Duane Heit is a man who attends to details. Halfway between Calmar and Cresco, the bike path runs through a park in Ridgeway. “Are you Paul?” A man sitting in a folding chair reading a Bible on the edge of the park called out as I passed. I stopped, affirmed, and he introduced himself. “I spent the day hiking east of here and just wanted to make sure you were on the right track.” Duane proceeded to Cresco in his car while I continued on my bike. When I arrived at his house, he was fully prepared to make my stay as his warmshowers guest a good one.
Duane and I are kindred spirits in being the same age (60), gay, and longtime single men, though Duane never had children and has stayed closer to home than me. He was born 31 miles south of Cresco and has spent most of his life in Eastern Iowa. Duane was a mortician in Lansing, IA most of his career, but that position ended four years ago, so he moved to Cresco, bought a solid house for $40,000 and joined a local mortuary practice where he hopes to retire in five years.
Duane indulged his wanderlust in 1998, when he took a year off and traversed the globe, trekking in India, South Africa, and Europe. His study is full of memorabilia from that period that still lives large in his psyche. Hearing Duane’s stories made me realize that I am in the middle of my own version of his yearlong adventure. More recently Duane’s adventures have been shorter but more intense; he rides ultra marathons, cycling over 200 miles in a single day.
I know little about the mortuary business and was fascinated by Duane’s perspective. “The funeral business has changed in many ways. Twenty years ago we offered standard burial packages and services usually took place shortly after someone died. Baby boomers are not interested in traditional funerals; everything is a la carte now and they price shop for what they want. The only thing that a funeral home must do by law is embalming; families can do almost everything themselves if they want.
“Take obituaries. They used to be cut and dry, formulaic. Newspapers had a flat dollar amount for an obit. Now, the paper will print by the word and families want to add all sorts of information, but it gets complicated. Who are grandchildren? Do we include names from past marriages? Do we use women’s professional or married names? All of these issues come up and have to be resolved in a short timeframe.”
I suggest that it is made more difficult during a period of family stress. “Not at all. Most of our clientele are wonderful, but the people who give us a hard time are the same people who give the plumber and the electrician a hard time. Demanding people are demanding in any situation.”
One of the biggest changes in the funeral business is the move away from having services and burial shortly after a person dies. “It used to be that somebody dies and your life stopped to address that. Now, it’s a big inconvenience. Some funerals are ten to fourteen days after people died. I have had services scheduled around children’s soccer games. People want 24/7 service; technology creates high expectations for convenience.” Duane speaks from experience; his typical schedule is Monday through Friday 8 to 5 plus 19 days on-call, after which he gets two days off.
How will we live tomorrow?
“Personally, I hope to retire within five years. I would like to move where it’s warmer; the Iowa winters get harder all the time. I won’t be able to afford to live in Florida or even Phoenix, which I like very much. I will be content to settle in Arkansas or even Southern Missouri.”