Burgee-Henss-Seitz Funeral Home Marks 100th Year

by Larry Krause
       HAMPDENITE HORACE BURGEE opened a funeral home in October 1899. A hundred years later, the business is still going strong, though the name of the funeral parlor has changed to Burgee-Henss-Seitz. As the family celebrates the centennial, both 4th and 5th generation Burgees and Hensses continue to operate the business.

        Lynn Burgee, the great-granddaughter of Horace, believes he originally ran a livery service business and that must have led to the funeral field. From the beginning, it was a family enterprise, as Horace, Sr., Lynn’s grandfather, got into it. He was followed by his son, Horace, Jr.--Lynn’s father--who was active in the business until his death in 1998, at age 78.

        Lynn entered the business full time in 1965, after attending Susquehanna University in Sellingsgrove, Pennsylvania, where she met Walter Henss. Though Lynn had always planned on a career in funeral services, her husband-to-be had not. In 1965 they married, and he decided to work as an employee in the Burgee business. About five years later he received his Funeral Director’s license.

       In 1987, after graduating from high school, their daughter Tracy came into the business full time. She apprenticed during the day and went to night school at what is now Catonsville Community College, which has a degree program in funeral services, a credential now required for licensure by the State of Maryland.

        For 14 years, her father, Walter Henss, taught Funeral Services in the evening at the college, while working full-time at Burgee-Henss. By the mid-1980s, the family added “Henss” to the business name. As Lynn says, “The time was right.”

        In 1988, Tracy married Mike Carpenter, who joined the funeral home a year later, after working in the computer field for a couple of years following graduation from Towson University. Like his wife, he went to Catonsville to get a degree in the field in order to obtain a Funeral Director’s license.

       In April of this year, Burgee-Henss merged with another Hampden funeral home--that of Alan Seitz. It too has been a family business that was started by his grandfather, Frank W. Seitz, in the 1920s. After World War II, Alan’s uncle, Glenn F. Seitz, joined with Frank as a funeral practitioner. In 1961 Alan entered the business, working with his grandfather, who presided over the business until his death in 1975.

       By 1970, however, Alan had branched out on his own by buying one of the four Hampden funeral homes operating at that time: Donovan’s on Roland Avenue. (The four were Chenoweth, Seitz, Alan Seitz, and Burgee-Henss). Alan ran his business independently until the merger with Burgee-Henss.

       The merging of the two family businesses has reportedly been smooth and beneficial. Mike describes the transition by saying, “Alan’s winning personality is such that hes almost become one of us.”

       CHANGES IN THE BUSINESS: Walter Henss described how death was treated a hundred years ago. A funeral home “director” then might do the embalming and then arrange for the burial; the funeral itself would be held in someone’s home. Alan Seitz added, “Often here in Hampden the deceased would be taken in the casket by way of the streetcar to the graveyard. The streetcar would be covered with flowers.” He added that many of the funeral directors would start with a pre-made casket shell and trim it with cloth.

       As time went on, Walter explained, churches got involved in funeral services. “It was with the advent of air conditioning and parking in the 1940s that today’s funeral homes came into existence,” he said. “The trade believes that funerals are less church-oriented, and so more of the viewing and services take place in funeral homes,” he added.

       Two other major changes, according to Lynn, are that there are more cremations and more people are pre-arranging funerals.

       “Our role is changing,” Mike observed. “We do more than take people to the cemetery. We are not death therapists, but we are guides by helping people to make a decision by offering many choices.”

       “After all,” Lynn noted, “we are not one’s favorite place to be, so we want to help make the best of the worst situation. Here you find a family in a fragile situation, and you want to get them through it. After all, the worst has already happened.”

       TIGHTENED REQUIREMENTS: During the 1980s, the State of Maryland tightened its requirements for a Funeral Director’s license (to be so licensed enables one to operate a funeral home, take care of cremations and embalming, and to arrange religious services, if desired). First, a prospective funeral director must earn an Associate’s Degree, requiring 72 hours of class, and complete a 2,000-hour apprenticeship. Then one must pass a test. In addition, funeral directors are now required to take 12 hours of continuing education courses every two years. These courses cover such subjects as safety seminars, religious seminars, embalming and the environment, and code changes.

        Lynn explained, “It helps us meet the needs of the family more effectively by being able to provide more for them.”

       “The State environmental and safety codes make us push a lot of paper,” Walter says, “but you know, it makes us and our employees healthier and our environment safer.”

       Alan added, “Yeah, we make fun of it, ‘Oh, we’ve got another seminar,’ but it really is for everybody’s benefit.”

       Being a funeral director is a full-time job: you have to be on call all the time. Directors are usually called to a home, hospital or nursing home to “pick up the body.” It takes two people to make the “transfer.”

        The police may need to be contacted if the cause of death is not known. When that is the case, the medical examiner’s office takes the body and performs an autopsy. After that, the funeral home gets the body for final disposition.

       Lynn mentioned that over the years they have encountered a few bodies that proved to be murder victims.

       The national average for funeral costs is $5,000. Caskets run from $495 to $7,850, with the median cost being about $2,000.

       And so, what’s it like for a husband and wife to work together in the funeral business? Lynn and Tracy point out that in their cases, compared to other dual job couples, they know what each other’s work is like: “The emotional intensity and involvement is great,” said Tracy, “so it’s wonderful the other person can understand what you’re going through.”

       Lynn and Walter were the first husband and wife in Maryland to receive a Certified Funeral Service Practitioners designation, and were among the first couples in the U.S. to do so.

       Sharing the workload makes things easier, as each person has a own major area of responsibility.

       And how does death affect funeral directors?

       Lynn says she feels gratified by what she does. “I have achieved my purpose or mission in life. If you didn’t feel this way, you wouldn’t be in this business.”

       Alan added, “We see the fragility of life more acutely.”

       “I think the most difficult cases to work with are children, but now I’m seeing peers,” said Walter. “I buried my best friend last year--it was very difficult.

       Alan responded, “We are going to see more of that.”

       And then he recalled a recent funeral. “We buried a woman who was 101 years old, and you know, her older sister was at the funeral!”

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This story was published on October 6, 1999.