ANDERSONVILLE — Nelson Funeral Chapel is preparing to close its location in Andersonville, where the family-owned business with Swedish roots has passed through three generations of the Nelson clan since opening in 1929.
The funeral home was founded 84 years ago by a Swedish funeral director named August Nelson, whose descendants still run the show today.
The business at 5149 N. Ashland Ave. has helped "bury generations" of local families since 1929, funeral home director Janet Nelson said.
She has managed the place with help from her siblings since their mother, the previous director, died in 2010. Operating a funeral home is "an interesting business," that often puts her in the dual role of businesswoman and confidant, she said.
It's also "a changing business," she said.
"Back in the day," Nelson said, the funeral home expected to serve at least 300 clients a year. In recent years, the number is closer to 100, something she thinks is influenced by Andersonville being a younger, hipper neighborhood with fewer elderly people.
She also said more clients are cutting costs by choosing cremation and avoiding traditional funerals and burials, which can be twice as expensive. In 1985, only about 15 percent of deaths nationwide resulted in cremation, according to the Cremation Association of North America. The figure has more than doubled.
"It feels awful," to leave a place that has been so important to her family, and to Andersonville, Nelson said.
But, she said, it's time to close the business.
"We have a place out in Park Ridge that we own, and we're just renting this place," Nelson said, citing another Nelson location that opened in 1961. "It's hard to do — but it's time to go."
Andersonville Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Ellen Shepard said Nelson is "part of a diminishing breed of family, locally-owned funeral homes — the kind of folks who are truly caring and engaged."
In 1965, speech pathologist Karen Kockler's mother used the Chicago location for funeral services for Kockler's sister after she died at age 9 from a peptic ucler. In 1968, her mother, also a speech pathologist, again called on Nelson when Kockler's father died at age 36 from complications related to diabetes. Kockler, 49, said it was the day after her eighth-grade graduation.
And in January this year, when Kockler's mother died of natural causes at age 84 and the time came to bury her, Nelson was the obvious — and only — choice, Kockler said. This time she made the call for the family, which hails from Scandinavia and also owns several properties in the area.
"My mother had it in her plans; I knew there would be no questions," Kockler said. "They've always been wonderful."
The funeral home will be missed by the Rev. Michael Fick, pastor at Ebenezer Lutheran Church in Andersonville.
He said Andersonville has a number of institutions "that have been around since the days that the neighborhood was mostly all Swedish," and that his church and the funeral home "are two of those institutions."
He praised Nelson for its roots in the neighborhood, which have helped the business "provide care to people beyond what the average business could."
"If [Nelson] knew that somebody who died had a mother who had been a member of the church, they knew to call and ask if there was a particular hymn sung at the funeral that could be used," the pastor said. "They were able to create some sort of continuity between generations in the experiences around death that were only possible because they knew the people in the community so well."