doubt, the Freeman family will continue to tackle the future together. The father-son bond is something Ryan will always treasure, including the honest dad advice he has come to count on over the years.
“The best thing about my dad is his honest feedback. He gives me sound advice and he is not afraid to step on my toes,” says Ryan.
Now, Ryan has his eye on the future and continues to build a strong team that is full-service, from pre-planning to post-grief counseling. It’s exciting for him to think how the planning now will have positive impacts down the road.
“We’re developing such a good team and we keep getting better every day. There’s a lot of benefit to running your own business because you can drive change, but you have a lot of responsibility to uphold the tradition,” Ryan says. “It’s the challenges that excite me most about the future.”