ELKHART — Before Elkhart even had its own municipal government, it had a funeral home that is still around.
Walley-Mills-Zimmerman Funeral Home opened its doors in 1869, six years before Henry C. Wright became the first mayor of Elkhart, and 20 years before The Elkhart Truth was established.
The funeral home was founded by Charles B. Walley, who was the first in four generations of Walleys to be in the business. The last owner from that family was Charles M. Walley, who retired in 1961 and sold the business to Duke Mills Sr. and Bob Zimmerman.
That was when the name changed from the Charles Walley Funeral Home to Walley-Mills-Zimmerman Funeral Home. Bob Zimmerman’s son, Bill Zimmerman now runs the business and said keeping the Walley name, even when that family is no longer involved, was an intentional decision.
“Older people today will still – when they talk about, ‘Where’s Mom’s funeral going to be?’ to their neighbors or their friends – they’ll say ‘Well, it’s down at Walley’s,” Zimmerman said. To take the name off of the business ... I would never do that. I would never, ever do that.”
The younger Zimmerman has been at the funeral home for 45 years, since he left the U.S. Army in 1974. He became the owner 20 years ago when his father retired.
He says that, just in the time he has been in the business, funeral homes have changed. For instance, the number of people who want cremation has soared.
“Back when I first started down here, there was literally no cremation at all here in Elkhart,” Zimmerman said. “It wasn’t even talked about.”
Now, celebrations of life that might not even have the body present are much more popular, while traditional open-casket funerals are declining. According to Zimmerman, the change has been rapid and is, in part, driven by the difference in cost. Another reason is that many people no longer live their entire lives in one town, meaning that they tend to lose the connection. Having an urn can be a good option then.
A change specific to Walley-Mills-Zimmerman is the location of the funeral home. Before moving to its then state-of-the-art facility at 700 E. Jackson Blvd. in 1964, the business was located in an 1890 three-story house at 126 S. Second St. One of the Charles Walleys bought and converted the home in 1919.
A two-page advertisement in the Saturday, March 3, 1923, issue of The Elkhart Truth, shows several photos of the funeral homes interior, including two parlors where “125 people can be comfortably seated.” Another feature was the business’ four motorized hearses, that “responds instantly to calls from any distance.” Also listed among the service features is a “lady assistant who is thoroughly competent to perform the duties assigned to her.”
After the 1964 move, the old downtown location was sold to the YMCA and had some other owners before eventually being turned into a parking lot roughly 30 years ago.
Zimmerman has heard from his father and Duke Mills that the funeral home had been located in four or five other buildings before the one on South Second Street. The older locations included one somewhere on Main Street and one on Jackson Boulevard west of Main Street, he said.
Looking back further, funeral directors were often furniture makers who happened to also make caskets, and that was the case with Charles B. Walley, according to Zimmerman.
“Most all funeral homes started out that way,” he said.
These days, caskets are not made in-house. Large casket building companies, such as Batesville, Matthews and Aurora, having taken over that side of the industry.
Each funeral is different
But that’s not to say the personal touch can no longer be found in funeral homes. Walley-Mills-Zimmerman is a family business that the current owner decided to join after watching his father be the funeral director. Bob Zimmerman was at the funeral home for more than 50 years.
“As a young man growing up, I just was around it all the time because of my dad,” Bill Zimmerman said. “Following my father’s footsteps.”
He saw that his father’s job was about service, family and helping people in some of the most trying times of their lives. He knows that dealing with death and grieving families is difficult to most people – which he said is why funeral homes nationwide have a recruiting problem. A lot of people are not cut out for that, he said.
But the potentially uncomfortable part of the job is not the only reason for the funeral director shortage, Zimmerman believes.
“The funeral home’s telephone has to be answered 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” he said. “If someone dies at 2 a.m., you have to have staff available that will get up and respond to that and bring the body from the place of death to here.”
Though the older Zimmerman told his three sons he would train them if they had any interest in the industry, Bill was the only one who thought that was the right path, and he is pleased with the decision. He loves the job and wouldn’t trade it for anything.
Each funeral and family is different, he said. Different religions, causes of death and ages of the deceased are some of the constant inconsistencies. Those changes can be challenging, Zimmerman said. The most difficult part of the job is handling the funeral of a child.
“Emotionally, it’s hard. Not only on the family, but it’s also emotionally hard for our funeral staff here to go up and see a 3-year-old ... in a casket. The family, the mom holding the baby and crying. It just, it just ... it’s just very, very emotional. It’s very tough,” he said.
Deaths caused by crashes, accidents or murder are also in the difficult end for funeral directors, because those deaths are unexpected.
“It’s not natural,” he said. “But it’s a fact of life, and we have to deal with that, and we have to guide the family through that.”
Some might think that working the job for 45 years and growing up watching his dad do the same would have toughened Zimmerman. But that is not the case.
“It’s still hard on me. I still break up and have. It’s just tough,” he said.
The National Funeral Directors Association, among others, offers seminars on how to deal with that part of the job so that those who take on the responsibility of helping grieving families have a chance to work through the difficult aspects.
Right now, Zimmerman has a lot to be pleased about. The remarkable 150-year anniversary has been celebrated this year, including when Elkhart Mayor Tim Neese recently stopped by the office on Jackson Boulevard.
Zimmerman first thought the mayor was bringing bad personal news, as most who walk through the doors do. But the funeral director soon realized his staff and the mayor had conspired to surprise him with a Key to the City.
“One hundred fifty years of anything is somewhat unique and it’s out of the ordinary,” Neese said. “I just felt it was important, as the mayor, to compliment Walley-Mills-Zimmerman Funeral Home for their many years of service.”
As for the fact that the funeral home has been around for longer than Elkhart has had a local government, Neese said that says a lot about the importance of the funeral business, but also “the high quality of service that specifically Walley-Mills-Zimmerman has provided to Elkhart County.”
The funeral home also received a congratulatory letter from the Indiana Lt. Gov. Suzanne Crouch.
“We’re very proud of being in the community that many years and servicing the Elkhart community and being a part of the community,” Zimmerman said. “All the staff here, everybody’s very proud of that. It’s just a milestone a lot of businesses probably don’t reach.”
Follow Rasmus S. Jorgensen on Twitter at @ReadRasmus.