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Magin & Keegan Still At It

November 1, 2014

by Vanessa Langdon

The Keegan brothers are now running the neighborhood funeral home – a business Albany families have relied on for more than 50 years. The home, which has lost both of its founders – Frederick Magin and Eugene Keegan – has tried to maintain market share in a neighborhood that has changed substantially since its founding in 1956. The twins are now co-owners of the business at 891 Madison Ave.

John and James Keegan, 50, are the only full-time employees at the 24-hour funeral home. They are filling the void left after their father, the face of the business, died a year ago. The seventh and eighth of nine children, the brothers said their father never tried to sway them  into following his footsteps into the funeral business.

“Time’s not your own, so it’s a difficult family life,” said John Keegan. “He didn’t discourage or encourage us.”

The death of the Keegan patriarch affected more than just the business. “He was the boss and our father and now we don’t have that,” said James Keegan. The brothers said that the death of an original owner results in a loss of business because community members turned to the funeral home because of their father – “he had a strong following of families,” James said.

His brother John never planned on joining the family business.  “When you’re young the death care industry is a little unknown and scary,” he said. If given the chance he would not do it again because of the stress and the hurry up and wait mentality of the business.

Work as an auto mechanic appealed more instead. Back in high school he had exposure to that type of work.  “It was a job I liked. I enjoyed the camaraderie of the guys, driving the tow truck. This business is just way too stressful.”

The  nature of the death business was not apparent to the twins until the death of their father.  “I could always count on him. Families answered to him,” said John. “I was in the background.” Families would come in to speak with Eugene Keegan, and at times there would be eight to 10 people in the funeral home. He often would complain that he couldn’t get work done because of all the people there to visit.

Magin & Keegan Funeral Home on Madison Avenue. (Vanessa Langdon)

The brothers are starting to define their roles in the business – John as funeral director and president. James is also a funeral director, vice president, secretary and treasurer. The two run all aspects of the business “from watering the plants to filing taxes,” said John.

The two have professionals on standby to call if they become too busy. One of those professionals is 64-year-old Jim Sheeran. He has lived in the Pine Hills neighborhood his entire life and remembers Magin & Keegan’s as a child. Sheeran was introduced to the business after the death of his father, whose wake was there. That sparked an interest in him as a 12-year-old, “I came in and said I was interested in the business and they remembered burying my father so then I would come in just to talk,” said Sheeran.

He went on to work full time for the funeral home for five years until business slowed and he was laid off. Prior to his return part time to the funeral home Sheeran worked for the Department of State in the licensing division for 25 years.

According to Sheeran, the brothers have “their own style from their father and the business has changed, a lot of the families are deceased.”

The brothers said that a huge difference has occurred in the neighborhood since their father bought the property 58 years ago.

“You don’t want to open a funeral home across the street from another funeral home. This place was available and across from a church, it was a perfect spot at the time,” said John.  Since the purchase the brothers have had to deal with what they deem a student ghetto, “with no families there are no funerals.”

The pair tries to maintain an edge on other funeral homes in the area by avoiding price increases. The funeral home has not raised its prices in the past four years despite an average price increase of 4% on all aspects of the funeral business because of rising oil prices.

The brothers absorb the increase in expenses by taking less money in salary every year. They also rent out the space above the second floor of the 891 property to offset the cost of taxes. According to Albany tax records the property was assessed at $292,000 in 2014. The property was turned over to the brothers in March of 2013 following their fathers death – the business was left to them but they had to buy the property from their late father’s estate.

The strain of owning and operating a small family business is made even more challenging because of other responsibilities the brothers have taken on. John works as a coroner for Albany County – “my duties as coroner are 5 p.m. to 5 a.m.” The work hours rarely overlap unless calling hours are scheduled, in which case he can usually get a coworker to cover for him.

When a traumatic event occurs, John leaves the funeral home duties to James. He was recently out of the funeral home for two and a half days when a quadruple homicide occurred in Guilderland.

John Keegan in his office at the funeral home. (Vanessa Langdon)

His experiences as a coroner translates into the funeral business because it “makes me more sympathetic with some of the death scenes I’ve come across. The reality and finality of death is more acute after being at a traffic or homicide scene.”

The two have to be very flexible not just with each other but also in every aspect of their lives. The death care business is 24 hours a day seven days a week. They each have two cell phones and two beepers. While John is an avid fisherman, “whether it be striper fishing on the Hudson River, king salmon fishing on Lake Ontario or ice fishing on Warner Lake” and James likes to do construction updates on his home they have to be prepared to drop everything and go at a moments notice. “We’ve left parties, movies, dinner. In a service oriented business holidays mean nothing. There will always be a Keegan available,” said James Keegan.

In the 28 years that John Keegan has been working in the funeral home he has never taken a sick day, “you don’t cancel funerals, no matter the weather you don’t cancel a funeral.”

The biggest difference that the two have seen throughout their time working alongside their father, and more recently running the business themselves, is the increase in the number of women in the death care industry .“They’re natural nurturers. Women are much better at consoling,” said the funeral homes president. Cremation has increased in popularity as well, the brothers say it has doubled in the past few years due to the affordability. The funeral home does arrange cremations.

The service-oriented business is largely a rush for three days and then there is a lull until another call comes in. “You work really hard really fast,” said John. The ‘lull’ is a time for the pair to get maintenance done, “there’s always paperwork. We never run out of things to do.”

Magin & Keegan Funeral Home established 1956. (Vanessa Langdon)

The funeral home has approximately 75 to 100 funerals a year, eight to 10 a month or one to two a week. They are about to become busier with an increase in funerals during the months of January and February.

It’s “very depressing, very cold the elderly kind of let go. There’s nothing to look forward to like watching their family in the first day of school, thanksgiving, and then Christmas,” John said.

The brothers hope to continue the business as long as they can, “it’s getting tougher and tougher. There used to be hundreds and hundreds of families, typical families will stay with funeral homes in their neighborhood,” said John.

While the brothers both did say they would not go into the business again if they could go back, they agreed that it is both a  rewarding, and exhausting job.

“I like the look in someone’s eyes when they say thank you at the end of the service,” said John.

The two also said that there is a lifelong dedication to the funeral home profession. “Once it’s in your blood it stays in your blood. You always come back. I don’t know anyone who retired, they work until they can’t anymore.” -30-

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