Newnan's family business at its finest
by Clay Neely
If you ever meet John Daviston, you wouldn't forget him. Chances are he won't forget you either.
Since working full-time for McKoon Funeral Home in Newnan starting in 1998, Daviston's memory for people and circumstances is uncanny. He remembers details from 15 years ago like it happened only 15 minutes before, and this ability isn't lost on visiting families - they remember why they want to live in a small town.
As a young man, Daviston recalls nothing else except wanting to be in the family business, though it was never an easy road.
'My father said, 'You can come into this business, but let me tell you what. You're going to work twice as hard. I want you to get this because you want to and because you love this, not because you think you've got an in,'' said Daviston.
Daviston has always fancied himself a 'business and numbers' type of person. However, his father, Terry Daviston, positioned him to work outside the funeral home exclusively as a young man: parking cars, putting up tents, digging graves and performing general lawn maintenance.
'I wasn't allowed inside the home until I graduated college. That was my father's prerequisite and I can appreciate where he was coming from. Now I can do everything from digging a grave to embalming and accounting. There were things he made me do that, looking back now, were incredibly wise, giving me that full breadth of knowledge,' Daviston said.
In 1994, Daviston and his father went to work in Albany during the flooding that was caused by tropical storm Alberto. Caskets were washing down the river and retrieving the bodies was an incredibly daunting task. Daviston's father was a federal disaster coordinator.
'I was at Auburn the summer after my freshman year, working outside when dad came up and said, 'Come on, you're going with me.' I thought I'd be flying around in the helicopter or riding in the Humvee with the National Guard. When we rolled up to the scene, they were bringing back the bodies from the river and the men with the waders would put the bodies in a bag. Suddenly, I heard my dad ask someone: 'You got any waders?'' 'I spent three days in the water while my dad was up in the helicopter,' Daviston said.
Following the catastrophe in Albany, his father helped to get the House bill passed which required identification for all bodies. Now, a computer program makes a laminated, waterproof, weatherproof label that is placed around the ankle of the deceased.
Once he was finally allowed to work inside the funeral home, Daviston tirelessly worked with the team at McKoon's to ensure that every possible aspect of a funeral was executed to its fullest potential.
'The team is the real story here,' said Daviston. 'We're a family company and we operate like one. If one of us is down, we figure out a way to get back up.'
The McKoon team holds a daily meeting - the morning huddle - where all aspects of both business and personal lives are discussed. If a team member is under the weather, another member will make sure that they are taken care of. Constant communication among the team is the cornerstone to their enthusiastic approach to their profession.
'The more we communicate, the more effective we are. If someone passes away, we want to know as much as possible about them. Maybe one of us saw some ducks mounted in his study and a pair of waders by the door. Noticing things like that helps us to prepare, personalize and celebrate a life more effectively,' said Daviston.
'As a team, we still have fun together. You might notice that we have a frisbee golf course set up out front for when things are slow. But when it's game time, it's game time,' said Daviston. 'Doing this is like live television. You only get one shot.'
'We work a lot and it's incredibly fulfilling. But it's not one of those jobs where you get off at 5 and put your hat on the pegboard and walk out. The experiences and the families carry over into our lives. It's more than just a job. They have entrusted you with the most important thing in their life. That's a big responsibility. You have to be all in.'
The emotional impact of being a funeral director isn't hard to imagine. Absorbing, understanding and ensuring the needs of every family on a daily basis is no easy task. With a wife and two children at home, how does Daviston manage to leave work at work?
'When I used to come home from work, my son would ask me why it would take so long for me to take off my work clothes. The truth is, I have to take 30 minutes for myself so that I can decompress and try to make sense of it all, then I can be the dad I like to be rolling around with the kids in the yard,' said Daviston.
'It can be tough, though. Real tough. For a while, I tried to keep a blog to make sense of it. But working here makes me remember what living in a small town is all about.
'It's like if someone you know dies, you usually take food to over their house. You want to help,' said Daviston. 'For me, I take comfort in taking care of all the details so they can spend time with their family and not worry about anything.'
Daviston isn't on call 24-7, but he is always available.
He recalls the story of when he and his wife were newlyweds and the funeral home phone sat on the nightstand by their bed. Late one night a storm knocked out the power, and suddenly Daviston heard the funeral home phone ring. On the other end was an elderly friend of the family, congratulating him on his new marriage and politely inquiring about the time. Daviston got out of bed, found his Indiglo watch and passed along the information to the woman.
'Oh, bless your heart,' she said. 'I'm going to bring you some cookies this week.'
Daviston hung up and his wife asked, 'Did someone just call the funeral home for the time?' She asked him if it made him angry.
'I said, 'No, I'm humbled that at three in the morning, she knew that she could call and someone would be nice to her and give her the information she needed.' To me it was incredible that no matter what time of day she called she knew someone would be kind to her,' recalled Daviston.
'My job makes me happy because it's not on a transactional level but an emotional level.'
Last week's passing of McKoon employee Michael Noles marked an emotional milestone for Daviston and the McKoon Funeral Home family. This was the first time an active employee had passed away while still employed at the home.
Noles was attending Lowell Congregational Holiness Church and was in preparation to serve as a minister of the gospel in addition to his service on the staff of McKoon Funeral Home when he was tragically killed in a car accident.
True to form, the team took care of each other.
'We've been a wreck about it,' said Daviston. 'Three of us went to Piedmont and three of us went to Atlanta Medical Center, and we didn't leave until we brought him back here.'
The team wanted to do all the preparations themselves.
'This was one of the toughest things I've ever done in my life, but our team did it and we wanted to do it. He was one of our own and we all felt like he would have done the same for us. We knew this would be part of the healing process, to care for him the same way we care for every other family,' said Daviston.
Daviston expressed the the difficult emotional state of the team but acknowledged the ultimate catharsis that it provided.
'He was our family and that's how we serve everyone else. He was a big part of what we do. Our team saw firsthand both sides of what we do. Before the visitation on Monday night, we all got together and had a prayer - we talked and laughed and cried,' said Daviston.
'He was such a big part of what we do. His demeanor, spirit and unselfishness was always really contagious, but now it's infectious. Even on our condolences page, there are entries from some of the people we had served in the past. These are the same people Noles did not know prior to them walking into our door - families talking about the difference he made for them in the few days they were there. We always say, 'We may not know them when they come in but we will know them forever when they leave.' This reinforced to our team what a difference we can make by doing what we do, how we can serve people and help them honor their loved ones,' said Daviston.
'We aren't the same people we were last week.'