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Community Portrait

Hoke worked decades in changing funeral industry

By: Michael Kirby
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In 1966, Meadow Vista’s Brian Hoke was in college and looking for a job. He applied for several and one was an entry-level position at a funeral home in Southern California.
Not even in the darkest reaches of his mind did he think that accepting that job would lead to a long career in the funeral industry.
“People ask me this all the time and I can’t actually tell you why I picked a funeral home to look for a job,” he said. But Hoke ended up liking the work and stayed with it.
“I was going to college and mulling around trying to find something to do,” he said. “I had thought I might become a teacher,” Hoke said.
He ended up going to mortuary college and earned his embalmer’s license.
Last Dec. 31, Hoke worked his last day and retired from a career in funeral service that lasted 46 years, 24 years of those at Auburn’s Chapel of the Hills, serving as everything from embalmer to funeral director and manager.
“In those days you worked your way from the back door to the front door,” he said. “You began as an apprentice embalmer and you worked your way up.”
In Hoke’s 46 years in the business he has seen many changes, not just techniques but the mindset of how as a society we pay tribute to loved ones who have passed away. One of the major changes is the frequency of embalming the deceased. Embalming is the temporary preservation of the body for the funeral.
“We used to embalm everybody, but then authorities decided that if there was not going to be a funeral service, but a memorial service, embalming wasn’t necessary,” Hoke said.
If there is no open casket service, embalming is  not performed except for special circumstances.
Another big change or trend is the popularity of cremations.
“When I first started we did very little cremation and we were doing well over 60 percent cremations at the chapel when I left,” Hoke said.
Also, in the beginning of his career most funeral homes also operated as the county coroner, transporting the deceased from accidents and crime scenes.
For a time in his career Hoke worked preparing for gravesite services. Many times he hand dug graves in some of the rural cemeteries when it was not convenient to get a tractor in a tight space.
Hoke also set head stones. Hoke would dig the grave, do the service, change to work clothes and then lower and bury the casket.
“It was quite an endeavor,” he said.
Hoke enjoyed the variation of the work throughout his career, but preferred working in the back, behind the scenes.
Some of his duties also included preparing the deceased for burial via dressing and cosmetics.
“I’ve had some older people bring in a box of clothing they want to be buried in,” he said. Other times favorite clothing is brought in or purchased by relatives.
“You don’t have to be buried in a suit if you’re a man. People have been buried in everything, Levi’s, shorts, T-shirts, whatever they want,” Hoke said. He has seen people buried with mementos like cans of beer, favorite sports memorabilia, cigarettes, photos of family members, stuffed animals, just about everything.
Hoke has seen services change over the years with multi-media, personalized slideshow programs popular today. The type of service is wide open and each family has a little different feeling about it. Hoke usually explains there are many options and helps families feel comfortable with what they want.
“My feeling has always been, ‘What do you want to do?’” Hoke said. “OK, you don’t know what to do, let me give you some options. As long as we stay within the law we can do anything you’re comfortable with.”
“I think over the years I’ve helped out, at least they have told me so,” he said. “Not that we can do anything about the person having died, but we help families walk away with the thought they did well for their loved one.”