By MARTHA SMITH
Special to the Standard
NORTH KINGSTOWN – The voice answering the phone at The Cranston-Murphy Funeral Home in Wickford is deep, warm and confident. It belongs to the youngest managing funeral director and embalmer in Rhode Island, Andrew Correia.
He is 23 and, in every way, remarkable.
“Since I was a young boy I have always been interested in the funeral profession: the pomp and circumstance, the beautiful black cars from the fleet, and the mystique of it all,” he says. “I’ve worked at funeral homes since high school. I’ve always been an old soul.”
From his childhood in Somerset, Mass., through high school at Bishop Connelly, in Fall River, Andrew’s career path was clear. “Really,” he says, “it’s a vocation, not a profession.”
He recognizes that he is not the stereotypical undertaker. In fact, he admits some people assume that what he does is creepy.
“They have ideas from inexpensive horror movies. People think of a funeral director as six-feet tall with a gray tint to his skin, long thin fingers and a ratty three-piece suit.” He dispels those notions with his rosy-cheeked, immaculately-tailored appearance and by being open about what his work involves.
It is a process that Andrew conducts meticulously, transporting the deceased, cleansing, embalming, positioning, dressing men’s hair (a hairdresser is brought in for women) and applying make-up. “Less is more,” he declares.
“I do all of it. I like to do my own work because I know it’s mine; I don’t pass the buck. You have one chance to make it right, dignified and in order.”
Andrew recalls a pre-college interview with his high school guidance counselor who asked him if he’d decided on any schools to consider. “Yes,” he told her. “I’ve decided on one – the New England Institute of Funeral Service and Embalming in Newton, Mass.”
She was predictably surprised. Andrew remembers her response: “Oh, my goodness! What made you decide on going into funeral service?”
The inspiration derives from his initial up-close encounter with a dead body, laid out in a funeral home.
“When my grand-aunt died, I was nine or 10 and it was my first funeral experience,” he explains. “It was all new to me. There was no wake, just the family going to see her before the church service. I didn’t know what to expect. I was greeted by [funeral director] Rose Sullivan and she took me up to the casket and I was amazed: there was my Aunt Dot and she looked beautiful.”
Later, he says, his path was set when his beloved grandmother died. “I was extremely close to my nana and when she passed away, I said ‘That’s it. This is what I’m going to do.’”
As a teenager, Andrew asked a friend of his father, a trade embalmer serving at various mortuaries, to show him around. “He asked if I had a black suit because someone had just passed away.’ I was 18.”
He completed the two-year program at mortuary college, served an internship at Urquhart-Murphy, passed the national board exam, and was hired by Edward L. Murphy, a trustee at his school who was deeply impressed by Andrew’s skill and sincerity.
He and Cranston-Murphy are a perfect match.
In this part of South County, where family roots run deep and associations are long-standing, Andrew comforts and assures the bereaved, offering quiet compassion.
He recently moved in above the funeral home to insure he’s an on-site presence at all times.
“When someone calls me they’re with me from the beginning to the end and everything in between. People are upset, confused or, in the case of widows with no families, they need someone to talk to. That’s what I provide. I love what I do.”
Cranston’s is the oldest non-agrarian business in South County, founded in 1873 by Civil War Gen. George Cranston. Today it offers what Andrew proudly calls “a home-like atmosphere in a place that blends in beautifully” with the character of Wickford.
Last September, Andrew won a singular honor when he was selected to represent the United States in an exchange program with the British Institute of Embalmers, an experience in which an American embalmer spends three weeks in England one year and the next year a British embalmer comes here.
“I embalmed while I was there and learned a lot,” he says. “I met the Royal Embalmer who prepared Princess Diana and the Queen Mother and spent the day with him at Winsor.”
Even for a young man so positive in his approach to end-of-life issues, Andrew experience painful times.
“Children are the saddest part of my job,” he says. “It really upsets me, but I pick up the pieces. You know you have to do it for the family. I stay focused while I’m doing my job then I go home and cry.”
The best part of his job, Andrew says, is getting to meet so many different people. It is not uncommon for family members to keep in touch long after funerals are finished.
“I tell people to pick up the phone and talk to me. Some people have lost the person they’ve spent all that time with. If they need to talk, I’m here 24-7.”
Martha Smith is an award-winning journalist and author. Retired, she is an independent contractor for Southern Rhode Island Newspapers and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .