Home is Where the Hearse Is

Illustration by Nate Otto

Four generations of the Zarzycki family have lived behind or above their funeral home, starting with founder Agnes Zarzycki, the first woman funeral director of Polish descent in Chicago. Today, 101-year-old Zarzycki Manor Chapels is still run by women, who are upholding old traditions — like conducting funeral services in Polish — while bringing in new ideas to keep their business going for the next century.

This is the second profile in our October series about the business of dying. If you missed our last two stories about Frigid Fluid, a company that makes embalming fluid and cemetery equipment, go back and check out our main episode and the accompanying mini episode (where you learn the difference between embalming and taxidermy, among other fun things).


CLAUDETTE ZARZYCKI: It was our home and we knew of no other home but living above the funeral home. If we were old enough, we could sit down in the office and answer the telephone, but definitely after the folks would leave from the visitation, we were told to come down and we all had our jobs. One did windows, one did vacuuming, one did bathrooms, and it made it easy because we were done in like a half hour and then we’d just have to go upstairs and you know, go to bed.

WAILIN WONG: Claudette Zarzycki and her two sisters grew up above Zarzycki Manor Chapels, a funeral home that their great grandmother, Agnes Zarzycki, opened in Chicago in 1915. Claudette runs the business today with her sister, Andrea, and her mother, Charmaine. For them, living in such close proximity was the norm. Here’s Charmaine.

CHARMAINE ZARZYCKI: Family-owned businesses always had a residence upstairs and as time went on, some of these people may have moved out and they would have had maybe a student living upstairs or a worker. I find it very convenient because years ago, when I started and that was um, in the early 70s, wakes were going until 10 o’clock. So I mean, you figure, closing up at 10, having to do some clean-up and then traipse to wherever you live in the snow and the rain, you know, it’s a lot more convenient to walk up 16 stairs. I still live above the funeral home and I like it.

CLAUDETTE: Sometimes it wasn’t convenient as kids growing up in the funeral home because people would ring our bell at all sorts of hours at the night, but uh now it’s nice. People use the telephone a lot more.

WAILIN: For the Zarzyckis, the funeral home business has always been about the delicate blend of old traditions and new ideas. Agnes Zarzycki, the founder, was a trailblazer. She was the first woman funeral director of Polish descent in Chicago, and today Zarzycki Manor Chapels is one of a handful of funeral homes in the area that can still conduct a full Polish-language service. Claudette has embraced those cultural roots while also figuring out how to reach customers in an age where the notion of a neighborhood funeral home seems as quaint as living above one.

CLAUDETTE: Sometimes when I meet with families today, they says, you know, “I, I fed you when we came here” because my mom, you know, didn’t have a babysitter because we lived right upstairs. And this woman said, “Yes, you know, your mom brought you down and you were quiet. But then you were starting to fuss and I just held you in my arms and I fed you and everything.” And it was really like—and they were really comforted to see that I was that person and I’m all grown up and now I’m taking care of them.

WAILIN: Welcome to The Distance, a podcast about long-running businesses. I’m Wailin Wong. This month, we’re doing stories about the business of dying, and today’s episode is about Zarzycki Manor Chapels, a company that’s learned over four generations how to market a service that almost everyone needs but doesn’t want to think about. The Distance is a production of Basecamp. Basecamp is the saner way to run your business. It’s an app for communicating with people and organizing projects and work. If you’re feeling overwhelmed by email, chat and meetings, give Basecamp a try. Sign up for a 30-day free trial at basecamp.com/thedistance.

WAILIN: On a weekday evening, a group of mourners have gathered for a wake at Zarzycki Manor Chapels’ Chicago location. They recite a litany in Polish and sing in the distinctive style of the highlands of southern Poland. Claudette knows all the traditional prayers and songs and can lead them herself if there isn’t anyone else who can do it. But she didn’t grow up speaking Polish.

CLAUDETTE: My parents didn’t speak it to us, my grandparents didn’t speak it to us. I grew up in the 70s. My father learned it in school and in church, but they did not speak it at home either. Their attitude at that time was: You are in America. The language here is English. You speak English. Back when my dad was starting, my grandfather says you need to learn all this and he would tell his father, he says, “Oh Pa, by the time I’m your age, there’s not gonna be anybody Polish here, everybody’s gonna be speaking English.” And you know what, it was not like that because in the 80s, the new immigration of Polish people came over. It was a huge influx and our Polish business really started to increase.

WAILIN: Agnes Zarzycki, the founder of Zarzycki Manor Chapels, came to the US from Poland at the age of three. She and her husband, a more recent Polish immigrant, initially operated a horse and carriage livery service that transported people to weddings and funeral homes. Agnes then went to mortuary school and opened the funeral home in 1915. The family lived in the back of the house and the front living room was used for visitations. Agnes had been just one of three women in her graduating class at mortuary school, and at that time, the prevailing belief was that women simply could not handle the physical labor of being a funeral director.

CHARMAINE: My father-in-law says that they always had the inspectors from downtown watching her to see, make sure that she was directing and not having a male do it.

WAILIN: Claudette’s father, Richard, graduated from mortuary school in 1955 and was class president. He joined his parents at the family business and they built their current Chicago location in 1962. Decades later, Richard wanted to expand and oversee a building project of his own. He found a property in the southwestern suburb of Willow Springs that was formerly a store called Hall of a Thousand Bargains, and before that, a picnic grove and dance hall with a coincidental connection to the family’s Polish roots.

CLAUDETTE: Prior to it being Hall of a Thousand Bargains, it was actually Tarnow’s Grove, or Tarnów, as you would say in Polish, and Tarnów is the county that the Zarzycki family comes from, so it’s kind of neat that there is that relationship.

WAILIN: The second location was an important turning point for the business. Not only was it an expansion, but it was also a sign of how the Zarzyckis’ clients and potential clients were starting to disperse geographically, with the children of Polish immigrants leaving the city for the suburbs. But Richard would never see it built.

CHARMAINE: It was something that my husband wanted to, uh, go on with and sadly we had all the plans ready and he passed away, so um, it was a matter of us sitting down together and to see if this is something that Claudette and Andrea wanted to do for the rest of their life because this location would have been enough for me.

WAILIN: Richard Zarzycki died in 2006. In 2007, Charmaine, Claudette and Andrea broke ground on the new location, which opened a year later. By then, Claudette had already been a full-time funeral director for nine years. She had gone to mortuary school right out of college at her parents’ request, then worked in marketing for a greeting card company and Hyatt Hotels before returning to the family business. By the time Richard passed away, Claudette had been taking on more responsibilities as a funeral director. But nothing could fully prepare her for the death of her father.

CLAUDETTE: The day he passed away, it was overnight on a Friday night going into a Saturday, and we had a funeral and it was too late to try and get somebody to do and everything. None of us slept and I had to direct it, but I would always remember my dad was saying—he was a very practical person and he says, “Life goes on.” And that was it. So when you own the business, you just can’t slouch on the couch and close the door and say, “My dad died, I, I’m not doing anything.” Nope, I had to, we all had to, to work. Probably that was my most difficult service that I ever had to do, but I just kept hearing him say that in his voice: “Life goes on, got to do the work, got to do it.”

We knew what my dad wanted. Everything was put into place and we knew that it was approaching but it’s still—it was hard. I think I had a very difficult time because I worked with my dad and I was proud to work with him. He would come on all the funerals with me and it was nice because he would always step back. He would let me take the rein and stuff and I always felt like wow, you know, thanks Dad, for doing that.

We had a friend of ours who’s a director. He directed the funeral because obviously we weren’t directing, but I said the final prayers at the casket and then at the cemetery there’s a special song that my dad taught me, part of the Polish service and it’s called—in English it’s called the Angelis, but in Polish it’s called the Aniol Pański and it’s the story of when Angel Gabriel came down to Mary to tell her that she would be carrying the son of God. There’s three verses of it and in between it’s the Hail Mary song, and he says, he goes, “This you must sing at every funeral, Polish funeral,” so I sang that at the cemetery at Resurrection Mausoleum.

WAILIN: The job of a funeral director requires organization, salesmanship and the ability to handle fast-moving logistics, all while dealing with grief-stricken clients who are spending potentially thousands of dollars during a vulnerable time. David Nixon, a funeral home consultant based in Springfield, Illinois, says over 80 percent of funeral homes are family-owned.

DAVID NIXON: Frankly, for many, especially smaller funeral homes, it’s a 24/7, 365 job. If someone passes away in the middle of the night, they have to be able to take care of that, to go to the hospital or go to the home and pick up the loved one and take them to the funeral home and prepare them. Many of the younger generation saw the sacrifices. And there were sacrifices: family get-togethers that they were called away on, holidays that they missed and they don’t want to be in that role. It takes that special kind of person to deal with death on a daily basis and to deal with all the nuances involved and so it’s almost like a religious calling for some.

WAILIN: These days, as people move further away from the places where they grew up, finding new clients is a challenge. Claudette’s hosted events at the suburban location to draw in people from the community, like a yearly holiday remembrance service that’s open to the public. But most of the funeral home’s marketing has moved online.

CHARMAINE: When you think back years ago, where you were in a neighborhood, where people could walk to your place and everybody would go to their neighborhood funeral home, that was your marketing. You joined the clubs, you joined the various organizations and you met your people there.

CLAUDETTE: It’s challenging now because first of all, people don’t go to church that much anymore. So you’re advertising in church bulletins—it’s going to the same people all the time, so you’re not really gaining new customers. The Elks, the Moose Clubs and everything, they’re all suffering. So we’ve had to kind of reinvent the way we meet people. Social marketing is really, you know, where it is, so making sure that you’re present on all of them: Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, Google.

CHARMAINE: That was hard for me when my daughter told me, “That’s what we’re gonna do.” I says, “Nobody’s gonna Google us and come to us through a Google, you know.” But believe it or not, some do. I can count like on two hands already how many funeral arrangements we’ve made via the computer and I have not met the family yet.

WAILIN: David Nixon, the funeral home consultant, said the industry is expecting a huge increase in the number of deaths between now and 2050 as the Baby Boomer generation passes away. Given current trends, most of them will probably be cremated, which only generates about half the revenue of a burial. But there’s still going to be a big need for funeral services in the coming decades, which means businesses like Zarzycki Manor Chapels have to be prepared — whether it means encouraging people to pre-plan their funerals, or just being visible so customers can find them.

CLAUDETTE: We don’t go out there and market people and we don’t force people to do it and everything. People got to do it on their own time. It takes a lot of courage for somebody to call me on the telephone or to walk in the door and they say, “I want to plan my funeral.” It takes a lot of courage for somebody to do that because it’s like the last, the last thing that you can do. But as I tell a lot of people, you prepare for to get married. You prepare to have a baby. You prepare for those children to go to college. And what’s the big one that you hear all the time on the news and on the radio and on the TV commercials? Is prepare for retirement. I can’t tell you how many people that I have serviced that have never made it to retirement. They have never collected their first Social Security check or they never saw their daughter walk down the aisle or their first grandchild, and it’s, it’s inevitable.

WAILIN: Four generations of Zarzyckis have answered the doorbell or phone in the middle of the night, comforted grieving clients and led roomfuls of mourners in the Hail Mary in Polish. Charmaine was a schoolteacher who spent a year in Japan before becoming a funeral director, and Claudette left a corporate marketing job where she visited brand new hotels around the US and the Caribbean. But neither of those professions had the same pull as funeral directing.

CHARMAINE: I love this job. I love it and um I don’t think I would ever go back to teaching after all the years I spent here.

CLAUDETTE: I don’t look back. I love dealing with the people, meeting new people, I love helping people in a very sad situation and guiding them through it. It’s fun. It’s not something that probably anybody would like to say, that you think “Wow, being a funeral director is fun,” but it is. It’s a pleasure to be able to help somebody in such a very sad time in their life and be able to somehow get them through the next week or the next couple of weeks to help them to move on.

WAILIN: The Distance is produced by Shaun Hildner and me, Wailin Wong. Our illustrations are by Nate Otto. You can sign up for our newsletter and find old episodes at thedistance.com, and you can also follow us on Twitter at @distancemag, that’s @distancemag. And if you could take a second to rate and review us on iTunes, that would be amazing. The Distance is a production of Basecamp, the app for helping small business owners stay in control of projects and reduce email clutter. Try Basecamp free for 30 days at basecamp.com/thedistance.