They are on call 24/7.
Every time the phone rings, a family in need is on the other end.
And it is up to them to take care of their wishes in a moment of deep loss.
Death does not take a holiday and neither do the people tasked with caring for grieving families and their departed loved ones.
Positioned in a space between grief counselors, life coaches and event planners, funeral directors and embalmers occupy a special spot in the journey of life.
At the Kaiser-Corson Funeral Homes, a third-generation business with roots in Waverly, the tradition of caring for families is not just a business philosophy — it is a heartfelt mission.
Since the founding of Kaiser’s Funeral Home in 1901, originally in Monona, George J. Kaiser, the patriarch of the business, started it not as a way to sell merchandise but rather, to help families in a time of need. His wife, Else, helped him run the business.
The Kaisers moved their family and business to Waverly in 1921. Their daughter, Alida, married Reed Corson and through this union, their heir, James, was born in 1929.
James R. Corson joined his grandfather in the business in 1954.
It wasn’t until George passed away in 1961 that the name Corson was added to the shingle.
At that time, the business consisted of a funeral home, a furniture store and an ambulance service, which was discontinued in 1964, when Waverly launched its own.
In the mid-60s, James purchased the Halverson Funeral Home in Shell Rock, and a chapel in New Hartford. His wife, Edna Mae (Vosseller) Corson, who passed away on Aug. 1, 2018, at the age of 88, was very supportive of her husband’s ventures and kept the family running.
Eventually, in 1980, his three sons, Calvin, Steven and Carter all joined James in the family business, a testament to the tradition and the trust that the business had fostered in the area.
For 39 years, the brothers ran the business their great-grandfather had started, with Calvin retiring in 2009, and Steven and Carter carrying on the family legacy for the decade that followed.
In the meantime, the business had expanded, first to Cedar Falls, where they operated the former Erickson Funeral Home on Seerley Boulevard for 14 years. In 1989, they bought the Cleveland Funeral Homes in Readlyn and Denver.
On Sept. 1, 2019, the business made the transition from a family ownership to an employee-owned business.
Darren O’Donnell, Ryan Tucker, Jon Dumermuth and Denee Muller, all state licensed funeral directors and embalmers, teamed up to purchase the business they had helped grow.
Long-time employee Dean Boeckman is an integral part of the transition as well.
The team shares over 70 years of experience at Kaiser-Corson and over 100 years in the profession, Steven estimates.
Sitting in the conference room at the funeral home in Waverly on a recent Friday morning, the new owners expressed gratitude that the brothers had entrusted their family legacy to them.
As the conversation moved from anecdotes to history to the present, as it often happens when a milestone is reached, they all agreed that having trusted partners is essential to the business.
“No one person is going to do it alone,” Darren said.
One of the advantages of the group, they added, is that they have worked in the business for decades, and have learned from the Corsons.
“Stepping into the ownership and looking back, makes me realize how every day here was valuable,” Ryan said. “The last 12 years for me have been like going to school every day and you don’t even realize how much you are learning.”
Darren’s first tutor in the business was the late James R. Corson.
“I learned a lot from Jim,” he said. “I know how proud he was of his work. They never treated us like employees, they treated us like family.”
Denee, the first female co-owner of the business, said another advantage of a local business is the close relationship with the community.
“We don’t have a lot of bureaucracy here,” she said.
The four co-owners said they will stay the course of the Corson family, keep the name and continue the quality of their work.
They will each live in one of the locations--Waverly, Shell Rock, Denver and Readlyn — in order to be of better service to their communities.
They also plan to maintain the signature blue color that distinguishes the Kaiser-Corson fleet.
The unique color, it turns out, was the result of a coincidence.
In the 1970s, James ordered a Lincoln Town Car from Bob Coonradt, of Coonradt Ford & Mercury, as a transportation vehicle for the families.
Instead of navy blue, as he wanted it, the sedan came painted wedgewood blue.
Rather than returning it, James saw it as a finger of fate: It gave him a unique chance to brand his business, and especially at a time when all funeral home vehicles were black. To match his new acquisition, he painted the rest of his fleet that color, now a signature mark of the business.
James then ordered blue suits for his funeral directors.
“My dad was a genius,” Steven said. “He was raised by his grandparents and he knew the value of a family. He always told me, ‘Go make a memory today.’”
One memory that will not fade in the history of the family is a picture James took of his staff and fleet all lined up on the south side of the funeral home in the mid ‘80s.
So memorable was the experience and so meaningful was it to everyone at the funeral home that after the recent interview with the paper on the occasion of the change of ownership, everyone got excited to recreate the original image, in James’ honor.
Fueled by the joy of this memory and seizing the moment, as James had so often reminded them to do, they pulled out the fleet and arranged the vehicles behind the funeral home, just like in the original image. Then, as if standing guard to the past, and honoring James, they all posed by the vehicles, hands clasped in front of them.
“It was emotional doing this,” Steven said.
As the Corson brothers started thinking about stepping away, it was fitting that the timing worked in everyone’s favor. They had the right people in the right position to bring about a seamless transition, one that would honor the accomplishments of a respected Waverly family.
“My whole family, my father and mom would be so proud, even though they are not here, they would be so proud that the partners are now taking over our legacy,” Steven said. “We will always be here for them, as they are a part of our family.”