Traditional funeral home could go out of business

By Jeff Strickler
Minneapolis, Minnesota (AP) 3-08

Until two years ago, the Rev. Claudia Windal, an Episcopal priest, never even thought about using her spare time to open a funeral home. Now her life is consumed with thoughts about how to keep it from going out of business.

A Lakota, who didn’t know about her roots until she was an adult, Windal, 58, went back to school to study mortuary science when she realized that it was the best way to provide funerals for people of little means. Fourteen months ago, she opened Oyate Tawicohan (Way of the People) Funeral Home in Minneapolis, the state’s only Native American-owned mortuary, and while she does offer traditional Indian burials, her business serves anyone who can’t afford to go elsewhere.

“I lose money on every burial. People keep telling me I’m crazy, and some days I’m this close to believing them,” she said with a chuckle, holding up a barely separated thumb and forefinger.

She isn’t verging on bankruptcy because of negative cash flow on the funerals. She planned on that. What she didn’t plan on was bad plumbing, which flooded her business and ruined the four apartments that are part of the building.

“The loan with the bank was predicated on renting those apartments to pay the mortgage on the building,” she said. “Plumbing that wasn’t up to code broke and flooded the whole place. I’ve repaired the funeral home, but I don’t have enough money to repair the apartments. And all the bank keeps saying is, ‘Foreclosure, foreclosure.”’

Whatever money she can scrape together goes to help the families of her clients. The ultra-basic, no-frills funeral costs about $2,000, of which “Hennepin County provides a walloping $930” for people on welfare, Windal said. She makes up the difference, either through donations or on her own, even offering gas vouchers for mourners who can’t afford to travel to the funerals.

Windal’s biggest gripe about public-aid funerals is with the recommendation of a cardboard casket. “I refuse to do that,” she said, her voice taking on an angry edge. “Everyone who sees it says, ‘Ah, a welfare casket.’ We deserve better than that.”

Unless there’s no other way around it, she uses wooden caskets. “They’re cremation caskets,” she said. “They’re not fancy, but at least they’re wood: plywood with a pine or oak veneer; I prefer the look of the oak. The handles don’t move because they aren’t designed to be carried to a grave, but you can adjust them a little bit. And you can raise the head” for the visitation.

Windal has an eclectic background, to say the least. A former Roman Catholic nun, she has degrees in divinity, psychology, nursing and, now, mortuary science.

She grew up in “a very Roman Catholic environment” in Chicago, and joined the Sisters of St. Francis in Dubuque right after high school.

“I’ve been with her when she has assisted people,” said Sister Theresa Westrich, a Dubuque Franciscan. “She really listens to people. She really gets involved.”

Windal left the order after seven years when she learned that the Episcopalians had started ordaining women as deacons. “I figured that women being ordained as priests couldn’t be far behind, and it wasn’t,” she said. It helped that the Episcopal church has its liturgical roots in Roman Catholic tradition.

Her journey toward becoming a funeral director started with a plea for help.

“An elder at Red Lake called me,” she recalled. “One of her cousins had died in Chicago, and they couldn’t afford to have the body shipped home. So I rented a van, and the two of us drove to Chicago and carried it back. When we got done, she said, ‘Now you must do this for our people.”’

Word quickly spread of her willingness to help. “Sometimes it was just to go to the Amtrak station to pick up the body,” she said. “Once you’ve seen them unload a body bag with a forklift, well, let’s just say I wouldn’t want to watch that if it was my mother.”

People kept asking if there were some way she could help reduce the funeral expenses, “and I finally realized that I would never be able to really do that unless I became a mortician. So I went to the University of Minnesota, saw an embalming class and said, ‘Forget it. There’s no way I’m ever doing that.”’

But six months later she screwed up her courage and enrolled. Between her degrees in nursing and psychology, “I’d already taken most of the classes that were required,” she said. “In fact, all I really needed to learn was the embalming.”

Her funeral home is tiny. It consists of an office, a small display space for the coffins and, behind a closed door, the embalming room. It has no area for holding a visitation or funeral, but St. James on the Parkway, where she serves as a priest in residence, is just down the street, and she can use the church for free.

“Drum groups are welcome at St. James. They even provide a place for a meal after the funeral. The (mourners) have to set everything up and clean it afterwards, but they should do that, anyway. It is our tradition,” Windal said.

The Rev. Theo Park, rector at St. James, said the church is glad to make the space available: “We’re not a deep-pocket congregation, so this is our way of participating. We feel very strongly about her and the work she’s doing.”

Besides worrying about staying in business, Windal frets about graves. The $2,000 per funeral cost doesn’t include the grave, which in the Twin Cities starts at about $2,200. The Episcopal Diocese of Minnesota donated a number of graves in Sunset Memorial Park, but those are almost all gone.

So she asks people to donate graves, which isn’t that unusual, she said. With cremation becoming more popular, people end up with graves they don’t use. Windal’s problem is how to connect with them.

“She’s a special person,” said Timm Schnabel, funeral director at Kozlak-Radulovich Funeral Chapel in Minneapolis, where Windal served her internship. “I give her credit for focusing on a very specific group, a very special part of the community that has never had a Native American funeral director before. She’s trying to help that part of the community.”

She didn’t know she was part of that community until she started noodling around in her family tree and discovered that her father had Lakota blood. “My dad’s middle name was Snow, but I never really thought much about that being an unusual name,” she said. “Once I had the resources, I started sorting through my ancestry.”

Her background enables her to conduct a Christian, Native American or any other kind of funeral. Native American funerals are very hands-on, she said.

“The members of the family help dress the body and fix the hair. And I tell the cemeteries that we don’t need their golf course; you know, the rug of artificial grass they use to cover the pile of dirt. We’ll deal with the dirt. In fact, I often get into the grave and help plant the body.”

She cringes when she hears about $30,000 funerals.

“That’s $25,000 wasted,” she said. “Give it to Mom when she’s still alive. Don’t bury it.”