Friday, January 11, 2008

MacKenzie Vault: A Family Legacy Since 1897

In the funeral service industry, our business is often built on names. Ours, in several ways, is an industry in which a name can make or break a company. I grew up knowing the names of many of the “legendary” companies in funeral service: Frank E. Campbell in New York, Joseph Gawler in Washington, DC, and in my home state of Texas, Porter Loring, Wilkirson-Hatch-Bailey, Thompson’s Harveson & Cole, Settegast-Kopf, and the list goes on and on. Unfortunately you also hear names that stir a negative connotation, names like David Sconce of the infamous Lamb Funeral Home in Pasadena, California, or Ray Brent Marsh of the Tri-State Crematory debacle. Fortunately, the good generally outweighs the bad.

When you hear the names of funeral service suppliers, especially if you know their histories, the same feelings can be stirred – names like Batesville, National, Wilbert, Clarksburg, Aurora and Marsellus. But do you know the name MacKenzie? If not, you really should. For in the history of the cremation urn, the MacKenzie name is in the historic ranks with those of Meierjohan-Wengler, Gorham, or Matthews. It is a name that is synonymous with value, aesthetics, and innovation.

The MacKenzie family has been serving the funeral industry in form and fashion since the late 1800’s when John MacKenzie came to Nova Scotia from his native Scotland. As a skilled woodworker and blacksmith, his wagon wheels and custom wagons were known for their quality and durability. The fine wagons that he created soon were transformed into funeral coaches – and later he used his woodworking skills to create his own brand of caskets. After finding their niche in the funeral industry, John MacKenzie felt it best to focus on the service side of the funeral industry rather than the supplier side. He sent his three sons to Boston and they began their training at The Boston School of Anatomy and Embalming (now the New England Institute).

The elder two sons graduated in the early 1920’s and returned to Canada where they opened their own family funeral home. The youngest son, Robert MacKenzie, graduated in 1927, and decided to remain stateside to pursue his funeral service dreams, spending the majority of his career working for the Graham Funeral Home in Springfield, Massachusetts.

While employed by the funeral home, Robert noticed more and more of his client families choosing cremation (then, in the 1950’s, still only 1% of the population). Returning to his craftsman roots, he set out to create an affordable and attractive cremation urn, for at the time families only had the option of an expensive urn or a paper bag from the crematory. The result, the “MacKenzie Vault” – a name derived from funeral supply salesmen deeming it “MacKenzie’s Vault,” was crafted from composite concrete and was hand-painted by Robert’s wife, Irma. Originally, production commenced in the basement of their home – but by 1960, they were producing enough of these “vaults” to warrant a separate workshop.

Soon after, Robert MacKenzie retired as a funeral director and focused his efforts on the cremation urn business. In 1965, his son, Neil MacKenzie, took over the business and it was incorporated as MacKenzie Vault, Inc. In 1969, ironically the same year that the world was introduced to Sesame Street and The Brady Bunch, and the year that Neal Armstrong walked on the moon, another milestone was realized – but this one in funeral service. While visiting a friend who was remodeling his home’s bathroom, Neil MacKenzie noticed the sink, which had the appearance of marble, and inquired of its origin. The material, he learned, was cultured marble. Soon after, he met with a local manufacturer, took one of the urn molds, and experimented there in the cultured marble shop. It was there that the first cultured marble urn was made.

Now more than thirty years later, the MacKenzie Classic urn – which is true to the original shape that Robert MacKenzie created and whose shape is a registered trademark of the company, is the standard in cultured marble cremation urns. But cultured marble isn’t the only type of urn that MacKenzie offers – nor is it their only innovation. Cultured granite and cultured onyx urns were also introduced to the industry by MacKenzie Vault. And, of course, they still offer the original composition and finish that Robert MacKenzie came up with in his basement in their Stone-tone series.

Currently, MacKenzie Vault supplies urns to all the major companies, including Batesville, Matthews, Wilbert, Aurora, Eckels, Dodge, and Church & Chapel, to name a few. Their “Classic” series of urn-vaults is available in four sizes and is the company’s top-selling urn.

Cultured stone is a precise mixture of natural stone, natural color pigments, and synthetic polyester resin. The company’s Stone-tone series of urns is created of composite stone, then finished by hand with a stone-like paint coating. In each type of cultured stone, the mixture is poured into a mold to create each of the unique shapes of MacKenzie’s urns. It takes 24 hours for each urn to go from basic, raw materials to a shippable finished product. All of the products that create MacKenzie Vault’s urns are made in the U.S.

Cultured marble is very durable and is actually stronger than its natural counterpart. It is cast solid and is not brittle like natural stone. Additionally, the urns are very versatile, and are just as suitable for in-home display as they are for placement in a columbarium or burial in a cemetery. Additionally, MacKenzie Urns are TSA “Flight Ready” and can be used for transporting cremated remains aboard commercial aircraft.

Today, the company is still owned by the MacKenzie family. In an industry where corporations control many of the historic names in funeral service, it’s comforting to find a family owned and operated company with such notoriety. Neil MacKenzie’s son, Scott J. MacKenzie, can be found day-in and day-out around “the shop” – just as he has since his early childhood. Although his earliest memories involve helping his grandmother cut out wax paper as part of the urn production process (prior to more modern techniques), then later working on the production floor, his current role is President and Director of Strategic Initiatives. But make no mistake – he still answers the phone and assists in day-to-day operations of the family business. Scott holds degrees in Communications and Sociology from Boston University and joined the family business full-time in 2002 – leaving his position with a marketing firm in Boston. Additionally, in tribute to his profession and his family’s heritage, he is both a licensed funeral director and a certified crematory operator.

Scott views family-owned and operated businesses as companies built on tradition, passion, and pride. “The good ones have stood the test of time and are built to last” he says. “To me, it’s accountability to your family name – if your name is on the box, you better stand behind it with uncompromised product quality and superior customer service. I think our customers have come to appreciate and even expect these traits from our company.”

For the past 110-plus years, the MacKenzie family has built their business on quality materials, innovative craftsmanship, value to the consumer, grade-A customer service, and family-owned flexibility. In an industry where service is everything and a name can make or break a company, what more could you ask for? Now and into the future, although funeral service will change, you can bet that MacKenzie Vault will remain constant and committed to these core values.

~ Jason