A Vocation of Salt and Light
Jesus said that as believers, we’re supposed to be the salt of the earth, and to breathe life into the profession to which we are called. To preserve and enhance the lives of others, as well as to emit a beacon of light while we’re here on earth, is our true vocation. When thinking about these words embodied in a person, my mind immediately goes to an extraordinary person, Carlton Shamburger.
Carlton is the owner and funeral director at Hawthorn Funeral Home, having found his calling in life right here in Carthage. He was born in Ruston, Louisiana and spent his early years in Shreveport (we native Texans won’t hold that against him). Carlton met his bride, Karen, in high school. He fondly remembers her begging him to go to the Sadie Hawkins Dance. Soon after the dance Carlton left Shreveport to attend Louisiana Tech. While driving his turquoise Mercury Cougar XR7 with a white vinyl top through campus one day, he was feeling very confident and saw a beautiful young lady walking along the sidewalk. He says he just couldn’t help himself and yelled out, “Hey baby, you wanna ride?” When she turned around, he realized it was Karen, his Sadie Hawkins date. He didn’t know if she was more excited to see him or that fancy car he was driving, but that encounter began a 32-year journey. Since that first car ride, they have reached many milestones together, including the birth of their three children, twin girls Meredith and Katherine (Katy), and son Benjamin Ryan.
Carlton, Karen, and their three young children moved to the Houston area for a while, where Karen took a job as a teacher for Conroe I.S.D and Carlton worked managing a commercial property. Everything was going great in their lives until the company he worked for was sold and he lost his job. As a couple, they did a lot of praying and soul searching. They consulted a career counselor, and the profession of funeral directing was introduced to them. Karen researched the topic, finding that the Commonwealth Institute of Funeral Service was just 15 minutes from their home, and the journey began.
As Carlton’s school career was drawing to a close, he knew he needed to find a funeral home to work in as an apprentice. During the many years that Carlton had made the long drive from Houston to Shreveport, he had often noticed a beautiful historic funeral home in the little town of Carthage, Texas. Impressed with the area, he decided to submit his resume to Hawthorn Funeral Home. Little did he know the plans God had in store for him. He was immediately hired as an apprentice funeral director. The family loaded up their belongings and moved to the small town. The pay was not great, but it included a place to live and utilities. Karen got a job as an elementary teacher and they settled in. Soon, however, Carlton began to think he did not know what he had gotten himself into. All Carlton and Karen had ever known was big-city living and small-town living was quite different, including the fact that nothing was open past 8 p.m. However, the family also learned to appreciate the many benefits of small-town living. Karen walked to the post office every day, with their young son Ryan not far behind her on his Big Wheel tricycle. One day Karen lost Ryan. He had wandered away on his tricycle. Melvin Johns, Sr., a long-time employee at Hawthorn, was outside and pointed the panicking parents in the direction of the post office, where he had last seen the pint-sized pioneer heading. Carlton and Karen found Ryan and began to understand what small-town living was all about.
The opportunity came for Carlton and Karen to purchase Hawthorn, and it was important to them that the history of the funeral home be preserved. In the early 1920s, funeral homes often started out in furniture or hardware stores. Hawthorn had started out as a hardware store, where caskets were made and sold by the founder, Teeb Hawthorn. In 1937, after death of Teeb, Neal Hawthorn separated the hardware store and funeral home by moving the funeral business down to the family home at its present location. The Hawthorn family lived above the funeral home for many years. Neal Hawthorn, Jr. always loved to tell the story that he was born above the embalming room.
One interesting feature on the Hawthorn property is the two-story garage apartments. Prior to 1945, the apartments were only one story and were utilized as a stable, surrey track, and garage for professional vehicle parking. In 1945 and 1946 the second story garage and apartments were built for the ambulance service. The next renovations came to the funeral home in 1963, when the colonnades, new embalming room, and chapel were added. Since 2004, Carlton has been doing renovations room by room and adding vintage pieces, not to antiquate Hawthorn but to preserve its rich history.
Not only was preserving the history of the funeral home important to Carlton, but also preserving memories. Carlton and long-time Hawthorn employee Pete Williams liked the idea of doing a memorial Christmas service as a way of giving back to the community each year. The very first year they decorated two large trees and had the local flower shops decorate the chapel and put gold crosses on the trees for the grieving families to take with them from the service. Thus, the annual Service of Remembrance was born. The next year families were asked to bring an ornament in remembrance of their loved one to place on the tree. Carlton and the staff still love unpacking the ornaments each year and take pride in decorating the chapel.
Carlton and Karen have been in Carthage since 1994. They came here not knowing anyone and have become part of our close-knit community. Carlton notes, “Being a small-town funeral director has given me a whole new perspective on my life and career. For nearly three generations I have met people, loved them, and grieved with them as they walk the lonely path to Oddfellows Cemetery. Being a funeral director doesn’t make this journey any easier. Losing people you love too, because you know everyone involved, actually makes it harder, but sweeter at the same time. I believe that being a funeral director is a sacred calling. When I am arranging someone’s funeral, I know it is the last time the family will see their loved one’s earthly body, and it’s all about giving love, compassion, and respect in a time that it is truly needed.”
Carlton continues, “I am so grateful to serve the people of his community in this capacity. I appreciate so much my family, my employees, and my friends, and I feel that my job is an enormous blessing from God.” And for 23 years, Carlton Shamburger has been a blessing himself—a beacon of light during dark times, a preserver of history and memories, and a compassionate attendant to this small community.