As a funeral director, Justin Smith sees each family he serves as “a ministry opportunity.”
It’s been that way since he started working part-time as a 16-year-old high school student. He stepped out on his own in his mid-20s to start what is now Smith Funeral Service & Crematory in Greenville. As the new owner of Edwards Funeral Home in Kinston, he wants to expand his ministry opportunities.
Smith completed the acquisition of the nearly 100-year-old funeral home on North Queen Street in June and is spending many of his days there getting acquainted with a new community. He said he hopes to continue to provide the same personal service and care that have helped the Greenville business build a solid reputation.
“It’s attention to detail, the small things, taking that extra step,” Smith said. “If we could bring that same level of service and care to the residents of Kinston and Lenoir County, we would love to do that.”
It was that nurturing nature that Smith’s father, Jeffery, saw in his son and suggested he might want to consider a career in the funeral business. Smith was 16 at the time and the family was gathering for the funeral of his grandmother, who passed in 2001.
“I had planned to attend NC State and be a mechanical engineer,” he said.
He began working weekends at the funeral home and gained experience and an expanded role. By his senior year at J.H. Rose, his career course had taken a dramatic shift. He enrolled at Pitt Community College as a student ambassador, then attended Fayetteville Technical Community College for Funeral Service Education.
At the age of 20, he was a licensed funeral director and embalmer.
“I saw the role that the funeral director played in helping guide a grieving family, whether it was someone who had lived a full life or someone whose life was cut short for whatever reason. The closure … I really saw that as a ministry opportunity,” Smith said.
After college, he continued to work for six years before securing both the knowledge and courage to pursue starting his own business.
“I was working for someone else’s family business, and it was just hard to step out to do anything else other than just work for somebody,” Smith said. “ … I really felt a calling to step out and it was very hard to do that. At the time, I was 26 years old. I had a wife and a 2-year-old daughter. … We really prayed about it as a family.”
Still, he needed some type of confirmation that he was making the right decision. He said he got that at a revival service. The altar call was specifically for business owners and their families. His wife, Rhapsody, urged him to go to the altar, even though his only business at the time was some rental property investment.
“The man looked at me and said, ‘Son, God has a word for you tonight.’ He said, ‘God’s got a building for you. The blueprints are already drawn.’ That was my confirmation.”
Smith Funeral Service opened on Aug. 24, 2011, at 605 Country Club Drive.
“We actually served our very first family that day,” Smith said.
An expansion in late 2013 added 1,600 square feet and a human crematory. At the same time, Smith also started Carolina Pet Crematory in the office next door. The businesses operate as separate entities with individual web sites and phone numbers, but the care he extends with pet services have brought people seeking his help when a family member passes.
“To a lot of people, pets are like children,” Smith said. “That’s a companion that loves you regardless of what you do. They’re always right there by your side and they help you through difficult times. When there’s nobody else to talk to, they’re there.
“We’ve had a lot of people thanking us so much for offering that service. And for us, as a newer funeral home, it gives us another avenue to meet people who might not have given me the chance to care for their loved one. It has correlated to new business on the funeral home side, but that’s not really what it was intended for.”
Smith also has carved out a niche by offering discounts and additional services for families of military members, firefighters, and first responders. Smith’s two grandfathers and uncle all served in the military.
“It is a small token of our appreciation to offer some type of discount to them,” he said. “… We try to get everything for the family for which the veteran is entitled to.”
That personalization has helped Smith Funeral Service grow annually from serving 59 families during the first year. “And hopes are to eventually expand to a larger facility in Greenville,” Smith said.
“A lot of people in the funeral business and people in the community said we wouldn’t be in business six months, and that’s just like fanning the fire” he said. “You’re going to put your nose to the grind, and you’re going to prove them wrong. You’re going to build your reputation, you’re going to break down the barrier and prove that other people know how to conduct a funeral too.”