Torbert Funeral Chapel celebrates century of service

Directors Gary J. Wallick, left, and William Torbert Jr. stand in front of Torbert Funeral Chapel in Dover. Celebrating its 100th year, Torbert is believed to be the oldest business in the city. (Special to the Delaware State News/Ariane Mueller)

DOVER — William “Bill” Torbert Jr. and Gary Wallick have become used to the jokes that they are not exactly the first people that folks want to see.

After all, they serve as the funeral directors for Torbert Funeral Chapels.

However, it is inevitable that everyone will eventually need to plan and prepare for their own funeral, or that of a loved one, and Torbert Funeral Chapels has provided end-of-life services in Dover and its surrounding area for 100 years now and is believed to be the oldest business in the city.

That’s quite a milestone for the Torbert family, which is now a fourth-generation business that has operated out of a building at 61 S. Bradford St. in Dover since 1919 and has witnessed the transition of funeral processions from horse-drawn coaches to motor vehicles.

In fact, the lights from Torbert’s last horse-drawn carriage have since been electrified and grace the entrance to its downtown funeral chapel.

“We get that a lot where people say, ‘We don’t want to see you again soon,’ and the jokes are pretty common because people like to joke about this because they don’t really want to think about (death),” Mr. Torbert said. “Other than that, we have a lot of people that come in and out of our businesses, just the mail and FedEx people, and they become friends of ours. People like to avoid thinking about death.”

They added a new funeral chapel at 1145 East Lebanon Road in 1999 that features seating for 250 with ample parking.

It’s a far cry from 1918, when World War I was coming to an end.

An announcement was made in the Delaware State News, then a weekly publication, back in Dec. 18, 1918: “William Pritchett, Dover’s well known and efficient undertaker, has associated with him William Torbert … who comes into this community highly recommended, thoroughly capable and reliable with 15 years experience in all branches of the latest improved, modern methods in embalming and funeral directing.”

“I’ve always felt very fortunate that the community has served us and our motto has always been, ‘Our family serving your family, since 1918,’” said Mr. Torbert.

Torbert added a funeral chapel at 1145 East Lebanon Road in Dover in 1999 that features seating for 250 with ample parking. (Special to the Delaware State News/Ariane Mueller)

In addition to the funeral business, the Torbert family built some deep roots in the community along the way.

The founder’s grandson, William C. Torbert, still serves as CEO of Torbert Funeral Chapels. He has been licensed in funeral service since 1955 and has served his community for 34 years, beginning with his election as county coroner in 1960, culminating with his retirement from the Delaware State Senate in 1994, signaling the end of three decades of service as an elected official at the county and state levels.

Mr. Torbert Jr. and Mr. Wallick represent the fourth generation of Torbert men and women dedicated to funeral service. Bill Jr. is president and general manager of the funeral chapel. He is licensed to practice funeral service in Delaware and Maryland.

Meanwhile, Mr. Wallick is licensed to practice funeral service in Delaware and is business manager and director of cremation services.

They are proud to keep the family business an important one in Dover.

“For more than a century the family business has gone beyond the funeral service itself,” Mr. Wallick said. “Our focus is on honoring the accomplishments, individuality and life journey of loved ones.”

Changing times

The role of a funeral director has certainly changed since the Torberts went into business in Dover. The jobs have become much more specialized.

Nowadays, they are tasked with putting together photo DVDs that combine scenes from the deceased person’s life that play before the service, along with music, custom funeral announcements and anything else that a family might want them to do.

“We have gone from being a typical funeral director, or undertaker, who undertook a lot of different jobs like getting graves dug, building caskets or ordering caskets, to keeping bodies cold with ice to learning how to embalm,” said Mr. Torbert. “We’ve done all of that and we have evolved through all of that to what we do now and having big services.

“Services are probably the largest part of what we do. Less focus is on the rest of it because it’s become part of the norm. We have the videos and we have (custom-made) portraits and the ability to import music into the event now. It’s very similar to being a wedding planner, except for with two or three days to prepare, instead of six months.”

Just about everything about a funeral has changed since the first generation of Torberts began the family business.

A reception area highlights the Torbert Funeral Chapel in Dover. Torbert Funeral Chapels has served around 7,000 families since its founding and now produces about 300 funeral services a year. (Special to the Delaware State News/Ariane Mueller)

“I have an invoice in my desk drawer downtown and it’s either 1920 or 1929 because it’s Great Granddad’s scrawl, but it has on the front ‘casket’ and ‘hearse to cemetery,’ very basic things and whatever the total was,” Mr. Wallick said. “You turn it over and on the back it says, ‘One chicken, two dozen eggs and it just goes on.’ I don’t know the value, but I think as it got towards the bottom, Pop Torbert just said, ‘That’s good enough,’ and wrote, ‘Paid in full.’”

Mr. Wallick noted that funeral chapels didn’t really become a big thing until after World War II. Before then, the deceased were prepared at the funeral home and most of the services took place at churches.

“There’s so much more that we can do from back when we started, where everything was more traditional, more cookie-cutter for lack of a better term,” said Mr. Wallick. “Now, there’s so many different things you can do.”

He said that the family of one of the deceased individuals who had a service last week had his beloved drag racing car delivered and unloaded in the funeral chapel’s parking lot for the services.

“Things might seem to be exactly as they were (in the funeral business), but seeing just in my time, we’ve gone from taking our memorial folders here to a little one-man printer over in Camden, and if there was a mistake, you either lived with it or woke the guy up at 2 in the morning and talked him into printing new ones,” Mr. Wallick said. “Now, we produce a folder, memorial DVD and a portrait (of the deceased) in a very short period of time.”

Torbert Funeral Chapels has its own cremation services – Capitol Crematory Service – founded by Mr. Torbert Jr. in 1989. A decade later, Mr. Wallick developed Friends Forever Pet Cremation Service, expanding the physical crematory plant, and purchased specialized equipment for the cremation of domestic pets.

Every funeral important

Mr. Torbert Jr. said one of the keys to his family’s business success has been that every funeral is just as important as another, no matter if one service draws hundreds of attendees or one just brings a handful of people.

“They’re all very important to us, even the smallest,” he said. “We make sure we pay attention to all of the details.

“That’s kind of what’s guided us. It’s just always been a big part of us to give back to the community and it’s what’s kept us in business for such a long time.”

Torbert Funeral Chapels has served around 7,000 families since its founding and now produces about 300 funeral services a year. A lot of that probably has to do with cultivating a reputation as a family business.

“That’s one of our things, I don’t consider myself a casket salesman,” said Mr. Wallick. “Whatever kind of casket (a person’s in), it’s here nor there to me, I’m doing exactly the same things no matter who you are.”

Despite having more than a century’s worth of business in the books, the Torbert family isn’t looking to get out of the funeral business anytime soon.

Steven Mason, Mr. Torbert Jr.’s son-in-law, attended the Pittsburgh Institute of Mortuary Science and is next in line to take over the family business.

Torbert Funeral Chapel directors Gary J. Wallick, left, and William Torbert head up the now-fourth generation business.

“He’s already instrumental in a lot of what we do,” said Mr. Torbert. “He works all of the setup and all of the maintenance and physical work, so that Gary and I, really, the most of what we do is show up.”

Mr. Torbert did note that the “family business” aspect of funeral homes is also one that is changing, along with an increasing popularity of cremations due to people becoming “more transient” and being “more economical.”

“It used to be almost a cottage industry or family,” he said. “When I went to school in the 1980s, almost 80 percent of the people who were taking the classes were from funeral-service families, and now I think the numbers have gone exactly in reverse of that to where most of the people taking mortuary science classes now are not from a traditional funeral service family.”

Keeping track of the trends of the business is important to making sure that Torbert Funeral Chapels keeps on going well into its second century.

“We just have to keep evolving into what the industry wants us to do and what society wants us to do,” Mr. Torbert said. “We’re very society- and tradition-driven in this business. We have to do what people want us to do — and we’re always there for them.”

Delaware State News staff writer Mike Finney can be reached at mfinney@newszap.com.

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