story by Katrice Williams photos by Shelia Scott
How many 21 year olds do you find working in a funeral home? Not many. But, that is how old Heather Riggs was when she started working in her family’s business…Riggs Funeral Home.
Heather started helping her Dad, Merrill Riggs, around the funeral home in 2008. At the time, this young lady had no idea she would eventually be drawn to this profession. Heather was originally going to school to become a teacher. How does one go from teacher to funeral director?
Heather found this definitive moment in 2011. She said, “I remember the exact time I knew this was what I wanted to do. I had always enjoyed working with my father, but there were just some things I didn’t think I could handle. The biggest thing that stood in my way was my fear of dealing with a child’s death. But in July of 2011, we had three funerals for children. One was a two year old, one was stillborn, and the third one was nine years old. I knew if I could help my Dad through this, I could do this job.”
Heather was already attending college at the time. She was getting her core curriculum and planning on moving forward to becoming a teacher. But, she put the brakes on. She then finished Savannah Technical College with a Business Degree and went on to Ogeechee Technical College, where she received an Associate Degree in Applied Sciences of Funeral Education. She graduated in 2013.
Heather continued to work for the family business where she put in the work and the hours to become a legally licensed Funeral Director in January of 2014, at only 25 years old. What an accomplishment.
Riggs Funeral Home first opened its doors on November 10, 1999. The business was the product of a beautiful dream—the dream of two families. Merrill, and wife Kim, lived in Augusta, Georgia, where Heather was born. Both sets of their parents resided in Effingham at the time, and they wanted Merrill and Kim to move nearby.
RB and Jackie Wages, Kim’s parents, were responsible for the construction of Riggs Funeral Home. JZ Riggs, Merrill’s father, was an instrumental part of the “planning process” of the business prior to his death. Unfortunately, Mr. Riggs never saw the idea come into fruition. However, his wife Miriam was a faithful assistant there before her death. She was so committed that she was “at each visitation at the funeral home.”
Interestingly enough, Merrill had been accustumed to the funeral business since he was about 10 years old. Heather remembers stories her dad told regarding how he helped out one of the funeral directors in Springfield as a boy, often running a couple of local errands for him.
So, the birth of Riggs Funeral Home seemed like the perfect fit for both families, and a way to bring their children home to Effingham County. Merrill took over as the business manager and Funeral Director, while RB and Jackie both devotedly assisted in the operations there prior to retirement.
After RB passed away, Jackie became the sole owner of Riggs Funeral Home. Jackie was very proud of Heather’s accomplishments and her desire to continue in the family business. In 2016, Jackie Wages decided to give full ownership of the business to Heather.
Heather Riggs became the owner of Riggs Funeral Home at the age of 27. Here, she was able to run her own business, while having her father by her side. She and Merrill were quite the team, working hand in hand to carry on this business her family had created.
Unfortunately, Merrill passed away earlier this year. Heather and her family were devastated. But, Heather then decided she would carry on her father’s legacy. She is proud to continue the business’ tradition of being “family-owned, family-operated and family-oriented.” After Merrill’s death, Heather took on all responsibility of the funeral business. “I am proud to be able to continue to do what my father taught me to do. He was the most generous and compassionate man I have ever known. I hope to be able to fill his shoes. He always tried to figure out a way to make things work for our customers, who he always affectionately called our family,” she says.
Heather appreciates the examples of kindness that her dad consistently displayed. He had a tremendous work ethic and was a mentor to many. She knows that her mom and dad are the reason for her success today.
As a young business owner, Heather does not take for granted the help and consideration of several instrumental people in her life—those who helped mentor, guide and assist her along the way. Some even “worked many hours during the transition as she stepped into her dad’s position as manager.” Some notable individuals include her aunt, Anne Kissinger, her uncle, Kerry Exley, her uncle, Lavern Hodges and her mom, Kim Riggs. While Heather and her mom Kim are members of Riggs’ Board of Directors, she is extremely grateful for James and Liz Carlson, owners of Carlson Premier Events and Joann’s Florist; the two serve as the board’s president and treasurer, respectively. They have “assisted in rebranding after I became the owner and brought Riggs to a new level.”
Heather is also immensely thankful for the help of Tommy Flanders and Audie Powell of Flanders Morrison Funeral Home in Pembroke, Georgia, who were always there for her after her dad passed away. They provided great help and encouragement through all of the concerns and doubts. “They were right there to help me with anything I needed. I could call any time of day. Whenever I needed them, they would be here,” she stated.
Presently, one of Heather’s biggest aspirations is for the business to flourish. She wants to continue to build the business in a way that would have made her father proud. “I hope that our business will grow. It’s what my Dad wanted, and I hope to be able to give that to him,” Heather said.
Her dad understood the importance of being kind, caring and understanding in the very touchy, tender and difficult time that individuals endure with the loss of a loved one. Although his official title may have been funeral director, he was also a warm heart, a kind word and a firm shoulder when needed.
Recently, the Board of Directors for Riggs was instrumental in bringing on another Funeral Director. The load was a little too much for Heather to handle alone. Luke Sheridan, a licensed funeral director and embalmer, was hired in July of this year. Luke has been in the funeral business for over 10 years. He moved to the area from Conyers, Georgia some time ago. Luke and his wife Taylor, an Effingham native, love the area; the two have a one-year-old-son named Tate.
“I find that Luke reminds me a lot of my dad. He has my dad’s sense of humor, his deep love of people in their time of loss and an innate way of preparing bodies, an art which very few have. We are very blessed to have him working with us. He has brought a lot of skills, knowledge and a breath of freshness to the business. He’s a wonderful asset,” states Heather.
Heather is very appreciative for the assistance that Luke provides and is happy she has someone to take on some of the load. She even jokes that now she finally has time to go to her dental appointments. “It doesn’t take much to make him happy. I think we make a good team. He has already become family,” she stated. Luke even calls Heather’s mom “Mama Kim.”
Heather and Luke both “understand the magnitude of the circumstances” surrounding their customers. They also understand the necessity of putting people first during such a time. Luke feels that Heather has a beautiful heart for people. “She’s very nice, and she can talk to anybody. She is a good shoulder,” he remarked.
Riggs Funeral Home always provides a “warm and welcoming” atmosphere, where the “door is always open.” Heather says, “I enjoy families coming and visiting even after the services of their loved one are complete. They don’t need to have a reason.”
Heather is proud of the newly renovated facility, which certainly helps with her rebranding efforts. Whether fulfilling painting initiatives, re-carpeting or making beneficial additions, she is sure that the new look will add value to the business and be a great benefit to their families.
Heather likes to be involved in the community. She is a member of the Springfield Merchants Association and is active with the Backpack Buddies Program. She also loves spending time at her church, Guyton United Methodist Church, where she has been the Nursery Coordinator for over a decade.
Heather Riggs believes in putting people first at all times, as she is proud to continue her dad’s legacy. “Family-Owned, Family-Operated and Family-Oriented” is truly what Riggs Funeral Home is all about.