Funerary service has been a longstanding tradition in the Griffith family, which has owned and operated since 1938.
The Griffiths, originally from Pennsylvania, relocated to Bradenton in 1938 after running funeral homes on the east coast and central regions of Florida.
Oscar “Buster” Griffith, who serves as president emeritus of the company and is a fixture in the community, was a teenager when his family arrived in Bradenton. Having resided locally for nearly three-quarters of a century, Griffith remembers a version of Bradenton that exists only as a piece of nostalgia for most of today's residents.
“I can remember a time when you could lay down right in the middle of Manatee Avenue on Friday night and not get run over until Monday morning,” he chuckled as he recalled a favorite anecdote.
Today, while navigating one’s way through the heavily congested, construction-riddled downtown section of Manatee Avenue where Griffith-Cline Funeral Home and Cremation Services has been located for the past 73 years, it is difficult to imagine a time when one could easily cross the street, let alone lie down in the middle of it.
“Bradenton definitely had a much more ‘small town’ feeling in prior decades,” Griffith continued to reminisce. “There was a time when I could walk downtown and it would take me half a day by the time I’d stopped to speak to everyone I knew. Today I could walk all the way down to Palma Sola Bay and not see a single familiar face.”
A family tradition
According to a 1951 Bradenton Herald article that hangs framed on a back wall of the business, J.M. Griffith, Buster's father and the family's patriarch, became enchanted by the Friendly City when he was traveling through Bradenton on a business trip in the late 1930s.
The trip coincided with the impending sale of the local Wakeman Funeral Home. Griffith jumped at the chance to purchase it, partnering with C.R. Cline, whose name still graces the business although he sold his share to the Griffiths in the late 1940s.
After buying out Wakeman, J.M. Griffith relocated his family to Bradenton in 1938 to run Griffith-Cline Funeral Home. The original funeral home burned down in 1945 and was rebuilt near its original location, where it has remained since.
Buster Griffith graduated from Bradenton High School (now ) in 1942. At the end of World War II, Griffith attended school for funerary services and joined the family business in 1948, when he purchased Cline’s interest in the firm.
He took over the business entirely in 1960 and served as president until his son, Ken, who joined the business in 1967, stepped into the role in 2004. To this day, Buster remains active in the day-to-day operations of the business, working closely with his son.
Throughout the course of their careers, father and son have both witnessed a great change, not only in the community, but in the funeral industry as well.
“People used to want a traditional burial, identical to the one their parents and grandparents and so on received,” said Ken Griffith. “When Florida started to boom with transient people, different ideas, religions, and outlooks on life began to emerge. That’s when people started looking at different alternatives.”
Ken said that prior to the 1960s, roughly 95 percent of their customers requested traditional burials. Today, he estimates that as many as 70 percent choose to be cremated. To meet their needs, Griffith-Cline Funeral Home was the first local funeral home to install a crematorium in the 1960s.
“Funerary services cannot be taken on with a ‘cookie-cutter’ approach like they used to be, and it’s certainly not a simple ‘Mom and Pop’ profession like it was 50 years ago,” Ken explained. “One of the most important aspects of our job is identifying what individuals want and what they need.”
Along with the growing ideological diversity of the '60s and '70s, the Griffiths also attribute heightened consumer awareness to the shift in funerary tradition. They attribute Jessica Mitford’s "American Way of Death," a book published in 1963 that harshly criticized the unscrupulous nature of some members of the industry, to the stringent policies that have redefined and eliminated the profession's “Mom and Pop” nature.
“Every business profession has bad apples,” Ken said. “In this case, the industry was really thrown for a loop. The media went into a frenzy and the Federal Trade Commission got involved. It’s a very different industry today than it was when we started out.”
Change, and contributions
All industry redefinition aside, the population growth alone in Bradenton is responsible for a great deal of the change that Griffith-Cline has seen over the years.
Buster recalled that in the firm’s first year of business, it handled roughly 70 funerals, which cost between $200 and $300 each. Today, the funeral home handles an average of 300 funeral services per year, starting at $895 for basic services.
Until the mid-1960s, local funeral homes were also the only existing ambulance services in Bradenton. According to the 1951 Herald article, Griffith-Cline was, at the time, the only ambulance service that came equipped with oxygen tanks and a resuscitator in the vehicle.
“We did all the emergency work and transported people from doctors’ offices, the hospital, and their homes,” Buster said. “We were all trained in first aid and had to be on call 24 hours a day — and we didn’t get paid for it.”
Buster remembered trying to charge $5, but said that people rarely paid because they believed that ambulance services were part of local funeral homes’ “duty” to the community. Eventually, the population got so large that it became impossible for funeral homes to shoulder the financial burden.
“The wage pressure really killed us,” Buster said. “We had to hire more personnel than we could afford to pay just to run the ambulances. Eventually all of the funeral homes got together and we went to the county. We told them we simply weren’t going to do it anymore.”
“That was probably one of the happiest days of your life, wasn’t it, Dad?” Ken joked.
On another memorable day in 2008, Buster Griffith was named Manatee County’s 53rd annual Distinguished Citizen of the Year. Despite the honor, he is humble about his contributions to the community.
Griffith has been a member of the Lions Club since 1948, as well as a member of the local fraternal order of Freemasons. He has also been involved with the Y.M.C.A. and the Red Cross, and was a member of the county-appointed authority board that opened the in Palmetto.
However, Buster Griffith and his son both believe that their most valuable contribution to the community is the indigent funerary services that they provide.
“Throughout the years, we have given thousands and thousands of dollars. We’re most proud of the fact that we always work with people, no matter how much money they have,” said Ken.
“We believe that every person deserves a dignified way to be remembered, and we have made it our business to provide that to everyone. That, in itself, is giving back.”