The thought of growing up in a funeral home might be enough to put knots in some people’s stomachs. But for 27-year-old Dominick Abbate, it was nothing out of the ordinary.Mr. Abbate moved into the Brockett Funeral Home on Hampton Road in Southampton when he was about 1 year old, when his father, John, purchased the business in 1991, and lived on the second and third floors of the funeral home for more than half of his life. “It was normal—I never thought it was any different,” he said.
He said his friends were a little creeped out whenever he wanted to have a sleepover, and would say things like, “Oh, we get to spend the night in the funeral home?” He didn’t understand why that seemed odd to them.
After graduating from Southampton High School in 2007, Mr. Abbate went to the College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts, and graduated in 2011 with a bachelor’s degree in economics. He worked for a brief time as an investment advisor in Morristown, New Jersey, but quickly realized that the career was not for him.
He realized he wanted to follow his dad, into the funeral business.
“I always knew I wanted a job where I was helping people and making a difference,” Mr. Abbate said. “It was kind of like a lightbulb, and I said, ‘Wow, I had this job underneath my nose that I didn’t even really consider seriously.”
He approached his father, John, and told him that he wanted to learn the business, and to attend mortuary school. John Abbate said he was relieved, and now plans to hand the business off to his son, who finished mortuary school in 2014 and began working in the industry, in preparation for the day he can take over Brockett Funeral Home.
“A family handoff is what you dream about, especially in this business,” the elder Mr. Abbate said. “Someone like Dominick, who was raised in the community … he can walk down the street and say ‘hello’ to nine out of 10 people he sees.”
That connection to the community has been important from the start, for father as well as son. When John Abbate purchased the business in 1991, then-owner Paul Bauer, wanted to sell it to someone who would embrace the Southampton community.
The now-64-year-old Mr. Abbate was born in 1952 and raised in West Hempstead. He knew at a young age that he wanted to go into the funeral business—in part because of an early experience with death.
His grandfather, also named John Abbate, lived only four blocks away from him and battled cancer for about two and a half years. During that time, Mr. Abbate said, he watched his grandfather waste away. At the end, he looked like a walking skeleton.
“I remember the trepidation of walking into the funeral home, and thinking, ‘What is he going to look like?’” Mr. Abbate recalled. But when he arrived for the viewing, he was stunned: “He looked like he did five years ago, before he got cancer.”
A funeral director having the skills, in preparing a body for a viewing, to be able to put people at ease when they were dealing with a loss made an enormous impression. “It was just amazing to me, that whole concept,” he said.
Mr. Abbate attended Hofstra University and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in biology. It was his parents’ dream for him to go to medical school, but not his. In fact, when he told his parents that he wanted to become a funeral director, they thought he was, in his words, “wack-a-doo.”
In 1975, Mr. Abbate got a job working at a funeral home in Freeport, and, in 1980, he purchased the business. But after running that funeral home for 10 years, he saw a large portion of his client base move away.
He started looking at options—and saw that the Brockett Funeral Home was on the market in Southampton Village. It was a long-established part of the village: Everett Brockett had founded the funeral home in 1922, in a stately late-1800s building on Hampton Road, formerly the summer residence of a Connecticut U.S. senator. Though he sold the business some 50 years later, Mr. Brockett’s name has remained.
It was a hot item—many bids were made on the funeral home, Mr. Abbate said—but the owner, Mr. Bauer, was looking for someone special. Mr. Bauer wanted to sell the business to someone who would raise a family at the home, would take care of the grounds themselves, and, most important, would become part of the community. “That’s the way he ran the business,” said Mr. Abbate. “That’s what he looked for.”
He ended up purchasing the business for $350,000—some of the bids were higher, but the competing bidders would not live in the home.
Mr. Abbate and his wife, Valerie, ended up raising their four children—Dominick, 27, Anthony, 26, Vincent, 24, and Andrea, 21—in the home. Dominick was the only child who expressed an interested in taking over the business, and the idea came to him on his own—his father never pushed it on his children.
“I always told my four kids, I don’t care what you do in life, what your job is, but whatever you pick to do, make sure you enjoy it,” he said. “I can’t think of anything worse than being stuck in a job you hate.”
The previous owner, Mr. Bauer, had purchased the business from Everett Brockett in the 1970s and kept the name, out of respect for the founder. Mr. Abbate did the same.
“It’s such a landmark name,” said the elder Mr. Abbate, noting that Mr. Brockett was “a real class act.” “I wouldn’t even dream about hyphenating it to Brockett-Abbate. I wouldn’t want to tarnish his image.”
Dominick Abbate likewise does not plan to change the name—although he does have a fresh vision for the funeral home. He recently updated the business website, making it more user-friendly. He also wants to be able to have video tributes in the chapel, and possibly to set up a webcam to allow those who do not live nearby to attend the service of a loved one from afar, thanks to digital technology.
Mr. Abbate noted that there are many hats he will have to wear once he takes over the business. As director of the Brockett Funeral Home, he will have to cut the grass, be the janitor, do the accounting, become an IT expert, work as an administrative assistant—not to mention the key duties of the funeral home: working with families to set up funeral services, embalming, and mastering the arts of both cosmetology and hair.
“It’s a very big moment, and I’m honored to be here for the community,” he said. “It feels really good to be back in a community where I know people and they know me.”