Funeral home survives fire, forges ahead
An antique, carved oak desk – significantly damaged but a survivor of a catastrophic fire – is a symbol of history and renewal for an Omaha business with roots dating to the 19th century.
In October, Heafey-Hoffman-Dworak-Cutler Mortuaries and Crematory celebrated the opening of its new 28,000-square-foot funeral home at 78th and West Center Road in Omaha.
The facility stands on the same site where a Jan. 26, 2016, fire destroyed the earlier 17,000-square-foot structure, which had operated there since 1980.
And the desk, after extensive restoration, is back in the office of Tom Heafey, 88, co-owner of the mortuary and member of St. Robert Bellarmine Parish in Omaha.
It was purchased in Canada by his great-uncle, Patrick, in 1904, and is decorated with carved rosettes and other ornamentation on all sides. It was badly scorched in the fire, but the glass surface protected the desk top when the ceiling collapsed, Heafey said.
And like that desk, the firm proved strong and resilient, its owners trusting in God and building on the company’s tradition of serving both Catholic and non-Catholic families for generations.
Today’s company is the result of three mergers: the 1979 merger of Heafey and Heafey Mortuary with Leo A. Hoffman Mortuary (purchased by Bill Cutler in 1978 and operated under the Hoffman name), the 1989 merger with Dworak Mortuary and a 2006 merger with Korisko, Larkin and Staskiewicz Funeral Home.
"In the ’70s and ’80s, big corporations were buying up local funeral homes, and our family, along with Hoffman and Heafey families, didn’t want to be acquired," co-owner Cutler said, "so we all thought it would be wise to combine resources and stay in business," with the freedom to operate guided by faith.
"Faith and the funeral business work hand-in-hand. It’s about serving people – we’re not just driven by the bottom line," said Cutler, 69, a member of Christ the King Parish in Omaha.
"Our Catholic faith sustains us," Heafey said, "and we strive to keep that faith with us in how we run our business. It’s what has kept me going all these years."
EARLY OMAHA MORTUARY
Brothers Patrick and Morgan Heafey founded Heafey and Heafey Mortuary in 1882 in downtown Omaha. After also operating at two other locations, the mortuary moved in 1928 to the former Guy C. Barton mansion at 35th Avenue and Farnam Street, where it served its clients for the next 52 years, Heafey said.
"After my grandfather, Morgan J., and great uncle, Patrick C., died, the next generation took over," he said, including his father, John, and uncles Con and Morgan.
Tom Heafey’s own involvement in the business began as a youth, helping his father and uncles at the mortuary by shoveling snow, washing cars, mowing grass and performing other tasks.
When his older brother Morgan, the likely successor to the family business, was killed in a B-17 shot down over Germany late in World War II, Heafey became next in line to take over the business.
Later, while attending Creighton University, he was accepted into dental school, Heafey said, but his father and uncles began talking to him about his future, "encouraging" him to go into the funeral business. "They said, ‘you’re going to be an undertaker,’ and here I am 70 years later."
A BLESSING TO SERVE
The Cutler family’s entrance into the funeral business dates to 1850 in Indiana, and the 1901 founding of Cutler Funeral Home in Council Bluffs, Iowa, by Cutler’s great-grandfather, Lewis Cutler.
Bill Cutler also entered the funeral business at an early age, helping at his family’s Council Bluffs mortuary beginning around age 10. "It’s all I ever wanted to do from the time I was in grade school," he said.
In 1978, he bought Leo A. Hoffman Mortuary, which had operated at 24th and Dodge streets in Omaha since 1910.
"I am blessed," Cutler said. "I get to do what I love to do – it’s really not a job."
Viewing it as a vocation and a corporal work of mercy – burying the dead – Cutler said it is a privilege to serve grieving families.
"We help people at the worst time in their lives, and help them memorialize their loved ones. It’s very rewarding," he said.
"We know that when the good Lord is ready for you he takes you, and you just have to believe there’s a better place for us all to be," Cutler said. "And you can definitely see that faith in Catholic families."
Over the years, Heafey and Heafey Mortuary handled the funerals of many notable Omaha Catholics, Heafey said, including Count John Creighton, an early Omaha businessman and benefactor of Creighton University, and Father Edward Flanagan, founder of Boys Town.
After Father Flanagan died in Germany in 1948, Heafey, 18 at the time, rode along in the hearse to receive the body on the airport tarmac in Omaha.
"My dad said, ‘C’mon.’ and I said, ‘No, I have class.’ And he said, ‘C’mon, you’re going with us – this is once in a lifetime,’ so I went along, and I’m glad I did."
Due to his fame, Father Flanagan’s arrival at the airport attracted hundreds of people paying their respects, Heafey said. "I couldn’t believe how many people were there."
Father Flanagan, whose sainthood cause is being studied by the Vatican, is interred in the Dowd Memorial Chapel at Boys Town.
RECOVERING FROM THE FIRE
The 2016 fire is now another landmark in the firm’s history.
It apparently began as a small blaze in the crematory, causing falling debris to rupture a natural gas line, resulting in an explosion, Heafey said.
Cutler arrived quickly after being notified and tried with a firefighter to access and remove the bodies that were there, but smoke and a ceiling collapse hampered their efforts. Both received slight injuries.
"We worried about the bodies that were in there," Heafey said. "Families were calling the next morning but we couldn’t tell them anything."
The bodies were later recovered unharmed, Cutler said.
In the aftermath of the fire, Heafey and Cutler turned to prayer. "Everything was gone and we didn’t know if that was going to be the end," Heafey said. "It took a lot of prayers and a lot of faith, but we were determined to come back."
"We’ve been very fortunate through this whole experience," Cutler said. "Everything fell into place for us."
The mortuary was able to operate temporarily out of a former Gordman’s retail location, and now the company has a new, larger, more modern facility.
The new building features several large chapels, a large reception area, several smaller state rooms and a community room where funeral luncheons or receptions can be held.
In addition to the 78th and West Center Road location, the company operates Korisko-Larkin-Staskiewicz Mortuary at 51st and F streets and Dworak Chapel at 16th and Vinton streets, both in Omaha, and Bellevue Memorial Chapel at East 22nd Avenue and Hancock Street in Bellevue.