When asked to sum it up, Ted Bearden of Bearden Funeral Home in Dawsonville said that everything he and his family have done over the last 30 years all comes down to service.
Service to grieving families, service to the departed and service to the Dawson County community — that’s what it’s all been about, Bearden said on Bearden Funeral Home’s 30th-anniversary, June 24, 2021.
"The service to people, that's why we're here. That's why we do what we do. To serve this community," he said.
Leaning back in his chair in the funeral home’s front office on Hwy. 53 in Dawsonville, Bearden reflected that even though those three decades, filled with countless funerals and thousands of families served, seem like a long time, he isn’t sure how the years slipped by so fast.
"Thirty years, what a ride," he said. "30 years in one sense is a long time, but then I wonder where the time went because it sure doesn't seem like it's been 30 years."
But Bearden’s journey to becoming a community servant began years before he purchased his business.
According to Bearden, he found his true calling as a teen when he took a part-time job cutting grass and washing cars for Ford Banister, owner of Banister Funeral Home — the business that he would one day buy.
"I took the job and it wasn't very long until he bought me a suit," Bearden said. "He was taking me along on funerals and I was getting to help roll the casket down the aisle and even though I didn't have a driver's license, I would take the flowers to the churches."
Before long, Bearden said that he began to feel drawn to the work, especially to the comfort that he and his co-workers could give to grieving families in their time of need.
"We're probably the only business in the community that nobody wants to do business with,” He said, laughing. “They come here because they have a need and it's an honor when that phone rings and there's a family on the other end that's asking us to help them, that's an honor, to be asked to help."
That calling to serve continued when Bearden graduated from Dawson County High School in 1974, taking him through Mortuary College and 17 years of working at a funeral home in the Atlanta area.
After Ford Banister died in 1989, Bearden was presented with the opportunity to buy Banister Funeral Home from Banister’s family and return to serve the community where he was born and raised.
"I really wanted to come back, but you still have those apprehensions,” Bearden said, explaining that he wasn’t sure how tiny Dawson County would handle the change.
Beyond that apprehension, Bearden said that he did something that only rarely happens in the funeral home industry; changing the funeral home’s name to Bearden Funeral Home to honor his ancestors, who have lived in the Dawson County area since the 1700s.
"I wanted to rename it to honor my family's legacy," he said. "They were living here when the United States was formed, they were living here when the state of Georgia was formed ... I'm proud of that heritage."
That heritage lives on today, not just in the name but also in the business itself, with Bearden’s sons, Wesley and James, who are following in their dad’s footsteps.
Like their dad, Wesley and James Bearden started at the bottom, washing cars and cutting grass part-time at the funeral home. And like their dad, both say that they have found a calling in the work of helping people through the toughest moments in their lives.
"I have very few memories of not being here, this is all I've ever known," James Bearden said. "I remember growing up ... we lived very differently than the others that I grew up with. But it was worth every second of it."
"As soon as I got used to, and was a part of, actually first-hand helping the families, I was hooked. There was no turning back then," he said.
Speaking directly to the Dawson County community on Thursday, Ted Bearden said that without local people’s support and trust, nothing that they’ve done would have been possible.
"There’s only one thing I can say to this community, and that's 'thank you,’" he said. "Because we would not still be here … had we not had the support of the community.”
What the next 30 years hold for the Dawson County community, Bearden isn’t sure, but he is sure that whatever happens, local residents will have Bearden Funeral Home to turn to in their time of need.
"There should be a Bearden Funeral Home in this community for a long long time,” he said. "You never walk away from something like this, it becomes you, service becomes you and I always want to be here to help serve families."