Ingram Funeral Home in downtown Cumming has seen a lot of change over the last 90 years.
In 1928, the first version of the business that Royston A. Ingram Sr., opened in downtown Cumming, near the current site, when Forsyth County’s population was only about 10,000 residents.
Over the next nine decades, the business has been a staple of Forsyth County and a place where many county residents have been remembered before being laid to rest, including Junior Samples, a comedian and actor known for his time as a cast member on “Hee Haw,” and Luke Appling, a member of the National Baseball Hall of Fame who played for the Chicago White Sox from 1930 to 1950.
In 2004, Robert and George Ingram, sons of Royston Ingram, sold the family business to Jack Allen, who now admits it took some time for the community to support an outsider taking over a prominent local business.
“It was uncomfortable, I’m sure, for George and Robert to sell because they still live here, their name is on the sign. ‘Am I going to come and run their name in the ground or am I going to treat them right?’ They were concerned about that,” Allen said. “And I knew where they were coming from because I’d already been there.”
According to a Forsyth County News article from 2004, Robert and George Ingram – who had previously operated the business with their older brother, Royston A. “Buck” Ingram Jr., before his retirement – sold the business as none of the heirs wanted to continue in the funeral business.
“People have high expectations,” said Elizabeth Mitchell, director of community relations for the funeral home. “They are used to walking in the building and the owner standing at the door knowing who they are. George, Robert and Buck knew everybody.”
The Ingram brothers rejected several offers from larger corporations before selling to Allen based on his history in the industry.
Like the Ingrams, Allen was born into a funeral home-operating family.
His great-grandfather, H. M. Patterson, founded H.M. Patterson & Son in Atlanta in 1880, a company that exists to this day, though Allen’s family sold the business in the early 1990s.
“I was the fourth generation in that business,” Allen said. “My mom sold the business in ’93. If it were still around today, it would be a 130-year-old business. It was about 113 when we sold it, so coming up here was easy, stepping into a family business.”
Members of his family have handled funerals for President Franklin D. Roosevelt, “Gone with the Wind” author Margaret Mitchell, Masters Tournament co-founder and Augusta National Golf Club Founder Bobby Jones and brothers Robert and George Woodruff with the Coca-Cola Company.
When Allen bought the business, the Ingram brothers and other employees helped Allen get familiar with the county, which he said was difficult as an outsider.
“Between George and Robert and Midge Webb, who was here, they started showing me around and finally got people to realize, ‘Hey, we hate that the Ingrams sold, but we’re glad they sold to you because nothing changed,’” he said.
Part of that transition, Allen said, was changing very little about how business was handled.
“We modernized it, but we weren’t changing the integrity of the business. We kept it the way it was,” he said. “’If it’s not broken don’t fix it,’ that’s my motto.”
While Allen wasn’t planning major changes to the business, he did take over during a period of rapid growth in Forsyth County. At the time, Forsyth was one of the five fastest-growing counties in the country.
“Ingram’s was just another example of the growth,” Allen said. “It got too big for George and Robert to handle. At the time, they were 65 and 70 ... I think part of that was the reason for selling.”
That growth brought new people and new requests from families that differed from what was considered a traditional funeral in Forsyth County.
For example, Allen added the business’s crematorium shortly after taking over. Today, he said about half of all funerals end with cremation rather than burial.
“We’ve become a really big retirement community here,” Allen said. “A lot of people are coming down here chasing their kids and grandkids, and they like it, it’s really affordable and they move here. So when they pass away, they don’t have the roots, so they’re not really tied into a church or a community. So, they cremate them or they ship them back home. They don’t usually bury them here.”
The growth has also meant new traditions and religions to the area, and Allen said the funeral home has hosted Hindu, Muslim, Greek and Asian services in recent years.
“You can’t judge people on what they want,” he said. “If you go into a restaurant and somebody tells you what to eat, [people would say,] ‘You can’t tell me what to eat. I’ll decide what I want.’ You listen to your customer; that’s how you stay in business 90 years.”
Allen has also made it a point since taking over to provide for veterans and has joined a program between funeral homes to take care of veterans’ needs.
“We try to make sure they get entitled to their benefits, they get to the cemetery, they get free grave space, a free marker and a free vault and their spouse does too, even dependent children,” he said. “To have a free space for you and your spouse is very valuable.”
With the changes Allen has seen in the last 14 years and the funeral home has gone through in nearly a century, Allen said he is excited to see what the future brings. He said even the funeral industry is being impacted by technology, including online funerals.
“I’d be real interested to see where we are in another 20 years,” Allen said. “Because then the Millennials will all be taking over and decide and it will be a whole different viewpoint, and social media will play a big part.”