Mohnke Funeral Home celebrates 100 years in operation

COMMUNITY SERVICE:  Mohnke Funeral Home owner Mike Mohnke and Manager Jack Frizzel have more than 75 years of combined experience in funeral homes. This year marks the business at the corner of Warren and Elm streets' 100th year of operation.  (Pioneer photo/Adam Gac)

COMMUNITY SERVICE: Mohnke Funeral Home owner Mike Mohnke and Manager Jack Frizzel have more than 75 years of combined experience in funeral homes. This year marks the business at the corner of Warren and Elm streets’ 100th year of operation. (Pioneer photo/Adam Gac)

BIG RAPIDS — Like Ferris State University, the Mohnke Funeral Home has changed locations and names a number of times, and both are staples of life in Big Rapids. This year, the Big Rapids business celebrates 100 years in operation.

The business began in 1916 at the corner of Michigan Avenue and Maple Street as the Wagner Funeral Home and Furniture Store. In 1929, owner Irving Wagner moved the business to the present location at the corner of Warren and Elm streets. At that time, it was the largest building designated as a funeral home between Grand Rapids and Traverse City.

This year also marks the 30th anniversary of owner Mike Mohnke’s graduation from the school of Mortuary Science at Wayne State University, but Mohnke has worked in the funeral home since he was a boy.

“I graduated from Big Rapids High School in 1978. I didn’t want to work with my dad at first because I had been forced to work here in high school,” he said. “I was like a lot of kids who worked for their dad; I had to mow the lawn on Saturdays before I could go play baseball with my friends.”

Mohnke’s father Ron also started in the funeral home business by mowing lawns and trimming hedges. In January of 1955, he started work at a funeral home in St. Johns. Ron intended to work at the job as a way to save money for attending seminary after finishing his senior year of high school.

In May of 1955, a lightning strike killed Ron’s father and brother, leaving him responsible for his widowed mother and younger siblings. The director of the St. Johns funeral home became a mentor to Ron and led him to pursue a different calling helping others deal with the realities of death and dying.

“My dad decided to become a funeral director because of the compassion a local funeral director showed him,” Mike said.

The lightning strike in May, 1955, is not the first time a strange coincidence has played a role in the history of Mohnke Funeral Home. In 1942, Harry Rogers began making arrangements to purchase the business from Wagner, before the sale could be completed, Rogers was drafted into WWII – but that’s not the coincidence.

Rogers was released from his service in 1945. Within weeks of his return, Wagner was killed while on an ambulance run.

“Funeral directors were the original ambulance drivers,” Mike said. “Back then you would get there, do everything you could to stop the bleeding and drive like heck to the hospital. Irving was killed driving the ambulance on old U.S. 131 near Stanwood.”

Rogers completed the purchase of the funeral home through Wagner’s widow. In 1972, Ron entered a partnership with Rogers and in 1979; he became the sole owner of the business.

In 1996, Mike bought the funeral home from his father, who remained active in the business until his death in 2010. A funeral home passing from father to son is not uncommon, Mike said.

“This industry is pretty family-oriented. Not too many kids say I want to be a funeral director when I grow up unless they know somebody in the business,” he said.

Growing up in Big Rapids and being part of the community for so long helps Mike serve the people of Mecosta County, he said.

“Between me and our manager Jack Frizzel, who also graduated from Big Rapids High School, we know the majority of the families we deal with. They call us because they know us,” he said. “With the nature of the business – death and dying – being an uncomfortable time, I know a lot more people feel comfortable being able to call me by name – Really knowing their funeral director, instead of pulling a name out of the yellow pages.”

Being a part of the community for so long also has challenges.

“It’s getting more difficult for me as I get older because I do know so many people,” Mike said. “When I started in this business, it was the grandparents of my friends who were having funerals. Last year, I buried two friends I graduated high school with and this year I’ve had a few sons of friends.

“It gets tough because of that, but on the same token I feel blessed because I know the families here and I can serve them. I feel it’s a calling. I would have a tough time being a funeral director in a big city where it’s a 9 to 5 assembly line job,” he said.

Frizzel has been a part of the Mohnke Funeral Home since 2009. Between he and Mike, there are more than 75 years of funerary experience.

“One of the reasons I wanted to move back is because I enjoy working and providing a service in a community where I know the people. We meet 100 families or more every year,” he said.

The funeral home business changed over time, but it continues to play an important role in the community and in helping families grieve, Frizzel said.

“When I started in the 1960s more than 99 percent of funerals were burials. Now cremation rates are up to about 50 percent, that’s probably been the biggest change in the industry,” he said. “Interaction with families at a time when they are grieving hasn’t changed much, they still need direction and that’s what our goal is: to provide that direction and options to the families so they can tell us what they want and then we do what they ask.”

The options available for services continue to expand, Frizzel said.

“Way back when the choices were very small, you pick out a casket, you pick out a cemetery. Today, we don’t know when we get the call until we have the opportunity to sit down with the family the service they want us to provide,” he said.

Mike and Frizzel agree it’s important for a funeral home to embrace change in order to help the community as much as possible. The pair look forward to serving the community for years to come.

“Our hope is that we will still be here, we will change as peoples wishes change,” Frizzel said.

“The community has supported Mohnke Funeral Home for 100 years and I’m obligated to the community as well,” Mike said. “There will always be a need for funeral services; we hope it’s us who provides them.”

 

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Posted by Adam Gac

Adam is the Pioneer City/County Reporter, covering government in Mecosta County. He can be reached by e-mail at agac@pioneergroup.com or by phone at (231) 592-8347.

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