Courtney Gallop has been fascinated with funerals since she was 10 years old.
“In the 4th grade, I read ‘The American Way of Death’ three or four times,” says the founder and owner of Gallop Funeral Services. “It seemed like another world. I had a curious fascination and just wanted to know more about it.”
But not in a morbid way. Gallop describes the funeral service experience as a normal part of life. Which is what she is trying to make it.
“I was fascinated with the music, the shiny caskets, the way people dressed, the furniture, the curtains,” Gallop says. “Even the smells — the flowers, perfume, the embalming fluid. I still remember it. I would follow the funeral director around, asking questions and looking into the cupboards.”
It was that cultural and ceremonial part of funerals that made her decide that this is what she wanted to do with her life.
“People do act a certain way, wear certain things, play certain music, and eat certain foods,” she says. “There is a whole culture that has evolved around this ritual.”
The self-described “science dork” first earned a Bachelor’s degree in Mass Media and Public Relations, and a Masters degree in Urban Planning. She secured a job in local government at Nags Head, as Zoning Administrator. Her parents had been born and raised in the area, so Gallop was familiar with the Outer Banks from frequent visits.
“I said, ‘well, while I want to be a funeral director, I need to get a job and go down there and see what’s going on.’”
Her position allowed her to study the community. She counted death certificates, the number of doctor’s offices and nursing home rooms, and kept an eye on the demographics. She also completed training in Mortuary Science. After seven years, she decided to “make the jump.”
While the statistics were in her favor, the odds were not. Gallop is justifiably proud that as an African-American woman she was able to come to a resort community that is “98% white” and become the longest-running minority businesswoman in county history.
“Some of the very traditional churches still can’t have me in the church–they just can’t,” she says. “They are glad to have me handling services, but I know it wouldn’t be comfortable for me to be at certain churches. It’s OK. That’s just how it is. If it’s been a hindrance, I haven’t noticed.”
Her gender elicits more reaction than her race.
“When you show up at the door, first, you are a woman,” she says. “No one thinks you can lift. Everyone thinks you are going to break down and cry. Some people think I am going to wait indefinitely for money. You see that and feel that, but it quickly goes away. You offer the family your expertise and a high level of competency, and all of that fades into the background.”
Gallop chooses to turn any negative energy upside down and use it to fuel her success path.
“Frankly, a lot of people find it novel and very inspiring,” she says of her personal story. “I hear all the time, ‘oh, my gosh, we are so impressed with you, a young black female coming into a male-dominated market. We wish you the best.’ It’s kind of an underdog thing.”
She also sees more commonalities than differences.
“There is diversity, but it is not as broad as you’d think,” she says of her client base. “A family is pretty much a family. They might like different music, or the ministers might preach a little differently. But a mom is a mom; a daughter is a daughter. All the wedding pictures look the same. People are people.”
Gallop pulls from her marketing background to bring funerals out of the parlor.
“Before I did this, you never heard the words ‘funeral home,’” she says. “You never saw funeral directors. They were kind of in the shadows, waiting to be called when something bad happens. I brought the industry out into mainstream. I do parades and carnivals, I go to exhibits and yard sales. I’m very proud of our industry and what we are offering.”
Dare one say she puts the “fun” back into “funerals?”
“Totally!” she says. “We show up at the dances, we sponsor events, we show up at high school games, we do everything. Just because we want families to feel there is something they can relate to in different spheres of life, not just in death. We try to have relations with the community, and we have done that.”
When she opened Gallop Funeral Services in 2006, she placed the first funeral home ever on the beach. This was a very big deal, because as a tourist community, there had been only restaurants and bars there. She also recognized that cremation was replacing burial as the most common option. So she built the first crematorium ever in the county.
“What makes us different and has given us an advantage is that I opened the funeral home on a business model centered around cremation. Cremation is like a meteor hitting our business,” she says. “All the big old firms were doing seven burials a week. Now it’s more like one burial and seven cremations.”
In addition to the beach chapel and crematorium, Gallop’s third gem in her “Triple Crown” was opening a mainland chapel in Currituck, which had been underserved.
“Every month, we add more families,” she says. “We are at approximately 200 calls per year. For a two-person shop, that is really hustling.”
That second person in the business is Ben Andrews, who started in IT and is now a fully licensed funeral director in North Carolina.
While 95% of her services involve cremation, Gallop also offers traditional burials as well as some of the more creative options transforming the industry. She helps families memorialize loved ones–scattering ashes in the ocean and on golf courses, for example–along with more exotic options such as placing a person’s remains in a concrete capsule to become part of a reef system.
In the end, Gallop is most proud of her role in helping families navigate what can be a trying time.
“It is like being a minister or a doctor,” she says. “It takes over your life, 27 hours a day. You just know when it’s in your DNA, and for some of us it absolutely is. It is challenging, difficult, taxing, and tiring. But I offer the community something that is needed and valued. We are just all about making that best decision for your family.”