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Funeral director tells history of saying goodbye

Staff photo by Clay Schuldt Eric Warmka presented a history of funeral services, which includes vintage funeral equipment. The display included a tux belonging to former New Ulm funeral director Elmer Pollei during the 1930s and 1940s.

NEW ULM — The Brown County Historical Society’s Lunch and a Bite of History program featured a presentation on a topic as old as human civilization.

Minnesota Valley Funeral Homes general manager Eric Warmka spoke on the history of funeral services. His presentation focused on the history of funeral services in Brown County but touched on the entire history of the industry.

“I’ve always been proud of this job I did — this calling that got me into this industry,” Warmka said, “but after doing a little research on the founding fathers of the industry in Brown County, I have a new level of respect for those men.”

Warmka began the presentation by explaining funeral rites are as old as human culture and likely predate modern homo sapiens. Evidence has been found of funeral rituals beginning conducted on neanderthals.

Funeral rites are always changing, but Warmka listed five key aspects that remain the same. They all contain symbolism, community, ritual, cultural heritage and care for the deceased.

Symbolism has changed over the eras, based on religion and culture. For a time, widows would wear all black for a year after her husband’s death.

Community involvement in funerals has always been important, but Warmka said this was lost during the COVID pandemic, as large gatherings were not possible.

“No one got to be together as a community, and it showed,” Warmka said. It was one of the hardest times to be a funeral director. He said it was difficult for families to lose that community support.

In Brown County, most funeral customers came from the European tradition and are mostly based in the Christian religions. In the pioneer days, before established cemeteries, the burials would happen on the farm.

Embalming became a major component of funeral services 160 years ago. The main reason for embalming is to disinfect, prevent the spread of disease and slow down decomposition.

In the United States, it became popular during the Civil War. Early in the war, soldiers who died in battle were embalmed and returned home for burial.

At the end of the war, President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated and was himself embalmed. Thousands turned out to see Lincoln’s funeral procession and saw how well he was preserved. This gained national attention for the embalming process.

The modern funeral homes started with furniture stores. The idea is that if a business could construct furniture they could construct a coffin.

In New Ulm, the first person to advertise coffins was Charles Wagner, which is sold in his furniture store.

Louis Buenger’s furniture store was the first in the area to have a funeral parlor, a display casket room and a fully equipment morgue and chapel.

The Forster brothers opened a funeral and undertaking business in 1900. The businesses stayed in the Forster family for many years. Members of the Forster family were among the first to become licensed funeral directors.

In 1927, the Gerber-Gedstad Funeral Home of New Ulm started operating on North Broadway. Warmka said early ads for the funeral home promoted a “lady assistant” working for the parlor. The lady in question was Mrs. Ida Mae Gedstad, a local hairdresser who helped at the parlor.

Warmka said historically, the funeral directors industry was a male-dominated field, but that is changing. He said currently 80% of graduates from funeral director schools are women.

Minnesota Valley Burial Associate was founded in 1929. In 1938, Minnesota Valley purchased the home of Dr. J.H. Vogel to create a funeral home. This is near its current location today.

Warmka said Minnesota Valley started as a cooperative funeral home. This is a rarity in the funeral industry. Warmka said there are only two cooperative funeral homes in the nation. The idea is for the funeral home be a nonprofit cooperative. If the business makes a profit, the profit goes back to the families that were served that year.

Minnesota Valley maintained books documenting every funeral they held. Warmka donated the historic books documenting funerals to the BCHS for genealogy purposes.

Warmka closed by asking what will funeral services look like in the future. He said cremation was on the rise. Around 55% of Minnesota Valley’s funerals are cremations.

Warmka believed that no matter the method, it was important to have a way to say goodbye.

“There is a psychological thing since the Egyptians of saying goodbye to a person,” he said. “There is a reason we do this. There is a reason we have funerals to bring in the public to say goodbye to that person.”

He encouraged the audience to teach the next generation about the importance of funeral services and to communicate with loved ones what they want in a funeral service.

“Tell your family what things are important to you, what symbols what and what things you want to be remembered for and why we do these things,” he said.

Warmka will serve as the guest currator for a BCHS exhibit. A space on the BCHS second floor will feature antique equipment from the history of funeral services. The artifacts will be on display for the next two months.

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