Times Assistant Editor Jess Bengtson continues her series that has her spending time with local professionals as they do their jobs. This installment in her bi-weekly series, “A Day in the Life of...” took her to Stenshoel-Houske Funeral Home, where she learned how the business works, and saw how the staff works with families going through tough times
I arrived at Stenshoel-Houske Funeral Home just before a service was to begin and I immediately felt apprehensive. Would following a funeral director for this part of the series be too much to handle emotionally? Would I be “creeped out” by anything I saw or heard? I honestly didn’t know the answer, but went inside anyway.
You see, I have been to my fair share of funerals in the past couple of years and they were for people who I didn’t expect to pass away any time soon. It was some of the most difficult times in my life and some days it was hard to want to get out of bed. But, because of my children, my husband, and my job, I had to move on. I often wonder how other people deal with death. Maybe it’s easier for some to bury their emotions deep down inside or maybe it’s easier for them to let it all out at once. Who knows.
John Rodseth and Francis LaPlante are no strangers to funerals, either. They have been ushers (Support Staff) for Stenshoel-Houske since the end of November, but have been frequent volunteers because of their availability. The funeral that day was all set up and ready, thanks to them, and RBJ’s Restaurant would later be catering a lunch for 50. They had set out the guest book, basket for cards and programs by the time I got there.
As we walked around the funeral home, John and Francis filled me in on what a funeral usher does like carrying flowers in/out, setting up the service, moving the casket or urn in and out of the funeral home or church, and visiting with the family of the deceased. It didn’t seem like too horrible of work to be an usher until I glanced over my left shoulder to the open casket at the front of the sanctuary. Have you ever had the feeling of your heart sinking into your gut and every sound around you suddenly becoming muffled? That’s how it is with me and open caskets. And to have to be the usher that opens and closes, and carries the casket around AND up and down church stairs? Now that’s a difficult job. I wouldn’t be able to handle it, but that doesn’t mean they couldn’t. In fact, they were as cool as a cucumber. Good for them, I thought.
After we finished up our chat, funeral director Kristi Cegon walked in to the family room. She’s relatively new to the Crookston area, but has already gotten to know so many people. Maybe not by choice, but she knows them nonetheless. She’s the one who is on the front lines taking calls, picking up the deceased, preparing their bodies and helping plan the funerals. Now THAT is something not everyone could do.
In her spare time, Kristi says she likes to be outdoors with her dog and really tries not to bring thoughts of work home with her.
Kristi mentioned that she worked in a machine shop for 10 years before finding her calling to be a funeral director. She said the stress was just too much and she wanted to do get into a business that was fulfilling and meaningful. Well, she’s got that right. Kristi got her four-year Mortuary Science degree from the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities and worked for three and a half years as an assistant. She got a job notice from Crookston, came here for an internship, and the rest is history.
While in school, working on bodies was part of the learning. Kristi said the medical students would get the donated bodies first and then they would come to the funeral students. They worked on embalming and restorative art, sometimes getting a replica of a face and having to match the other side from scratch.
Now, to be honest, I did not follow Kristi around for a full day. I (legally) could not go with her when she did a body pick up nor could I be in the room when she prepared a body. And that was totally fine with me. I did not want to do any of those things. Especially watching the embalming process. Though I was intrigued so I flat-out asked about it. Kristi says embalming is done mostly to get color back into the body and to fill in the places that might have sunk in. It really is an art. Maybe not everyone’s number one choice for art, but art nonetheless. She said she has had to master tissue building and has even had to make forms for a deceased person’s mouth if they had dentures and were not retrieved from a nursing home.
“Does a body really make sounds after they’re dead?” I asked half knowing the answer.
“Yes, if there’s fluid or air in their lungs,” replied Kristi matter of factly.
“Have you ever had a dead body move while you were preparing it?” I asked awkwardly.
“No,” answered Kristi thankfully. “Though Steve Oliver once told me he had a body move when they were trying to revive someone.”
“You might also see a ripple from the current after someone has been shocked with a defibrillator,” she added.
One of the most difficult funerals Kristi said she has had to have been a part of was the homeless woman who was found deceased near a bridge on Crookston’s southwestern edge in November 2016. She said longtime funeral director Jim Bredman offered to take over which left her a little more at ease. Kristi also said that one time a person had been shot and, because of gang activity, the police were present at the funeral.
One of the most unique funerals Kristi said she was a part of was someone who had gotten into reconditioning horse buggies. They brought one of the buggies he had been working on right into the sanctuary and had his urn set on the seat during the service.
Cremations are something that Stenshoel-Houske does not do, but they are arranged by their partner in Fergus Falls. Cremated remains are actually mailed by the United States Postal Service with tracking so they must be signed for. (That’s something that really surprised me.) One of the other awkward questions I asked was if they had ever had ashes spill out if an urn was dropped and the answer was a direct “NO.” Urns are sealed so ashes cannot be spilled during a ceremony or at the cemetery. Sometimes ashes are split up into smaller urns or granite boxes for family members and those are not necessarily sealed as some people like to spread ashes in a person’s favorite places or some place they have always dreamed of going.
“You always want to be respectful of a person’s remains,” Kristi said as we walked into the funeral home’s showroom.
Inside the showroom, you’ll find a variety of caskets, urns, vaults, and accessory pieces for caskets. There’s a variety of prices and the styles vary for a person’s interests. They’ve even got specialty items like the barn wood casket.
Stenshoel-Houske Funeral Home and Cremation Services is a special place for many people for many different reasons. They have held community service events for policemen where they offer them a full meal in appreciation for their hard work. They’ve also held Remembrance ceremonies, usually in December, as a special gathering for those who have lost a loved one. In fact, they are starting a new tradition with a Community Summer Remembrance event on June 22 where they will have a Ribbon Tree for people to tie a ribbon with a loved one’s name on it, a meal catered by the SnowSled Inn, and a Butterfly Release.
The funeral home houses three funeral directors (Jim, Kristi and Kyle who is waiting for his license), Grief Care Coordinator Trudy Hofer, Pre-Arrangement Specialist Bonnie Reitmeier Christians, and Support Staff Jerry Rude, Marian Bakken, Clayton Briggs, Francis LaPlante, and John Rodseth.
One thing that I’ve learned from this experience is that you have to have a tough shell, but, at the same time, be open and inviting to the ones who are grieving. Being a funeral director has got to be a difficult job for many reasons, but a rewarding one too. I applaud Crookston’s directors and support staff. You’re possibly one of the most under-appreciated careers, but still are there to serve 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Thank you for all you do.