If you live in the Roanoke area or have in the past, chances are you have come in contact with Roanoke’s oldest still-operating business: Oakey’s Funeral Service and Crematory. Founded in 1866 by Civil War veteran John M. Oakey, the company is now run by his great-great-grandson, Samuel G. Oakey, III, better known as Sammy.
Despite growing up in the family business, Oakey says he originally wanted to be a veterinarian or a reporter. When he was 16, he asked his father, Sam II, if he could work at the family business part time. He said it took him about a year and a half to realize he wanted to work there permanently.
“Dad never pressured me,” he says.
He took that same tactic with his own son, Sam, a graduate of James Madison University who is in mortuary school. He’ll be the sixth generation to work in the business, Oakey says.
“He takes a real pride in his heritage.”
While Oakey interacts with families on a personal basis, he feels strongly about being a part of the whole community.
“The community has been so good to us,” he says, adding Oakey’s is the principal sponsor of the Roanoke Valley SPCA Spay and Neuter Van and is a sponsor of Festival in the Park, the Drumstick Dash and a host of smaller activities such as after-prom parties and high school yearbooks.
The company also created the Hospice Worker of the Month award, holds a grief seminar every two years and an annual pet memorial service. This year’s service was especially meaningful to Oakey since he had lost his dog. The memorial service is an outgrowth of Oakey’s Pet Funeral Home and Crematory which opened six years ago.
In addition to the Pet Funeral Home, Oakey’s operates five chapels in Vinton, North Roanoke, South County, East and the iconic Downtown Roanoke Chapel.
Oakey sees his work as “really a kind of ministry, helping people when they are at their worst.”
Oakey’s never turns people away for financial reasons, he says, but will work with them. One of his greatest joys is getting a thank you from a family.
“When people stop me on the greenway or at a ballgame, I see it as an affirmation.”