Archive for Thursday, July 7, 2005

A family-first endeavor

Loved ones provide outlet for job rigor

July 7, 2005

"The longer you do what we do, the harder it's going to become."

The phrase above dates back to 1908. The words reverberate today and are just as relevant for the Alden-Harrington and Sons Funeral Home as they were when founder Benjamin Franklin Alden handed down the wisdom nearly a century ago. On this day, June 9, they are especially pertinent to the funeral home's caretakers -- father John and sons Jeff and Brad.

While they're working, they're also saying goodbye to an old family friend.

Robert A. Foster of Bonner Springs, known best as "Butch," lay peacefully in a coffin at the New Light Baptist Church. Foster, a town patriarch who dedicated himself to generations of children by coaching youth league baseball, was taken early from this world; he died at 59 years old.

A chorus of prayers and hymns, said and sung as if whispered by angels from heaven, echoed throughout the church as numerous family and friends paid their last respects.

The Harringtons, Foster's neighbors for 25 years and the architects of the day's arrangements, were among them. While distraught at losing such a close, longtime friend, the Harringtons keep the same face of stoic professionalism throughout the service.

They'll have their own time to grieve. Right now, they have a job to do and that job is to "keep their game faces on."

Such is the tightrope the family that is as entrenched as any in Bonner Springs and Basehor must walk in their chosen profession. And, true to the ethos handed down from their funeral home forefathers, the longer they do it, the harder it becomes.

"When you're in a small community . . . you're burying your friends," said Jeff Harrington, a Bonner Springs resident. "It's more common that you've known them than not. Some of those services are hard in which you've known someone who's passed."

"You have to step outside yourself, put your own emotions aside and do your best to help (the family)," said Brad Harrington, his brother, who lives in Basehor.

Being constantly surrounded by death, and the emotions that come with it, isn't easy, no matter how long you've dealt with it. The remedy is learning to understand it and deal with it on your own terms, the elder Harrington, John, said.

"We see them at their most emotional, traumatic times of their lives," he said.

"You learn not to take it home with you."

The funeral home business is a constant whirlwind, the Harringtons said. Each service takes an average of 72 hours to coordinate. Sometimes, the business will see as many as five services in a week.

Fortunately, for the communities the Harringtons serve, the family has grown accustomed to providing the same caring manner to each grieving family. And in doing so, they use another mantra, this one provided by John, but one just as important and time-tested as the phrase dating back a century ago.

"Treat others the way you would want to be treated," he said. "All you have to do is be 100 percent and when you do that it never fails."

The men working at Alden-Harrington have become good at putting the words behind the phrase into action. Their skill and dedication hasn't gone unnoticed.

Helping say goodbye

Between the three Harringtons there's more than 70 years of experience in conducting funeral services; the family has a deep well of recollections to draw from.

However, within recent years alone, they have orchestrated services that range from the heartwarming to the heart-wrenching.

Based on the reactions from friends and family of those left behind, it's easy to understand the valuable role the business plays in the local communities.

In August 2004, the Harringtons helped with the service for the late Jerry Manford, a Basehor resident who'd succumbed to ALS or Lou Gehrig's disease. The service, though somber, mirrored Manford's gregarious personality: phrases such as "return to sender" and "express mail" were etched into his coffin and, agreeable to his wishes, a moonwalk and pony rides were available following the church service.

Manford's widow, Dianna, said the caring, diligent work of the Harringtons brought her late husband's wishes to reality.

"They went over and beyond the call of duty," Dianna Manford said. "Whatever we wanted they were willing to do. They put all the extra touches on it. It couldn't have been easy, but they just knew it was Jerry's wish and they went along with it.

"After the funeral was over, I was watching the kids play on the moonwalk and ride on the pony and I said, 'this is exactly what Jerry would have wanted.'"

Jerry Manford, who had known for months that he'd eventually lose his battle with ALS, had seen his fate coming and made peace with it. Joseph and Frances Brandenburg, an elderly couple from Basehor, weren't so fortunate.

Their passing, like so many, occurred at the blink of an eye.

They died in January when their car was struck by a dump truck on U.S. Highway 24/40. Jeff and Brad were called to the crash site to remove the body. Both men had to crawl into a mud-caked ditch to recover the couple.

Joseph Brandenburg's son, Joe, Jr., said the Harrington brothers treated his parents like they were their own.

"They were very respectful," Brandenburg said. "They got into the mud, almost up to their knees. They were very, very respectful. They treated them like family. I can't think of a better way to say it."

Perhaps more so than anyone, the Harringtons understand that death is a fate that occurs without notice. It certainly did for the late Jared Moore, a 19-year-old firefighter from Basehor.

During a memorial service for Moore in Kansas City, Kan., a heavy-hearted crowd at Savior of the World was moved to tears during a video tribute to the teen-age volunteer.

The Harringtons produced the video tribute. They also produced a large portrait of Moore and offered his parents a wooden case for his American flag. They offered the service to the Moore family at a reasonable rate -- they did it for free.

"It was absolutely wonderful," Jared's father, Patrick Moore said. "We really appreciated them doing it. In fact, they did it for free. We had never even met them before that."

Gestures such as those for the Moore family are what separates Alden-Harrington from other funeral homes, especially today as larger corporate-run funeral homes are squeezing out well-established family operations.

If history is any indicator, the funeral home will be in business for quite some time.

Family plots: A history

Through a tragedy more than nine decades ago, the seeds of today's funeral home were born.

In Sept. 1908, Benjamin Franklin Alden, and his wife, Laura Dubois Alden, established a funeral business in Bonner Springs. Mr. Alden took interest in the business after he was called upon to aid a Kansas City man in tending to a neighbor who committed suicide.

At the time, Bonner Springs' population was approximately 900 residents. Indian tribes -- Wyandotte, Delaware, Pottawatomie and Shawnee among others -- camped in Bonner Springs, which was advertised by then-mayor Philo M. Clark as the Kansas Carlsbad, because they claimed its mineral waters cured ills not affected by their medicine men.

The cleansing waters, however, didn't save everyone. Generations of Alden and Harrington family members found employment in giving the town's fallen a proper sendoff and respectfully tending to their loved ones left behind.

The first location of the funeral home was a white brick building at the corner of Cedar and Front streets. In 1924, it moved to 117 Oak Street and 13 years later, moved again, to a new building at the business's current location, 214 Oak Street.

The new building served the community in every facet and was improved through renovation in 1956. A new selection room, preparation room, living quarters and covered drive were added.

Its appearance in 1956, following the renovation, was much the same as it is now.

The Harringtons said their business, and other family-owned operations, offer elements of service corporations can't.

"There's a big group of conglomerates in our business today," Jeff Harrington said. "The family-owned funeral home offers that personal touch that a big corporation couldn't do."

"If it's legal, we'll get it done," Brad Harrington added. "Whatever it takes to get it done, that's what it takes to get it done."

It's that personal touch, more than anything, that people have come to expect from Alden-Harrington and which they can continue to expect in the future.

"More of the same," Jeff said. "Things haven't changed that much in the last 100 years."

Signs of respect

It's a cool March afternoon as Jeff climbs into a black 2005 Cadillac hearse. He's leading the funeral procession to the National Cemetery in Leavenworth. The body of Kenneth Cline lies peacefully in the back, his casket draped by an American flag.

As the car turns slowly onto Nettleton Avenue, oncoming traffic parts like leaves in a windstorm. Exiting Nettleton onto Kansas Highway 7, the hearse accelerates, but only slightly. The speedometer never tops 50 miles per hour and Jeff never turns on the radio.

At a traffic light at K-7 and Kansas Avenue, a Bonner Springs police officer stops traffic to make way for the funeral procession. Jeff says the police officer did so without a request from the funeral home.

Signs of respect for the dead are everywhere. Alden-Harrington's handlers say funerals are more for the families than they are for the deceased, but that doesn't mean respect for the dead isn't placed at a high premium.

"We like the families to know they're loved ones are cared for the entire time," Jeff said.

"You should show an individual as much respect in death as you do in life," John said.

When families distraught by tragedy come to Alden-Harrington, the business's handlers take over. They do their best to comply with the families' wishes. In short, they say to the bereaved loved ones, "we'll take care of anything you want" and "don't worry about anything. . . .we'll take care of it from here on out."

At the National Cemetery, thousands of white headstones line the plush green acreage like crops in a field. Cline will be buried with full military honors. The Harringtons stay with the casket until it is retrieved by military officials and placed inside a nearby chapel.

After the chapel service, Cline is transported to his final resting place. His casket will be placed in the ground with the head pointing toward the west, so he's facing the resurrection of the Lord.

From the first call from the family to Cline's committal, the Harringtons are there. Their job ends only after internment. On this day, gunshots from the military salute ring throughout the cemetery. Soon, the Harringtons will leave knowing that someday they'll be back for another service.

'Couldn't do it without family'

Over the years, the men from Alden-Harrington have buried children and the elderly, rich and poor, strangers and best friends. They've tended to the families of friends as well as their own relatives.

The stress of the funeral business is grueling -- as the Harringtons said "if your in town, your on call" -- and many in the profession don't last long.

"You get up as early as you need to and work as late as you have to," Jeff Harrington said. "You just never know. You're called out of birthday parties, T-ball games. . . you just never know."

The Harringtons have staying power because of the best support system they know: family.

"Sometimes it does get hard, but we gather our strength from our family," Brad Harrington said. "We couldn't do it without family."

"We don't take things for granted," John Harrington said. "We deal with reality 101 on a daily basis."

Family, it seems, is always there when you need it most, Jeff Harrington said. On a particularly rough day, it's reassuring to come home to hugs.

"You come home sometimes and you think 'oh, my gosh, how did they know I needed that,'" he said. "Hugs can go a long, long ways."

Commenting has been disabled for this item.