A tale of two funeral homes

Published In:
Community Observer, Date Unknown,
Unknown

Author: Grace Shackman

Spite spurred a rivalry that still benefits Chelsea

Chelsea is fortunate that an undertaker's twenty-one-year-old son beat Frank Glazier in the 1893 vote for village president. Otherwise, the town wouldn't have its two respected family-owned funeral homes, Cole and Staffan-Mitchell. Glazier, who later become Michigan state treasurer and Chelsea's most famous business and civic leader, was so enraged at losing to George P. Staffan that he convinced Samuel Mapes, a relative, to give up a successful steam laundry and start an undertaking firm to compete with the Staffan family's.

In the nineteenth century, caskets were made by local carpenters—a number of whom, including Frank Staffan, ended up in the funeral business. Staffan arrived in Michigan in 1847 at age fifteen from Alsace-Lorraine and built many of Chelsea's important buildings, including the township hall, two churches, and many of the downtown shops, using skilled stonemasons from the Eisele and Eder families, whom he had summoned from his native land.

Staffan and his wife, Lena, and their six children lived at 705 South Main and ran their contracting and funeral businesses from their home, as was the custom in those days. Their house still stands, although the stables, a storage building for the carriages and hearses, and the workshop are long gone.

A Democrat, Staffan served on the village council and the township highway and drain commissions. His political involvement, successful businesses, and relationship by marriage to prominent local families such as the McKunes and Keusches made him and his family a threat to Glazier, a Republican businessman with lofty political ambitions. By 1898, at Glazier's urging, Mapes had set up his rival undertaking business right behind Glazier's drugstore at the northwest corner of Main and Middle.

In 1906, however. Glazier undermined his own desire to drive the Staffans out of business when he donated land and money for a Methodist old age home. From that time on, there was plenty of business for both funeral homes, and their rivalry was gradually replaced by mutual respect.

When Frank Staffan died in 1915, the business passed to his son, George P. Staffan—the man who'd beaten Frank Glazier for village president more than twenty years earlier. George P. moved the funeral business to a second-floor spot above a tavern on Main Street, using the space to display caskets and to store equipment for funerals. He made his own embalming fluid, which he sold to other undertakers.

George P.'s son, George L. Staffan, is still active in community affairs at ninety-two. George L. remembers the days when funerals were held in the deceased's home. People usually hung a wreath, called a "door badge," to let people know there was a death in the family. His father would bring a folding couch to the home to embalm the body. The family would pick out a casket, and the Staffans would deliver it to the home. Mourners often put potted palms and a screen around the casket. The Staffans would bring a portable organ and folding chairs for the funeral service.

In the early 1920s the Staffan family moved to a big house at 124 Park that had belonged to a doctor. The former examining room on the side of the house was turned into the funeral office. In 1930 the office was torn down and replaced with a chapel, since by then many people wanted funerals outside the home.

For a time the Staffans also ran an ambulance service, using a converted sedan and their hearses. They often had runs out to the three-lane highway between Jackson and Ann Arbor, where the shared passing lane caused frequent accidents.

George L. Staffan took over the business in 1950 after his father's death. In 1981 he sold it to John and Gloria Mitchell, who had run funeral homes in East Lansing and Rochester. Staffan offered to buy it back if the new owners didn't click with Chelsea, but his generosity proved unnecessary—Gloria Mitchell became so involved in local service projects that she was named the village's citizen of the year in 1997.

The funeral business Frank Glazier instigated also flourished. In 1906 the Mapeses moved to a house at 214 East Middle, using the downstairs for offices and the upstairs for living quarters. A succession of owners sold the funeral business to younger partners—Bruce Plankell, Martin Miller, and Lou Burghardt. In 1977 Burghardt sold it to Don Cole. Cole's son, Alan, and Alan's wife, Wendy, have operated the Cole Funeral Home since 1999. They still run the business out of the house on Middle, although they don't live upstairs.

Recently the Mitchells agreed to a village request that their place be torn down for parking. Gloria Mitchell says the decision was hard, "but now we look back and wonder why the struggle." The new Staffan-Mitchell Funeral Home, less than a mile north of town, has all the latest conveniences, including sound and video systems and a children's play area. Like the founders of the business, the Mitchells live in an attached apartment. Many artifacts from earlier days were moved to the new location. A display cabinet contains such accoutrements of mourning as a vial used to catch a widow's tears, black-bordered handkerchiefs and calling cards, dull black mourning jewelry, and bottles that held George P. Staffan's embalming fluid. And in the garage is an old Staffan horse-drawn hearse. It's occasionally pressed into service, with rented horses, when customers request it.

—Grace Shackman

PHOTOS: FAMILY & HEARSE, CARINE LUTZ; STREET VIEW, COURTESY U-M BENTLEY HISTORICAL LIBRARY

Caption:The Mitchells (above) still have a horse-drawn hearse that can be used for burials, if families request. At one point the Staffan Funeral Home was in a storefront above a tavern on Main Street.