When Thomas Satchell was a young boy growing up in Nessawadox, a tiny dot of a community on the Eastern Shore of Virginia, he used to hold funeral services for frogs killed on the road in front of his home.
The future owner of Satchell’s Funeral Service in Orange made caskets from plastic powder containers. He’d cut a flap in the side of the container and place the frog inside. Then, using two sticks, he would respectfully lower the little casket into the hole of a cinderblock placed in the ground. The cinderblock served as the vault keeping the casket in place.
Then it was time for the graveside service.
With a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth, he recalled, “My sister would always do the acknowledgements. She would attend and get up and say a few words. She would go home and say, ‘Mama, we had another one today.’”
Satchell, 65, has run his funeral home on Church Street for nearly 40 years. He is aware some people are uncomfortable thinking about the work morticians do, but he has never felt the need to apologize for his desire to do right by the dead and their grieving survivors.
During an interview in the funeral home’s wood-paneled sitting room, he is a study in dignity, his white dress shirt crisp and his graying moustache neatly trimmed. When his cell phone jangles like an old-fashioned landline, he excuses himself and steps into his office. As soon as he comes back, it begins ringing again. It’s all in a day’s work—and the day stretches on as long as the calls come in.
“This was a childhood dream for me,” Satchell said. “I do this because it’s my love. You work a lot of hours that you never get paid for. But that’s the love you put into it.”
He first became enthralled when he saw funeral directors fulfilling their duties at his home church. At the age of 5, he was in awe of them and what they did. Rather than dreaming of a career in sports while tossing a football around the yard, he held his services for the small dead creatures he found on the road.
Satchell’s father was a builder and his mother worked in a school. He is the fourth of six children, five boys and one girl. His fascination with funerals and burial practices caused him to stand out from his siblings and his classmates. His parents thought he was a little “different,” in his recollection, and his nickname in elementary school was “buzzard.”
But the teasing did no lasting damage—Satchell’s eyes crinkle with amusement when he recalls the morbid nickname—and his father helped him get his start. In conversation with a local funeral director, the elder Satchell mentioned young Thomas’ interest.
When he was in ninth grade, he had the opportunity to visit the local business for the first time.
“He showed me around and showed everything to me. I finalized then my decision that that’s what I wanted to do,” Satchell said.
After he graduated from high school, he did an internship with Thomasson Funeral Home in Louisa. Once he had mastered the trade, he set up his own shop in Orange on March 6, 1980.
Satchell acknowledges that funeral homes in central Virginia are largely segregated. Almost all of the families he serves are black, while Preddy Funeral Home, with offices in Orange, Gordonsville and Madison, has a predominantly white clientele.
He said that in the past 15 to 20 years, he has buried three white people in Westview Cemetery, a predominantly black graveyard on Route 20. Westview is a short distance from Graham Cemetery, where cemetery trustee Tom Landis said that to his knowledge, no black people are buried.
Satchell’s customers include people who want to make their own funeral and burial arrangements rather than leaving those tasks to their families.
“I have whites who are pre-arranged with me. I treat people as people. They require respect; I give it to them,” he said.
These days, it is the rare funeral home that isn’t part of a large corporate chain. A family name on a funeral home is not proof that it is privately operated. But Satchell’s Funeral Service (like Preddy) is a family business. He has turned down offers from corporations wanting to buy him out or employ him elsewhere.
“I will not work for a corporation,” Satchell said with finality in his voice. “Money isn’t everything. Peace of mind and feeling good about yourself going to work—those are the most important things to me.”
He offers a steadying presence as well as tangible services to grieving survivors who come to him in need of funeral and burial arrangements for a family member. It’s “one of the worst days of their life,” and he is intent on helping them through it as calmly and kindly as he can.
Satchell knows all too well the shock and grief of a death in the family. He has lost a number of close family members in the past decade or so and handled all the funeral arrangements for each of them.
He is quick to say they insisted on paying him full price rather than expecting him to give them a discount.
“They knew it was my livelihood,” he explained.
The sacred duty took a toll on him. During one particularly grueling stretch, he lost his mother and then his father over a period of just seven weeks. Each time, embalming and dressing the body fell to him, along with every other step of the funeral and burial process. The sad tasks left him “truly exhausted.”
His dedication to helping others keeps him going, and he has the love and support of his wife, Eloise, a banker in Louisa, and his daughter, Stephanie Satchell Morris, a former TV news anchor in Charlottesville who now lives and works in New York.
He admits the nature of his work means his schedule is unpredictable.
“You work long days and have very little time off because you’re always on call,” he said.
But the thought of his funeral home’s upcoming 40th anniversary fills him with pride. He has spent his entire career serving families in and around Orange County when they’re in dire need of his services. Much of his business comes from personal referrals, and when asked if he knows everybody who walks up and down Church Street, he said, “I feel like I do.”
He is a stroke survivor who doesn’t plan on retiring anytime soon.
“Here I am doing what I love to do,” he said. “People count you out, think you’re down for the count. I say, ‘In God’s time.’”