Funeral home spans 172 years

June 30, 2003|by JESSICA DAVIS

Editor's Note: Washington County was the first and is the oldest of 31 counties in the United States to be named after the country's first president, George Washington. This weekly series each Monday seeks out other places and items in the county that hold the title of "the oldest."

Gerald N. Minnich Funeral Home is not only the oldest funeral home in Washington County, at 172 years, but also holds rank in the top five oldest mortuaries in the nation.

In 1831, William Suter established an undertaking business in Hagerstown's public square. In 1865, upon his return from battle in the Civil War, C.M. Suter, William Suter's son, assumed ownership and the mortuary was named C.M. Suter and Sons, according to documents at the Miller House and from Minnich records.

In 1892, the funeral home moved from the square to 42 W. Franklin St. where it operated until 1931, at which time it was sold to the government for the construction of the post office, according to historical documents. The present day location at 305 N. Potomac St. was purchased that same year.


C.M. Suter retired from the business in 1899, and his sons, Charles E. and Frank S. Suter, took over ownership. Shortly afterward, in 1905, the home acquired it's first "ambulance" - a horse-drawn carriage - according to documents at the Miller House and at the funeral home. In 1949, C.M. Suter's grandson, Charles M. Rouzer, became the new manager, although Charles and Frank Suter remained active in the firm. Rouzer's younger brother, R. Franklin, also assisted with the daily operations, records show.

The funeral home continued to operate under the name of C.M. Suter and Sons until 1956, when Frank Suter announced the name officially would be changed to Suter-Rouzer Funeral Home to more accurately identify the ownership at that time.

The next owner was Gerald N. Minnich. Minnich's roots in the funeral business began when he assisted his father and uncle at their mortuary on East Franklin Street. He left Hagerstown in 1958 for another job in Oakland, Md., but returned to Hagerstown in 1973, when he bought the current funeral home on North Potomac Street. When Suter-Rouzer Funeral Home changed ownership to Minnich, he became the first person outside the Suter family to own the home.

According to Minnich, Suter and Sons Funeral Home was the first funeral home in the area to purchase a motorized hearse, a 1928 Studebaker. The bricks that the funeral home on North Potomac Street are constructed of were made at the construction site, Minnich said.

Everything related to funerals was done at the home of the relatives of the deceased until around the time of World War II, Minnich said. Around that time, apartments began to be in vogue and the typical house was about 900 square feet, leaving little room for a viewing or gathering for a funeral, he said. Because of the change, more and more people began to take advantage of funeral homes for that purpose.

Although semi-retired, Minnich still helps out at the funeral home that bears his name.

"The best part of this business is when the family expresses thanks for what I've done," Minnich said.

Bryan Kenworthy, who worked for 10 years at Kenworthy Funeral Home in Hanover, Pa., became the current owner of Gerald N. Minnich Funeral Home in July 2001. Kenworthy says the house where the business is located is, for the most part, still in its original condition. The only additions were the chapel, elevators, and restrooms, all added in 1932, he said.

Kenworthy is the only full-time employee of the funeral home and is assisted by six part-time employees, he said. He does everything "from A to Z" to keep overhead down and make the mourning period a little easier for those involved.

"I try to take a negative situation and make it positive," Kenworthy said.

Funeral planning is not a topic that most people like to discuss, so Kenworthy is trying to prompt people to think about this inevitable future decision with an unusual challenge.

The funeral home, in cooperation with the Hagerstown Suns, announced a promotion in May in which one baseball fan can win a prepaid funeral. Fans who submit "light-hearted and creative" essays detailing their ideal funeral, including themes, music, location and participants, will be in the running for an "all-expenses paid, preplanned funeral service," according to the Hagerstown Suns Web site. Six finalists will be chosen by a panel of judges at the Suns' home games through Aug. 16, at which time they will read their essays and a winner will be chosen by the judges, according to the site.

Despite the unusual pairing of baseball and burials, Kenworthy says there are more logical reasons for the promotion.

"It gives me a better sense of what people are looking for and gets them to think about preplanning," Kenworthy said. "Even if someone writes an essay just to be humorous, it means the thought is there."

The funeral home's long history is a point of fascination for Kenworthy. Through research, Kenworthy found out that the home is one of the five oldest funeral homes in operation in the United States. Original record books and articles on the funeral home, dating as far back as the mid-1800s, are encased in glass in the hallway.

Kenworthy hopes to obtain Civil War uniforms and other relics from that era to eventually build a "mini-museum" in the hallway that holds artifacts related to the funeral home's history, he said.

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