When John Joseph Kassly bought a horse-drawn hearse and partnered with a funeral director in East St. Louis in 1906, it’s likely he didn’t envision it becoming a business his family would still run today.
After all, before Kassly could emigrate from Lithuania to the United States, he needed permission from the Russian czar.
Indeed, Kassly Mortuary is still in business, now based at 9900 St. Clair Ave. in Fairview Heights and owned by brothers James and Charles Kassly, John Joseph Kassly’s grandchildren.
St. Louis Small Business Monthly in June named the business a Family Business of the Year.
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The brothers Kassly have operated the funeral home since 1984; a fourth generation — James Kassly’s son Jimmy and Charles Kassly’s son Pete — is currently learning the ropes.
Q: How did this business get started?
Jim: “We don’t know much about Grandpa Kassly’s history because he died in 1934. But he partnered up with an American funeral director in 1906. In those days if you were an American funeral director, you buried American people. Much like Polish people took care of their nationality, and same with Germans, Italians and so forth. Prior to that he was hauling coal and ice. We don’t know exactly how it started, but he decided to go out and get a horse-drawn hearse. Later, in 1932, they tore down their building and built a brand new one. Grandpa died in 1934. Our dad Joseph was in medical school at that time but dropped out to help run the business. This place was built in Fairview Heights in 1971. Charlie and I worked in this business from the bottom up.”
Q: At what point did you decide you wanted to be a part of the family business?
A: Charlie: “It was kind of natural. We always worked around the business; we always were kind of used to it. It was natural working with some of the professionals who were around here all the time. Jim and I both went to mortuary school, and we both graduated in 1979. Our dad and uncle both died in 1984. It was a tragic year for all of us. So myself, Jim, our brother Joe and our cousin Johnny had to team up and keep things going.”
Q: How did it come about that your business won this award from St. Louis Small Business Monthly?
A: Charlie: “We were nominated for it, and they contacted us and asked us to fill out a questionnaire about our background. And I assume the magazine had individuals who were testing the grades of all the nominees. We were contacted and told we were one of the recipients in late June.”
Q: What’s your reaction to receiving the award?
A: Charlie: “It was very nice. Jim and I have always worked within a lot of not-for-profit groups and various boards. You really don’t get awards for those kinds of things, you just do them. So it’s nice to get a pat on the back, recognition that you’ve done things right and in this case for many years. It doesn’t just happen over night.”
Q: What’s it like having gone through your entire careers together?
A: Charlie: “You’re equating it to a partner that you partner with who is not related as opposed to a family member. It’s just something we’ve always been used to. Our father and uncle did the same thing. We really didn’t give it a second thought. We have our differences and are able to talk them out.”
Q: It seems like funeral homes are family owned most of the time. Why is that?
A: Charlie: “This doesn’t franchise well. You can’t bring salespeople in to talk with families when you’ve got licensed professionals that have done this for many years and know what families should expect and know the services you should provide to them. It’s something that you can’t just package up sometimes. Our professionals make the difference. Our people make the difference. Every day we drive in, we see our name out front. That’s a good reminder and a stiff reminder that there are certain expectations that we put on ourselves.”
Q: Does it seem like funerals are becoming less traditional? How are you seeing that bear out?
A: Jim: “When Charlie and I were younger, two-night wakes was the norm. That had a lot to do with the neighborhoods at that time. When you came to pay your respects to the people, you probably already knew a lot of them. So you didn’t come and then just leave.”
A: Charlie: “Two-night wakes have turned into one-night wakes, and even now in many cases they’re what we call a same-day service where there’s a short visitation that day, followed immediately by a service. And then we’re not necessarily always going to a cemetery. Sometimes it’ll be the service ends at the funeral home with a cremation. Cremation is a big driver right now. People used to say they didn’t want any part of cremation, but now minds have changed.”
A: Jim: “It was during (the Second Vatican Council) in the 1960s that the Catholic Church changed it. Cremation used to be verboten back then. But then they said cremation was OK.”
Q: What does the future of this business look like?
A: Charlie: “I always kind of wonder about the future that we’re going to leave behind us as the third generation in business for the fourth generation, Jim’s son Jimmy and my son Pete and whoever else follows us as to what that business would be five, 10, 15, 20 years from now. Those are things we really can’t worry about.
A: Jim: “Cremation is here to stay.”
A: Charlie: “We were probably one of the first funeral homes, in about 1996, to change our selection room around so families could look at various things as far as cremation goes. We’ve gone from about 10 or 15 percent cremation to about 30 percent cremation, and I expect that upward trend will continue. Now there’s some discussion about green burials, things like that. We’re not seeing a whole lot of that here. Sometimes we have people asking if they can be buried in their back yard. Believe it or not, that question comes up about every couple months. Certain cities have restrictions against that.”
Charles and James Kassly
Job: Owners, Kassly Mortuary, Ltd.
On the award: “It’s nice to get...recognition that you’ve done things right.”