With newest location, Porter Loring Mortuaries striving to bring more light into grieving process

Photo of Richard Webner
Helen Loring Dear, president of Porter Loring Mortuaries, is doing something different with the newest location, on the far West Side. “Funerals have changed over the years,” she explains.

Helen Loring Dear, president of Porter Loring Mortuaries, is doing something different with the newest location, on the far West Side. “Funerals have changed over the years,” she explains.

Kin Man Hui / Staff photographer

When Helen Loring Dear became president of Porter Loring Mortuaries in 2015, it marked the fourth generation of her family to run the business since her great-grandfather, Porter Loring Sr., founded it across from Travis Park in 1918, during that year’s influenza pandemic.

With each generation has come a new location. In the mid-1960s, her grandfather moved the business to McCullough Avenue, just north of downtown; in 1997, her father founded another one along Loop 1604 on the far North Side.

Now, as the COVID-19 pandemic rages on, Dear is opening a third location on the far West Side near SeaWorld San Antonio to meet demand for funeral services brought about by the explosive population growth in that area.

She is doing something different with the new location, which opened Monday. It doesn’t look like a typical funeral home: The Hill Country-inspired exterior consists of gentle tones of white and beige, and a row of windows under the roof lets in plenty of sunlight. The walls are full of colorful paintings and photographs by local artists.

“Funerals have changed over the years — they’re more celebrations,” Dear said. “I wanted people to come in and feel like it’s a place of healing and hope and not a place of gloom. I wanted natural light. I think that’s important, when you’re grieving, to have that natural light. I wanted a specific color palette to bring comfort.”

Because more Americans are choosing to be cremated, the facility offers families the option of watching their loved one’s casket enter a crematory oven either from a private viewing room or through a window in the chapel. They can even turn a key to begin the process. It is the first of the family’s funeral homes to include a crematory.

Dear started in the family business at 16, in a cleaning position. Before becoming president, she did every job in the business, she said. Today, she works at the same desk her great-grandfather used.

She recently sat for an interview at the new location while workers were putting the finishing touches on the building, painting the doors, washing the sidewalks and setting up the electronics. The following interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Sunday business Q-and-A with Porter Loring Mortuaries' Helen Loring Dear (center), the new president, at the funeral home's newest location located off 1604 on the city's far West Side. Pictured with Dear are Stacie Medina (left), branch manager, and Tito Ochoa, crematory manager.

Sunday business Q-and-A with Porter Loring Mortuaries' Helen Loring Dear (center), the new president, at the funeral home's newest location located off 1604 on the city's far West Side. Pictured with Dear are Stacie Medina (left), branch manager, and Tito Ochoa, crematory manager.

Kin Man Hui /Staff photographer

Q: How long has this center been in the making?

A: It’s been seven years in the making. I would say since I was a kid — I was 13 when our north location opened — at that point, I knew that I wanted to be in this business already. I wanted to follow my grandfather’s and father’s footsteps. I saw how they cared for others and I wanted to do the same thing. So it’s always been a goal of mine, to open a location.

Q: What was it about the industry that attracted you?

A: I’m a people person; I love helping others, and that’s really what attracted me to it. I grew up in the business, obviously. I would go visit my father and grandfather and have lunch with them in their offices since I was barely walking. I saw people come up to my father and my grandfather and thank them for all they did after their loved one passed away. And I just thought that was so amazing. I wanted to be able to help people in the worst of times.

Q: How did you settle on this part of town?

A: A lot of the families that we have served over the years have asked if we could build a location out in the northwest area. Plus, we saw the city growing out this way. And there really, until recently, have not been funeral homes in this area, so families would have to travel 30, 20 minutes until they could get to the funeral home.

Q: Why do you think cremation is becoming more popular?

A: I feel that it’s because families are moving around the country and they’re not staying in one city for their entire life. So, many people choose to have their loved one’s urn with them and move around with them. Or if they end up burying the urn, they are easily able to disinter the urns at the cemetery and move them to wherever they’re going, if they wish.

Q: Are there other ways in which our customs are changing when it comes to funerals?

A: Yes, more and more families are wanting personalizations, which is why we have TV screens throughout this new location and we’ve placed them in our older locations. They like to have that ability to play slideshows, which we can help them with as well. Livestreaming, of course, has become more of a need since COVID started, so all of our buildings, including our new one, have the livestreaming option.

Porter Loring’s new location has an on-site crematory. Families can watch the casket enter the oven and even initiate the process.

Porter Loring’s new location has an on-site crematory. Families can watch the casket enter the oven and even initiate the process.

Kin Man Hui / Staff photographer

And just, really, being able to configure the chapel the way they want it is very important to a lot of families. So our older funeral homes, they have the pews and they’re not able to move those around, obviously. With this new location, we can set up the chapel however the family wishes. So if they would like to have the casket in the middle of the room with the chairs surrounding it in a circle, we can do that.

Q: You were aiming for a brighter interior design for this location — is that part of a trend? Are other funeral homes doing that?

A: They are. I know a lot of my colleagues throughout the country are slowly transitioning their funeral homes away from the darker setting to more light. And we’re actually doing that with our older locations, too, especially our McCullough location right now. We’ve been really working hard bringing more light in the space, and I’m working on getting new furniture and just making the overall feel more like our new location out west.

Q: When you’re in this line of work, you must meet people at a very difficult moment in their lives. How do you help them through that?

A: We try to take care of everything for them. We call the churches, the ministers, the musicians, if they want musicians. We help them with flowers, we try to take care of all the little details. My grandfather once told me that he counted how many decisions a family has to make at the time of making funeral arrangements, and it was over 100. And that was probably 20 years ago. So I feel like now, with all the personalization options, there are even more decisions the family has to make. So we’re there to guide them, to educate them.

We also provide support groups. We have bereavement care for all families that we serve, but also the support groups are open to anyone in the community.

Q: Tell me more about the support groups.

A: In the 1980s, my grandfather Porter Jr., something troubled him. He realized that after the service was done, families were hurting. And he figured out that they’re so busy — the death occurs and right away they’re starting to plan funeral services and they really didn’t have time to start the grieving process. When the service is finished and done, people stop calling, and their grief really hits. So he wanted to provide an outlet for them where they could come together with others experiencing the same grief and find a common ground and heal.

Sunday business Q-and-A with Porter Loring Mortuaries' Helen Loring Dear, the new president, at the funeral home's newest location located off 1604 on the city's far West Side.

Sunday business Q-and-A with Porter Loring Mortuaries' Helen Loring Dear, the new president, at the funeral home's newest location located off 1604 on the city's far West Side.

Kin Man Hui /Staff photographer

All of the support groups are free, and you do not have to use Porter Loring. And our bereavement counselor, she’s actually a licensed professional counselor. She and our chaplain call every single family that we serve a few weeks after the service just to check in on them and to see if they feel like they need to try the support group.

Q: Do you think the business will be passed on to a new generation?

A: I hope so. We’ll see! I have two kids of my own; they’re very young. And my brother, who does not live in Texas, has children as well. So we’ll see what happens.

Q: Are you going to have your kids working here when they turn 16?

A: I’ve already told my kids that I think it’s important that they start working at the age of 16 and that I would like for them to start here unless they prefer somewhere else. They already know that and so they’ll be working summers, and I tend to let them learn every position, just like I did. I thought that was the best thing that my dad had me do.

Q: Does it take a toll on you to be around grieving people so much?

A: It does. I mean, it takes a toll on my whole entire team here. We are human. We do have emotions. But you know, I’ve always said that if it didn’t bother me then I needed to stop doing what I’m doing. I still have trouble sometimes. But we just learn how to cope with it.

You know, they (staff) have our bereavement counselor at their disposal as well. We also encourage time off. I try to exercise when I can, and just trying to find outlets so we can process it as well. And then if we need to step out — I mean, there’s been several times where I’ve teared up and started crying at funerals, and I had to step off to the side to regather myself.

Q: How did you adapt your business to the COVID-19 pandemic?

A: We thought we would follow the guidelines set forth by the city or the county. When most things were locked down, obviously churches were exempt from it, but a lot of them decided not to have services. Every church and every cemetery had different guidelines.

(Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston) wasn’t having any services in their pavilions for, I think, 2½ months, so a lot of the families just had to have direct burials with no service. Or they could wait to have the services until the restrictions were lifted, which some did.

Q: Did you see how that was difficult for families?

A: Oh, yes, very much so. I think one thing that COVID taught us is that you really need that personal connection after a death has occurred. You need your friends to reach out to you, you need that physical embrace from them, and not just a phone call. So, yes, it was very challenging to our families.