A Whitewater Undertaking: The history and future of the Olsen Funeral Home

Oct. 29, 2014

By Vesna Brajkovic

On the corner of Prince and Main streets, sits a 141-year-old Italianate house that made its way into a family business – one that lends itself to a scene of a scary movie.

If the long circular driveway – now cracked and covered in fallen leaves – or the deteriorating white paint didn’t give its past and age away, the empty sign holder that used to read, ‘Olsen Funeral Home,’ now half-hidden under an overgrown scrub, does.

The home, 1014 W. Main St., now awaiting possible future redevelopment, according to current property owner Ryan Hughes, was known as the Olsen Funeral Home in Whitewater from 1987 until being sold in June 2013.

Before the property – much desired because of its close location to the campus, just one crosswalk from the Center of the Arts – was sold, the facility was run and lived in by James Olsen, the eldest son of Bernellyn “Bernie” Olsen, who was a funeral director for 56 years.

Bernie Olsen, and his wife, Ramona “Mona,” originally purchased the home, previously known as the Hickey-Kent Funeral Home, after extending their Jefferson-based business, which Olsen was a part of since 1966, to the Whitewater community.

“It’s pretty common in small towns for the families to live above their funeral homes,” said David Olsen, current funeral director of the Jefferson-located Olsen Funeral Home. “As a matter of fact, my brother Jim lived above the funeral home with his family and I live above my funeral in Jefferson. It’s real common.”

In true “My Girl” (1991) fashion, James Olsen and his family grew up in the old Olsen Funeral Home in Whitewater where he eventually joined the family business.

Although the home was recently sold, the family’s services are still offered in the community even without the facility. David Olsen said, when needed, he can do everything out of a church or at the other Olsen Funeral Home location in Jefferson, Wisconsin which they have owned for close to 40 years.

James Olsen’s younger brother, David Olsen, is the funeral director for a home in Jefferson. But he said as a Desert Storm veteran, and having previously worked as a political consultant, he “never had the intention” to take over the family business, but “that’s exactly what I did.”

“It’s a profession I’m very proud of; we do good things,” Olsen said. “We help people through a very difficult time. You got to think about when someone loses a loved one, there can’t be anything more traumatic than that. Being in the profession that I am in, all the people in my family have always served the community, and served the community well.”

He also lives above his funeral home with his wife, where they raised two children.

“It’s a pretty short commute for me; I just walk down a flight of stairs and I’m at work,” Olsen said.

The responsibilities of the funeral director are numerous, especially in relatively small establishments because there is no staff working under them and they are on call 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, said Olsen.

It is up to Olsen to pick up and transport the body back to the funeral home, embalm the body – which is the process of replacing the blood of a person with a chemical that preserves the body – meet with the family, make the funeral arrangements and run the funerals.

“I guess that’s the weirdest thing when you think about it is that 15 people below me right now are people in caskets,” Olsen said.

Although living in a funeral home isn’t typical, Olsen was nonchalant about it.

“I think people watch too many scary movies,” Olsen laughed.

The services of the Whitewater Olsen Funeral Home, although lacking a sign, will still be available long after the building stands – which may not be very long.

The new owner of the property, Hughes, presented a proposal for the Campus Edge Apartments – to be located on the old funeral home property – to Whitewater Common Council on June 9, 2014.

The proposed concept plan calls for a four-story building containing units for a total of 110 residents and basement and surface parking, according to an article by the Daily Jefferson County Union.

Concerns were voiced about storm water runoff, traffic control, pedestrian safety, density standards and according to Hughes there was “pushback from area landlords.”

Although David Olsen said he would be sad to see the “grand, ‘ol home, a very stately home to Whitewater” go, the business served the community well and will continue to do so, at a different location.

“I believe that the guy that bought the building doesn’t want to rip it down, as a matter of fact I would guess that if someone were to call and say, ‘Hey, can we take that building and move it,’ I think he’d do that in a heartbeat,” David Olsen said. “It’s not about the building, it’s about the location; that’s the important thing. We happened to be the closest to campus.”

But even though there is a business side, emotional connections to the home linger.

“I can tell you that James Olsen’s family was not really happy with the situation because that’s the house they grew up in,” David Olsen said. “But, you know, when you have a building right next to the campus you got to think that, you know, there’s a chance that there would be other uses for the building or property that would be more beneficial to the students.”

Last year, part of the home was rented out to students, but Hughes said that option is no longer available this year. It was previously listed on Nomoredorms.com as a four-bedroom, two-bath rental for $400 per person per semester.

“To be honest with you, they took everything out of the property,” Hughes said. “You can’t tell that it was a funeral home. It’s more of a residential – there’s an apartment upstairs. It’s like a house inside; you can’t really tell it’s a funeral home.”