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LIGHTNING EDITORIAL: The painful death of a funeral home

The name itself was natural and comforting — Shepherd Funeral Home, calling to mind the shepherds in Luke 2:10 who hear from an angel, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people” — the birth of the Good Shepherd.

In 1903, furniture store manager Thomas Shepherd started selling a product to serve as his customers’ final conveyance to the church triumphant— wooden coffins — and the name ever since had been known in the region and widely respected.

Thos. Shepherd & Son was not the only quality funeral home in Hendersonville but it was the first and the most prominent. The now shuttered property on Church Street — occupying a square block of valuable land — stood as a landmark that told the story of lives lived and lost, over and over. A commuter driving home at dusk could tell that a well-known and well-loved citizen had passed by the line of visitation mourners snaking out the chapel door onto the sidewalk. During funerals, police allowed the hearse to stand at the ready, northbound toward Shepherd Memorial Park, heading the wrong way on a one-way street, just because this was Thos. Shepherd & Son Funeral Directors.

How the venerable company collapsed in shambles and came to ruin has been well documented in these pages over the past two years, and yet the story seems to get more curious and more tragic as each chapter unfolds. The writing has been on the handsome brick wall of the establishment for three years, ever since the business survived a shutdown order in a form of probation under the watchful eye of the North Carolina  Board of Funeral Service. But as the last Shepherd — Thomas Redmond “Tom” Shepherd — declined in health, the business foundered, and worse.

Complaints piled up against the funeral home and the family-owned cemetery, which Tom’s father, William “Billy” Shepherd, founded in 1954.

Tragic as the whole mess is, the community owes a debt of gratitude to state regulators — the Board of Funeral Service and the North Carolina Cemetery Commission — for acting decisively. The funeral home is shut down and the cemetery is headed into receivership so that a court-appointed executive can ensure “perpetual care” and preserve the gravesites that families have purchased “preneed.”

The preneed contracts for funeral services had been withheld by Melody Shepherd, according to a motion by the Board of Funeral Service, in an apparent attempt to make them part of a sale. Illegal, the board attorney said. Then we find out that County Commissioner Michael Edney, who had dissuaded fellow commissioners from signing a letter of complaint about the cemetery operations and publicly defended the funeral home, was privately acting as the businesses’ attorney and had signed himself on — for reasons yet unknown — as both companies’ chairman and president.

In a deep depression for the last months of his life, Tom Shepherd died on Dec. 30, six weeks after the state shut down the business he had led since 1965. Surely, the men mourners so many times regarded as the good Shepherds — Thomas, Billy and Tom — are spinning in their graves.