Jon Stevenson remembers coming to the Mischel-Olson Funeral Home as a child.
His father, Dale, was a funeral director in Miles City, Mont., and they would sometimes visit Dickinson and his friend, Marlin Olson, one of the owners.
“We’d get together and tromp through the funeral home, never knowing one day I’d end up living here and purchasing that,” Jon said with a smile.
In 2000, Jon and Marlys Stevenson expanded their business from Baker, Mont., and bought the funeral home in downtown Dickinson. Within a decade, the building had become too small for the Stevensons’ needs, Jon said.
Their son, Nic, had joined the business in 2005 and the family had hired more funeral directors to fill the business’s needs. Eventually, the Stevensons began to wonder what their next step should be.
In September, the Stevensons took that step when they moved into a 20,000 square-foot funeral home at 2067 First St. W. The old building, which had stood since 1957, was purchased by Charbonneau Car Center for a new lot and was razed in November.
“We always looked at opportunities to expand our existing building or what we needed to do to grow,” Nic said.
Designing for the future
The road to the new building began with customer surveys, Jon said. They learned patrons wanted a larger facility, and more bathrooms and parking. The building’s handicap accessibility was also soon likely to become an issue, he said.
“As we prayed about it and as we looked to the future, we recognized the need that we have to do something different here,” Jon said.
In 2010, the Stevensons began consulting with Nic’s brother-in-law, Dave Mitchell of CTA Architects in Kalispell, Mont., about whether they should redesign the old facility or building a new one.
Mitchell asked for a detailed description of the Stevensons’ vision for a new building. Jon smiled as he said the description turned out to be more than 30 pages. He said Mitchell wanted them to describe why they wanted one room next to another, and why each area of the building was necessary. In the end, it was worth the work and planning, Jon said.
Including Jon and Nick, Stevenson Funeral Home employs five full-time funeral directors — two of whom are interns — and four full-time staff members. Employee needs and the needs of the families they serve factored into the building’s design. There are two consultation rooms, a large carport to use during services, a double garage for storage, and hallway passages between rooms and the building’s large lab and chapels, which allow for family privacy.
The new funeral home is designed with a flow that allows the Stevensons and their funeral directors to hold a service at one of the chapels in the front of the facility while they consult with families who have just lost a loved one and others who are planning for a funeral — all while neither disturbs the other.
“It’s always the worry when you go to the funeral home — what am I going to see?” Nic said. “We really wanted to keep our public area and also our work area, where we could get things set up and not have to intrude on anyone until they’re ready to take that step.”
Like most aspects of life today, funeral services have become more personalized, the Stevensons said.
In a back room of Stevenson Funeral Home, much like any other funeral home in America, walls are lined with display caskets. They come in all colors and in multiple designs — there’s even a purple casket for Minnesota Vikings fans — with interchangeable accents to personalize the life of the recently departed. Jon said the personalization is about “leaving a legacy of what your life represented.”
“By having these choices and options, you just know that every legacy is different,” he said. “No two people are the same. We take each family’s ideas of what they have given us and try to conform to something unique.”
Next to that room is one dedicated solely to those whose loved ones chose to be cremated, a growing trend throughout the country, the Stevensons said. Nic estimates about 20 percent of their business is cremations, which they perform at the funeral home — sometimes on the same day as the funeral.
Travis Toews, a funeral director with Stevensons and Jon’s second cousin, said he appreciates working for a forward-thinking funeral home.
“I think that’s very important in the industry to be progressive with technology and creativity and providing meaningful services — plus the personal nature they give,” Toews said.
Even the design of the new building is meant to keep pace with how people hold funerals for loved ones.
“The changing of the funeral business is kind of to where they want a one-stop place,” Jon said.
He said more people often ask to keep the services out of churches in favor of a personalized service at the funeral home, completed with catered lunches and prayer services tailored to their loved one.
“We saw a larger need to have a facility to host the funerals in, whether that’s fewer people having a church affiliation or just wanting their service to be less formal and have it at a chapel where there’d be a more laidback atmosphere to it,” Nic said.
It’s why Stevensons’ new building not only includes a fellowship room with seating for 125, but a facility meant to be more inviting and hospitable than typical funeral homes. It’s brighter, homier and more welcoming with a brick fireplace and large areas for fellowship.
“The space in the entry allows people to feel like they don’t have to just leave right away,” Toews.
One of Stevensons’ two 240-seat chapels has three large, tinted windows that Jon said wasn’t initially meant to be included in the building but has proved to be well received.
“Most of the families, when given a choice which chapel, will choose the chapel with windows,” he said.
The two large chapels — there also is a small chapel used primarily for family viewings — can be combined into one and include two 70-inch TVs, areas for people to display photos and items that belonged to their departed loved one. Nic said the chapels even have the ability to record the service on DVDs and stream it over the Internet, which families often choose so those who could not be at the service have a way of seeing it.
“We’ve had several funerals that have webcasted across the country,” Jon said.
Faith for families
While funeral services are much different now than they were years ago, the Stevensons said faith remains the one constant, whether it’s their own or that of the families they serve.
Jon said funeral directors — regardless of their religion — use faith to help families deal with grief and, in turn, their own struggles in constantly helping the grieving through difficult times.
“If they’re strong and know what their belief means, it helps them work with the family and get them through it,” Jon said. “If they’re very sound based in their belief, in their religion, we feel that’s a strong attribute.”
Nic added that having the opportunity to serve families and be part of the ministry to them is a welcome part of the job.
“Some of the darkest days people will ever face are when they’re with us through the challenging times,” he said. “So if we can be a little bit of help or guidance, or provide a little bit of hope for them through, that is what we hope to do.”