Silverbrook Cemetery in Wilmington, Delaware
From left: Paul White Jr., Paul White III and Paul White IV. Photograph by Jared Castaldi
If owning a cemetery has perks, it can be supposed that a free family plot is one of them.
“My grandparents are buried out front,” says Paul White III. “That’s where my dad will go. That’s where I’ll go, too.”
White is owner and president of Silverbrook Cemetery in Wilmington, the site of about 400 burials a year. In the 1860s, the 100-acre property was the White family farm. In 1895 White’s great-great-grandfather converted it to Silverbrook. That was about 20 years after the Roman Catholic Diocese of Wilmington established Cathedral Cemetery nearby.
Silverbrook was, and still is, non-sectarian, and it was visible from Lancaster Pike, the I-95 of the time. Both factors were big business advantages. Of the 1,100 cemeteries in Delaware today, only seven are for-profit enterprises, like Silverbrook.
A male White has run the business since its founding. When White’s great-grandfather was struck and killed by a trolley in 1937, White’s grandfather, Paul Sr., took over. White’s father, Paul Jr., served in the Delaware Army National Guard for a few years, then went to work at the cemetery full time in 1966. He took over the operation in 1980. Paul Jr. put Paul III to work there as soon as he was old enough to cut grass. Paul III studied history at Dickinson College, then attended law school for a year before he officially joined the business. He took over in 2001.
The order of succession was sometimes clear. Neither Paul Sr. nor Paul Jr. had siblings. “It was set in stone for my dad,” White says. “I was never under pressure.”
Now, “I’m HR, marketing, management, payroll—everything,” says White, who manages seven full-time employees. “I deal with all the day-to-day operations, the trials and tribulations. I do have a secretary, but when the phone rings, sometimes it’s my turn to answer it.”
The business has changed over the years. White’s grandfather installed a crematory—the first in the state—in 1934. It remained the only crematory in Delaware into the 1970s, but even as the number of cremations has risen in general, new crematories have cut into that segment of Silverbrook’s business. The marketing of pre-need sales is a challenge. Maintenance, especially mowing, is a constant. The family has had to battle the state over the widening of a bordering road that would disturb some of the graves.
Yet, White says, “We’ve been here so long, we’re part of the community. It reflects on your entire family.” That makes it easy to say no to big cemetery companies who occasionally ask White to sell.
White is one of three children. He has two, ages 5 and 3, including Paul IV. Maybe they won’t be interested in running Silverbrook, like Paul’s siblings. But maybe one will.
“I’m proud of it,” White says. “I’m well aware of how it has provided for my family over the years. And there’s enough land to sell well into the future. My grandchildren wouldn’t see it fill up. It’d be kind of neat to have a sixth generation.”