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White Emerson Mortuary marks 125 years in Whittier

For a service that no one ever wants to need, the White Emerson Mortuary has been ready, willing, and available to serve the Whittier community for over a century.

Celebrating their 125 anniversary this year, Managing Director Paul White says that White Emerson is the oldest business in Whittier that the family knows of.

“We are not aware of a business that’s older than ours,” said White. “We were founded in 1894. The college is older than us in terms of a family business, we’re not familiar with one that’s older.”

The story of White Emerson Mortuary began when White’s great-great-great grandparents moved to the Whittier area from the Midwest, seeking a warmer climate for the sake of his great-great-great grandfather Addison’s health.

“My ancestors were one of the founding families here in town,” said White. “They started a furniture and undertaking business. The trade back then was to make caskets; that was really where the business craft was. You’re making caskets, you’re reselling furniture from the family’s estate, and then you just so happen to put the decedent in the casket that you made and take them to the cemetery.”

White says that over the past 120 years, the funeral industry has changed, reflecting more of a “service-related industry than it is about something surrounding the merchandise.”

The White family keeps no secrets in terms of how they feel they’re still around.

“We really can’t credit anything or anyone other than the good lord that’s kept us in business this long,” said White. “There’s been a lot of things that you could say probably would’ve taken out our business.”

“We had the Depression, which was huge. My great-great grandfather, he was fantastic with people, but he was not a good business guy… he brought on a banker, Charlie Emerson; that’s where we get the Emerson in White Emerson. Charlie ran the business basically, and my great-great grandfather David, he worked with the people… it’s kind of like we’ve survived in spite of us.”

The earthquake in 1987 also took its toll on White Emerson, in essence taking it back down to ground zero. Still, it persevered.

In fact, the business – currently owned by White’s father Phil – has survived and been kept within the white family for five generations.

“My dad is unique in that he sort of had to operate from a first-generation mindset, even though he was fifth generation. Every generation has kind of had its own story, so to speak; I have no idea what my story is going to be surrounding this business.”

When White takes over, he’ll be generation six.

From left: Annie White, Rebekah White, owner Phillip White and Paul White


White says that “we’re not just in the body disposal service.”

“There are funeral homes that exist to generate a profit in order for the wellbeing of the organization,” said White. “There’s no mystery that as a business, we’ve got to make a profit in order to keep our doors open and take care of the great people that we have on our team. But it’s kind of looking at that double bottom line…I think of this as sort of a triple or quadruple bottom line.

“There is a service that needs to be provided, but all the while there’s our team that needs to be taken care of in the midst of that. The family needs to be taken care of in more than just a transaction; they have real, spiritual needs that need to be met, emotional needs that need to be met.

“If those needs are not met, it doesn’t mean the needs go away. The needs will always be there until they are met. So to the degree that we can help address those needs emotionally and spiritually, is to the degree that we do our job with excellence.”

The third degree, White says, is the health and wellbeing of the community.

“It is not wasted on me that we have a very unique position with the people that we serve,” said White. “I see the people of the community on one of the worst days of their lives. I have a unique relationship with people like our beloved Mayor Joe, when his life passed away a few years ago, we had the honor of taking care of her.”

“That puts my family in a really unique position to serve the people who have been here and are serving our community. I look at that as a real blessing.”

White Emerson is able to offer most of what is needed for decedent care – including pick up and transfer, preparation, memorial service, and even cremation – from in house.
This includes having someone and available on call for 24-hours every day.

“We’re very proud of…the fact that we’re able to service the entire spectrum of needs for the family and the decedents here, with the exception of a cemetery,” said White.

White says that “death is not a pretty thing,” but to ignore it is a weakness in society. However, he says it can be “our greatest friend, if we understand how to talk about it.”

‘We can’t appreciate the life we have and live if we don’t have the reality of death staring us in the face every day,” said White. “There’s a lot of people who are just coasting through life… yeah, I’ll sit down and I’ll talk to anybody, but I really only like dealing with people who are passionate about what they want to do. I feel like that’s one of the gifts I, hopefully, can give to my community or to the people I associate with is, ‘Are you really making the most of your life?’”

“I don’t think I would consider these things if I were in a different profession…this is so much more than a body disposal service.

“What we do with a decedent’s remains is only to service to that person’s legacy and as a respect to the family that’s grieving; the decedent doesn’t care where they are going. We do it not just for health and sanitation purposes, but we do it because that person meant something, and that person’s remains are sacred. It’s a sacred honor that we’re involved in, and it takes a discipline to remind ourselves of that.

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