William John Shea, 82, a funeral director whose family’s Shea Funeral Home gave solace to Philadelphia families for more than a century, died Wednesday, May 26, from heart disease in his Newtown Square home.
“He was a true gentleman,” said his daughter Pam Lairdieson. “He was a funeral director, but it wasn’t a business for him. It was more of a calling and a service he provided to the people.”
Raised in West Philadelphia, Mr. Shea was one of four children born to John W. and Margaret Shea. He was a graduate of West Catholic High School, and he earned a bachelor’s degree from Villanova University.
As a boy, Mr. Shea was not planning to be a funeral director, but when he was 16, his father died suddenly and he did not want the family business to end. He devoted his life to Shea Funeral Home, a business started by his grandfather in 1895 and for more than a century was located in the Grays Ferry section of South Philadelphia across from St. Gabriel’s Church. Grace Shea, his wife of 59 years and a nurse, was his helpmate in the business.
Mr. Shea was the last to go into the family business, finally retiring in 2014. When it closed, the funeral home was one of the oldest continuously run family businesses in Philadelphia.
After Mr. Shea’s death, some people who had used his services came to grieve with his loved ones and told them they did not think he had a family because he spent so much time with them during their time of loss, his daughter said.
“It was what he felt they needed,” she said.
One time, Lairdieson said, she asked her father about his work.
“I said, ‘How do you do it? It’s such a sad occupation,’ ” she recalled. “He said, ‘I don’t look at it that way. I look at it as helping the people through the hardest time of their life, helping them through their grief.’ He was really special that way.”
He showed that same warmth in his personal life as well.
“He really cared about us and our friends,” his daughter said.
During summers at the family’s beach house on the bay in North Wildwood, the former lifeguard took his children boating, fishing, and crabbing. He would also always take time to talk to their friends and listen to their stories.
“He would meet somebody one time and leave such an impression because he really did care about people,” she said. “He really was a caring, sincere guy,”
In addition to his wife and daughter, Mr. Shea is survived by daughters Patti Murphy and Susie Miller, one sister, 11 grandchildren, and other relatives. His parents, brother, and sister died earlier.
A Funeral Mass was held on Thursday, June 3.
Donations in Mr. Shea’s memory may be made to Our House Ministries, 1441 S. 29th St., Philadelphia, Pa., 19146, or online at https://www.ourhouseministries.org.