A life dealing with death
By Michael Brooks
Most people in Jackson County know Russell Todish. Unfortunately for most people, when they meet for the first time, it’s usually during an emotional time.
Todish has been the Managing Director of Slavik Funeral Homes and Ganado Funeral Home since 2010, and working for a funeral home has always been part of his life.
“I grew up in Bay City,” he explained. “In 1964, during high school, I started with the funeral home. Back then, all the funeral homes ran ambulances. I liked it pretty well and the funeral home guys told me if I want to make any money, I have to get my funeral director and embalming license because driving the ambulance didn’t pay much.”
In 1965 Todish moved to Austin where he continued to work for a funeral home, again driving ambulances, before registering for Mortuary College in Houston.
Todish moved from Austin to Rosenberg and worked at the funeral home from 1966 to 1975 as he attended college. Then he got a promotion, although through an unfortunate situation.
“The owner passed away in 1969 and I ran the funeral home for a couple of years,” Todish explained.
Along with college and running the funeral home, Todish kept busy.
“At that time I was a volunteer fireman and a deputy with the sheriff’s department in Fort Bend,” he explained. “Then, I guess it was ‘77, I got out of the funeral business full time and just worked it part time. I was a paid fireman for a couple of years then got into emergency response communications. I worked for a company that provided radio and satellite communications and cameras.”
Todish did the communications job for 18 years then received a call that brought him to Edna.
“In 2009, my son Jeff called and said “PawPaw, the grandkids need help,” Todish said. “I said sure, anything. Jeff said they bought the Slavik and Ganado Funeral Homes and they want me to run them until the grandkids are old enough to take over. Well, that was a long time. So, that brings us to today.”
Todish has been the director since 2010 and his wife Debbie runs the office, does the paperwork, “and keeps me straight” Todish added with a chuckle.
Todish has now been a licensed funeral director for 54 years and a has maintained his police license for 52 years.
“I’m not that active, but I keep my deputy up to help out with communications and emergency response,” he explained.
In 54 years, Todish has done some interesting things, but one that quickly springs to his mind is relocating cemeteries.
“I have done things like relocating three different cemeteries,” he explained. “We dug everyone up in a cemetery and moved them to another one. The big one I did was in the middle of 286 acres and they were selling it off as ranchettes. Well, nobody wants to buy a property with a cemetery on it. So, we knew where those 14 graves were, and they were some of the old original settlers from Austintown Colony and San Felipe-the birth of Texas.”
Having to move a few cemeteries was something Todish was okay with, but there were some situations he wasn’t interested in messing with.
“The same gentleman that paid me to move the big cemetery told me there is also an Indian burial ground on the same property and asked me if I would find it and relocate them,” Todish said. If horror movies have taught us anything, it’s Indian burial grounds are not to be messed with. “I told him no. Even if I found them, I wouldn’t touch them. I mean, I have bad luck and I don’t need any more of that!”
Todish also was called in to move a cemetery after a developer, who was leveling lots, unknowingly dug into the tops of some caskets.
“It was in the Sugarland/Missouri City area,” he explained. “With me being a licensed officer, everyone at the sheriff’s department knew me, so they called me and told me to get over there right away. Sure enough there were two caskets.
The discovery stopped the construction and the research began.
“It was the black community area back in the old old days, and we found through talking to people, they knew of 26 bodies that were buried there through the years,” Todish continued. “One of them they did not know their name. So they came up with 25 names and one unknown. We searched and found 25 remnants and two caskets. We estimated they were 60 years down. I moved them over to a cemetery in Stafford. The Cemetery association bought a monument that had 25 names on it and one unknown.”
Being in the funeral business can really wear on someone but Todish has managed to work through it.
“Dealing with death every day gets a little drawn out,” he explained. “Some of my friends that have stayed in the funeral business and worked all these 50 years are a little more dragged down than I am, so I look back and am thankful I had those 18 years off. I kept my license and worked on the weekends. I’m not going to say it refreshed me, but it got my mind off it. Plus, staying active locally helps.”
Unexpected deaths also make situations tough to deal with.
“It’s hard,” he explained. “It’s harder, obviously, with things like a school shooting, or when somebody died suddenly, like if some drunk driver hit them.”
Sometimes Todish has a difficult time mingling around town.
“I do have a couple of families around town that, if they see me walking, they will turn and go somewhere else,” he explained. “If they do bump into me, they’ll tell me they don’t want to talk to me and they don’t want to see me, because I’ve buried some of their families. You can say a funeral director is probably one of the loneliest jobs. We are not out there partying because I don’t want to go to a party and drink and have a good time and laugh and cut-up and someone is sitting over there thinking “you just buried my mom.”
In the office, emotions can also run high. Todish said fights have broken out in the past, usually concerning money or estate. Even with all of that, the job can be rewarding.
“It’s sometimes a thankless job, but when families come back afterwards and says it was a better experience than what they thought it would be, it improves things,” he said. “It’s a little better out in a smaller community where you have to know everybody. We had 15 funerals in the first three months I was here and it was difficult because I didn’t know anybody. Now I have buried multiple people in some families and it has become a family. That does make it a little tougher when you know them.”
Todish also still does reconstruction work when the family wants it but he said cremation is becoming much more prevalent.
“We’re seeing more and more cremations,” he said. “One reason is money and two, the younger folks don’t do it like we did growing up. We would go to church on Sundays, go to grandma’s house and eat fried chicken, then go out to the cemetery and put flowers out.” The Ganado cemetery has developed a new expansion and Todish has sold the first spot. There are also more plans for both funeral homes when Jeff retires.
“I am going to stay in the funeral business. This is it, until I’m in the other room in there,” he said with a smile while motioning to the reposing room.
“When families come up to me and tell me I really helped them through it, it means a lot,” he said. “We may not have the biggest place, but we have the biggest heart.”