by Jill Ragar Esfeld
Special to The Leaven
PRAIRIE VILLAGE — St. Ann parishioner Brian O’Laughlin thrives on what most of us dread: the unexpected phone call that throws a peaceful life into chaos.
Not long ago, he got that call from a longtime fellow parishioner and friend, John Masterson, who had moved to Indiana with his wife Susan.
“Suzie got cancer and died out there,” said O’Laughlin. “John called me up and said, ‘Brian, what do I do?’”
O’Laughlin’s response was simple.
“‘What do you want to have happen?’”
It’s a question he’s used over and over again in his newfound vocation as funeral advocate.
In this role, O’Laughlin’s primary goal is to protect his clients emotionally and financially, while helping them honor their loved ones in any way they choose.
Masterson, for example, now a parishioner of St. Simon the Apostle in Indianapolis, wanted to bury his wife back home in Kansas. O’Laughlin knew how to make that happen.
“He was a godsend,” said Masterson. “He was my one-point contact person. He did everything from handling the logistics of transporting the body to helping me get pictures together for the wake.”
“I was able to get it all done while he was out of town,” said O’Laughlin. “And then he flew into town and we finished up the details.”
“He did a tremendous job for me,” said Masterson.
Born to advocate
O’Laughlin’s interest in funeral advocacy is a natural partner to his primary profession as a financial representative.
“I like to protect people,” he said. “You’ve got to watch out for the little guy — take care of the children and the elderly and take care of the uninformed; it’s an obligation we have as Christians.”
O’Laughlin fulfills that obligation outside of work as well. With his wife Mimi, he’s raised four sons and, in the process, has coached almost every sport.
“Probably 50 seasons of some things — from soccer to rugby to basketball,” he said.
Known for his volunteerism within his parish, O’Laughlin is always available when help is needed.
“I’ve held every position except pastoral council,” he said. “I’ve probably painted the walls in the school 10 times.
“And when the Knights of Columbus do their big shrimp dinner, I come in and cook spaghetti that will knock your socks off.”
Twelve years ago, when his father died suddenly, O’Laughlin was introduced to the funeral services industry and instantly recognized another area where he might be able to help people.
“I took Mom over to the funeral home,” he recalled. “I was kind of propping her up and trying to advocate for her.”
O’Laughlin listened and asked questions, but emerged from the experience feeling like he could have helped his mother more — and saved her money — had he been better informed.
Later that year, when his uncle died, an out-of-town cousin called asking for help planning a funeral here. With experience now on his side, O’Laughlin was eager to revisit the process.
This time he researched and networked and managed to make more cost-effective choices. The cousin was so pleased with the outcome that he sent O’Laughlin a generous gift certificate.
O’Laughlin was so pleased with the experience, he decided to make it his business.
Seeing a clear need for his services and eager to assist more people, O’Laughlin went to the Kauffman Foundation for Entrepreneurialism and took some courses to help him formalize a business plan.
He also introduced himself to the close-knit community that provides funeral and burial services.
“Brian came to us so that we’d understand what it was he was doing,” said Bob Chenoweth, executive director of Catholic Cemeteries in Kansas.
Chenoweth thought O’Laughlin had hit on an important, but unaddressed need.
“There are people who come to us to make their [burial] arrangements, and they’ll ask about funeral home arrangements,” he said. “And we’ll say we don’t do that. But it’s obvious that they are looking for some guidance.”
“I know Brian is looking out for the welfare of his clients,” said Charlie Passantino, owner of Passantino Brothers Funeral Home in Kansas City, Mo.
“I think with his knowledge and expertise, he can do a lot of the legwork that, to be quite honest, families don’t take the time to do,” he added.
Before long, O’Laughlin was getting word-of-mouth referrals — and the feeling that God was steering him along this path.
“It was always weird how I’d get referred into situations,” he said. “They were all divinely inspired.”
As a funeral advocate, O’Laughlin’s job is to clarify what the client wants, and then make it happen at the lowest cost.
“I coach people through the process,” he said. “I have a pretty good planning mind, and so I recognize things other people don’t recognize.”
O’Laughlin’s success stems from his knowledge of the business, his financial savvy, and a natural gift for networking.
“Brian is just so personable,” said Masterson. “He’s one of these guys who knows everybody and everybody is a friend. He has so many contacts and connections.”
More importantly, O’Laughlin is able to take advantage of his position as a neutral party to negotiate prices when his clients are emotionally incapable of doing so.
“It’s a different situation to work with him, because the emotional side is not there,” explained Passantino. “He’s done his research so, when he calls, basically he knows what he’s looking for for that family, and that makes my job easier.”
It’s not a job; it’s an adventure
O’Laughlin’s efforts always lead the client to — but not over — the threshold of the funeral service.
“My philosophy is whatever happens inside the church is the responsibility of the church itself,” he said. “I don’t get involved in the service; I just help the family get to the service.”
O’Laughlin’s clients will be the first to tell you the road to that end isn’t always predictable.
One client’s deceased wife loved gardening. Her favorite flowers were blackeyed Susans and zinnias.
While helping with funeral arrangements, O’Laughlin decided to forgo the conventional florist and visit a garden center instead. Zinnias and black-eyed Susans just happened to be on sale that day.
“I told them to fill my truck with them,” said O’Laughlin.
Guests at the woman’s service found a meadow of her favorite flowers at the base of the altar. The pots were transported to a luncheon afterwards, where they decorated tables.
Surviving the maze
When St. Ann parishioner Jeannine Herrera’s mother entered hospice care, she ordered information from a funeral home and tried to do some preplanning.
“It was like going through a maze,” she said. “So I called Brian.”
Herrera was astonished at how O’Laughlin streamlined the process of arranging the funeral.
“Brian understands the business of it,” she said. “He coaches you through the process in a way that makes you feel like you’ve got a friend, and there is no pressure to buy anything.”
Herrera and her sister buried their father 10 years earlier. They were shocked at the cost difference O’Laughlin’s involvement made.
“I think we spent, for our mother’s whole funeral, what we spent on my dad’s casket,” she said.
Christ the King, Kansas City, Mo., parishioner Michael Coughlin had a similar experience.
When his wife died a year ago, he arranged the funeral himself. Eight months later, when he lost his mother, he called O’Laughlin.
“Brian goes piece by piece and figures out what you need,” said Coughlin. “He explains the options. He’s very motivated to save people money and protect them from overcharges.”
“And he was very compassionate,” Coughlin added. “He gave me his personal cell phone number. He encouraged me to call him directly anytime anything came up.”
That compassion comes from O’Laughlin’s real desire to protect the well-being of his clients.
“Someone once asked how I can deal with all this grief,” he recalled. “And I said, ‘Sometimes I cry. It’s part of life.’ Emoting is a good thing. If I didn’t care, it wouldn’t bother me.”
When it comes to the funeral services community, O’Laughlin has been pleased with the acceptance he’s received.
“The funeral directors that I work with and the people at cemeteries have been very accommodating,” he said, “because they, too, are in the business of helping people.”
“I’ve known Brian for two or three years,” said Passantino. “He’s upfront, he’s honest, [and] his word is good.”
“I’ve met him on several occasions and thoroughly understand what he’s doing, and it’s good work,” said Chenoweth, who is especially appreciative of O’Laughlin’s advocacy of pre-need planning (see sidebar).
As he advocates for families facing one of their most difficult times, O’Laughlin is constantly amazed by what he calls “inspired moments” — like the sun bursting through a church window and shining brightly on loved ones, or geese flying in perfect formation over an Air Force veteran’s graveside service.
But most often, he just sees things working out perfectly for the people he represents. And he never believes it’s a coincidence.
“Things don’t just fall together because of happenstance or chance,” he said. “I think it is divinely inspired.”
“And I think God takes care of those who take care of others,” he added. “So I’d just as well be the guy taking care of other people.”
To learn more
For a free end-of-life planning seminar or to learn more, contact O’Laughlin by e-mail at: OLaughlinB@aol.com; call him at (816) 931- 3313; or visit the Web site at: www.funeraladvocates.com.