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By Dave Olson and Shane Mercer, Forum staff writers, Published August 03 2012

Part 1 of 3: Area funeral homes, some more than a century old, aid those grieving a loss

Editor’s note

Final goodbyes aren’t easy.

No one knows that better than those who help survivors make arrangements after a loved one dies.

Getting things accomplished while staying sensitive to the deepest pain humans experience requires equal parts counselor and wilderness guide. Yet, it’s a job local funeral home directors take on gladly.

Ask them why and they will tell you the biggest reason is the appreciation they see in the eyes of those whose burdens they lighten.

The word undertaker means just that, undertaking tasks on behalf of those who are grieving, said Steve Wright, whose family operates Wright Funeral Home.

Starting today and continuing for the next two Saturdays, The Forum takes a look at the business of saying goodbye.

Today’s story is focused on five area funeral homes, all of which are family businesses with long histories in the community.

Next week, we take a look at the cost of saying goodbye.

The final installment explores ways funeral homes and clients use technology to celebrate and remember those who are gone.

MOORHEAD - Few events confirm the reality of death like a funeral.

That’s one of the reasons they’re valuable to those who are still here, said Steve Wright, whose family business, Wright Funeral Home in Moorhead, has been helping people say final goodbyes for 132 years.

“We live in a society that is denying mortality,” Wright said. “We’re a beauty- and youth-worshiping culture, so there’s a real tendency to sweep death under the rug and minimize it.”

For many, a funeral can be the first step on the path to healing, he said.

“Our role really is to help people plan a funeral that helps them,” Wright said. “That means opening themselves up to their community, even if they don’t feel like it. Even if they don’t have the energy.

“Your community comes and lifts you up,” added Wright, who came to that realization in a very personal way when Edgar, his brother and partner in the family business, died in 2003.

“It wasn’t that I didn’t expect people to turn out (for the funeral), but I was shocked by the people who did,” he said. “It reinforced for me the value of what we do.”

A funeral can help someone face the finality of losing a loved one, said Lisa Grossman, a funeral director at Wright Funeral Home.

“I think it helps out the grieving process,” she said. “If you skip that, you’re dealing with it yourself over and over.”

Wright agreed.

“A funeral is one of the few places where it is considered appropriate to grieve,” he said. “For better or worse, our culture

doesn’t really accept you crying in the middle of the grocery store.”

‘It does hit you’

Though some survivors steer clear of funerals, a large percentage still decide to have services in a church, though nondenominational services are gaining in popularity, said Jim Boulger, whose family has been in the funeral business in Fargo since the 1890s.

He wonders, however, what the industry will be like years from now.

“I’m only 27. When my generation is older, what kind of services will be taking place?” asked Boulger, the fourth generation to be involved in the family business.

“Having that family tradition really does help you,” he said. “We’ve been here since 1897. That means we’ve been doing something right for a while.”

Boulger said everyone deals with death differently, and a big part of his job is discerning the best approach to take when family members sit down to discuss arrangements.

“It sounds strange to say, but no family I meet with is ever the same. It makes my job interesting,” he said.

Boulger Funeral Home offers counseling services, and it sends out letters to all of the families it works with to let them know the option is available if grief becomes difficult to manage.

“Whether it hits you now, or six months after the funeral. It really does hit you,” Boulger said.

Big picture

As a young man, Bill West worked on an ambulance crew and learned early how people can meet their end in a matter of moments.

“I went out on a lot of wrecks and saw a lot of stuff,” said West, 64, who has spent four decades at his family’s business, West Funeral Homes of West Fargo and Casselton.

“I tell people it’s like North Dakota winters, or summers in Arizona; you can’t get used to it, you just do it,” West said of those early days working on a rescue crew.

Having built a career helping people deal with death, West said one thing that helps him to put life and death in perspective is to take the long view.

“The fact is, no matter how long we live, we’re only here for just a splash. That’s all,” he said.

“If we realize that we’re not in charge, that we’re all going sometime, it does kind of help to zero in on the big picture,” West said. He sometimes shares that philosophy with clients facing sadness and loss.

“I have tried to tell myself and I’ve even told families – especially when it’s tragic circumstances – that I wish we could change things and back the clock up. But we can’t.

“Once I realized I was not in charge of the things that happened, it became easier to step in and say: ‘We’re going to help you the best we can to do the things that need to be done,’ ’’ West said. His family began their funeral home business in 1919 in Casselton.

West described his work as rewarding, but also taxing.

“Makes me want to retire more and more as the years go on. You can only do this for so long,” he said.

A calling

Some funerals are harder than others, said Wright, citing a recent traffic crash that killed all three members of a West Fargo family.

“If every funeral was like this (one) … no funeral director would last more than two years in this business,” he said. “It simply takes a piece of your soul when you’re dealing with that stuff.”

If you weren’t born to do it, “you wouldn’t do this job,” Wright added. “The demands are sort of ridiculous, I mean weekends and nights.”

“It’s like a calling,” Grossman said.

Boulger agreed the funeral home business isn’t for everyone.

“There’s a burnout rate, for sure,” he said, adding that he had friends in college who tried the funeral home business for a couple of years and then decided it wasn’t for them.

“The beauty of what keeps you in this, I think, is that families are so appreciative of what we do,” Wright said. “You get so much positive reinforcement for the help you provide.”

He said when death touches a family, a funeral can help people deal with the sense of unreality that may follow the passing of a loved one.

“Just to wrap your mind around the idea that this person was here yesterday – all his stuff is still here waiting for him to come back to it – and today gone and gone forever, is such a huge concept.

“I just think as humans we are better off to physically confront death and somehow be in contact with that dead human body,” Wright said.

“It’s not pleasant, it’s not anything you desire, but I think it serves you,” he said.

An unexpected path

Alex Rydell didn’t grow up in the funeral industry, but he feels it’s something that he was made for.

Rydell, who has played violin since age 5, started at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn., as a music major. It wasn’t long before he realized that, while he loved music, it wasn’t how he wanted to make a living.

“I had no backup plan,” he said.

While on tour with the St. Olaf Orchestra, he stayed at the home of a husband and wife who were both funeral directors. He talked with them about the business, and something “sparked” in his mind.

Then he job-shadowed John Runsvold of Hanson-Runsvold Funeral Home in Fargo for a day, “and it immediately clicked.” He said he knew “this is what I’ve got to be doing.”

“I saw the rewards of it. I saw that in this profession you get to help people,” Rydell said. “You have an opportunity to help people in the worst of times, when they’ve lost someone that they love.”

The variety of the job and the interaction with the community also appeal to him.

Rydell went on to earn a degree in mortuary science at University of Minnesota. He joined Hanson-Runsvold as a full-time employee five years ago. Hanson-Runsvold opened in the 1920s, and is in its third generation of ownership by the Runsvold family.

Along with the rewards, there are, of course, difficulties that go along with the job, Rydell said. There are long hours and an emotional weight to carry. But he also gets those reminders of the reasons for his work.

A thank-you note or a hug after a service “kind of gives me one of those ‘this is why I do what I do’ moments or thoughts,” he said.

His choice of career has affected Rydell at a personal level.

“I’ve found that my attitude has kind of turned more towards the ‘live each day as if it’s your last,’ ” said Rydell, who is the stepfather of a 7-year-old son and father to a 6-month-old son. “I’m not going skydiving and doing all my bucket list things or anything right away, but just kind of having an attitude of being grateful for everything that’s around us, the miracle of life and relationships, personal relationships. You know, life is a beautiful thing, and we take it for granted so often.”

Ministry of comfort

The worst day of George Korsmo’s life came in 1992. He was at his mother-in-law’s funeral. His daughter was about 13 or 14 years old, and she began to cry.

“And for the first time in her little life, Daddy could not make it better,” said Korsmo, who, along with his wife, Ruth, owns Korsmo Funeral Service in Moorhead. “I couldn’t tell a joke, I couldn’t kiss it ... At that point, she was accepting the reality that her beloved grandma, Grandma Dorothy, had died. And there was no way I could make it better. I could only comfort her. I could hold her. I could hug her. I could pet her hair. I could let her cry on my shoulder.”

And, he says, that’s what they do at Korsmo. For Korsmo and his wife, their work of comforting the mourning is born out of their Christian faith.

“This is simply our ministry,” he said. “We view this as using the talents God gave us in a uniquely special way. While we do have to make a profit, that’s not our motivation.”

Korsmo’s mother and father started the business in 1958, and George Korsmo joined in 1976.

The comfort they strive to offer manifests itself in a number of ways. One of those comes in the form of a small, fluffy, white dog. Barnabas is named after the New Testament biblical figure whose name meant “son of encouragement.”

“We picked that name for him intentionally,” Korsmo said. “He is our encourager. He’s certainly the most underpaid employee here.”

That comfort and encouragement can also come as a cup of coffee or a gentle touch of a hand.

“There are some things that just make for good therapy, and physical touch is one of them,” Korsmo said. “In a sense, telling them, you’re not alone. You’re not in this room alone; you’re not in this life alone.”

Readers can reach Forum reporters Dave Olson at (701) 241-5555 and Shane Mercer at (701) 451-5734