Jim Sabella chopped onions with abandon on a wintry Wednesday night.
No need to worry about the aroma drifting downstairs to the first-floor funeral home. There was no visitation that day.
“We don’t cook stir-fry on the day we have a wake,” said his wife Kim, rinsing Swiss chard at the kitchen sink.
Kim, 47, a mortician, and Jim, 53, a retired U.S. Air Force pilot, bought O’Fallon’s Wolfersberger Funeral Home in 2005. Five years later, they moved from a 3,500-square-foot Troy home to the historic brick building’s two-bedroom apartment that includes a living room, large kitchen and guest loft/seating area.
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“It’s much smaller,” said Kim. “Even though we’re in a big building, our personal space is very small.”
The Sabellas are the parents of Tony, 25, of Mascoutah; Hannah, 23, of Atlanta; and Rachel, 16, a Rotary exchange student in India. The older children were ready to go to college when their parents announced at a family meeting the plan to live above the funeral home. Rachel was 10.
The college kids wouldn’t have their own bedroom. No fire pit out back. Goodbye to neighbors on their cul-de-sac. Large family gatherings? They can be held on the funeral home first floor, subject to availability. Same for Rachel’s sleepovers.
Oh, and keep it down when folks gather downstairs.
“We stick a Post-it note: ‘Quiet hours,’” said Kim.
“That’s what it’s called on base,” said Jim.
“It’s a very emotional time,” said Kim. “You don’t need them to be disturbed by kids laughing.”
Don’t play with the dog (a schnauzer mix named Vinnie), run across the apartment or do laundry.
“Most of the time, it’s not a big deal,” said Kim. “When we are working, we are working. Sometimes, it was a challenge with the kids. On one of those busy nights, there might be dance practice, a track meet. Kids would be coming and going all night long.”
The only access to their upstairs apartment at the time was the staircase in the funeral home foyer.
“I don’t know if people notice or pay attention or care,” said Kim. “We’re sensitive to our type of service. We don’t want to be disruptive in the middle of a visitation.”
The Sabellas miss their old neighbors, but like their downtown O’Fallon location.
“We smell Wood Bakery’s goods in the morning and pizza in the evening,” said Kim. “When we lived in Troy, the extent of the commute was 13 minutes, if you weren’t behind a combine.”
The move made sense. When they get a middle-of-the-night call, they get up and go.
“We are very personally involved,” said Kim. “Ninety-eight percent of the time, if not more, when there is a death and we are called to respond, Jim and I show up. If I have to get up and go to work at 3 a.m., who better to do it with than my life partner. ... Living here makes that workable.”
They climb 19 carpeted steps from the funeral home foyer to their residence.
Life in a funeral home
The curious wonder what it’s like.
“The question we get asked most?” said Kim. “‘Do you see ghosts?’ We never do. The less mature question we get, ‘Doesn’t it creep you out?’ No, it doesn’t.”
The question we get asked most? ‘Do you see ghosts?’ We never do.
Kim Sabella on life in a funeral home
They remind folks about the advantages of having home and business in one place. There’s only one yard to maintain, one building to maintain. No commute.
The Sabellas renovated before moving in, getting rid of the 1960s-style decor that included a dropped ceiling and linoleum in the kitchen.
“We took about nine months to do it.” said Kim.
“Occasionally, we would tell the carpenter not to come,” said Jim. “We have a service.”
They involved Rachel in the plan.
“You do those things all smart parents do,” said Kim. “Let’s pick out paint for the bedroom. We’ve moved enough times to know what helps kids adjust well — it’s to include them.”
The upstairs apartment, with its high ceilings and deep windows, has a simple style. Floors are wide-planked hardwood. The living room is soft yellows and grays.
“I like to read here or in the loft,” said Kim, relaxing in a living room chair. “If he’s cooking dinner, I’m opening a wine bottle or keeping him company.”
“If Kim cooks,” said Jim, “I am saying, ‘That heat is up a little too high. Did you put in enough garlic?’”
“When Rachel was preparing to go to India,” said Kim, “we were trying to expose her to a variety of Indian-type dishes, We had Mumbai Monday nights or we would go to a restaurant.”
Their bedroom is off the living room. A small loft/guest area is behind the staircase. Walls are deep blue. There’s just enough room for two small sofas.
“This is where the kids crash when they’re home. It gets nice sunlight,” said Kim.
They got rid of a lot of furniture and decor from their Troy home through garage sales or donations to the Salvation Army or St. Vincent de Paul.
“Not only were we ready to downsize, we were both ready at the same time,” she said. “We had a big, beautiful home and rooms full of stuff. That’s a good feeling to live simply. We had to convince our parents. Give us things we can eat and drink or experience. Let’s go out and eat together. Don’t give us stuff.
“Except for shoes.”
Perks in their new digs?
They supersized the shower and created a good-sized handsome kitchen with dark wood cabinets, built-in bookcases and a wine rack. A mixed bouquet of fresh flowers added a touch of spring on the cold afternoon.
“We acquired a few of Grandma’s things,” said Kim, pointing to a plaque above the stove. “It’s definitely one of the items that hung in her dining room. It was one thing I wanted to have. My grandma (Viva Poole) lived to be 100.”
The second bedroom not far from the kitchen belongs to daughter Rachel when she’s in town. For now, they have a map on her bed where they mark the places in India that she visits.
A form of ministry
Kim has been in the funeral business 29 years.
“I started as a high schooler working in my hometown (Midwest City) in Oklahoma.”
Her father, now retired, was a Baptist minister. Caring for the sick and dying was part of his experience, and hers.
“For me, this is a form of ministry.”
Jim encouraged her from the start.
“My high school classmates were thinking it was weird. Here’s my mature boyfriend telling me, ‘Let’s think about this. How can you achieve it? How would you go to school? What are the options?’ Is it corny to say you were a good cheerleader?”
“I was just trying to get a second date,” said Jim.
“Once we married, we didn’t stay still for long with military moves,” said Kim. “I always worked at a funeral home every PCS (permanent change of station) we had. Typically, I had to apply for relicensing, take an exam, all of that credential type thing. We ended up here in O’Fallon at Scott in 2000.”
Jim was still active duty when they bought the funeral home, but they soon realized it would take two of them to provided the level of service they wanted to deliver.
Kim is the mortician. “I am everything else,” said Jim. “Bookkeeper, grass cutter, right-hand man.”