Photo: Steve Seifried
Rural independent funeral business thrives while making extensive community connections.
Some people believe your junior high school dream career is your true destiny, that if your job history results in the fulfillment of that dream, you have achieved true success. Many of us happily settle for a related career, perhaps becoming a nurse instead of a veterinarian. For mortician Sue Nasinec, who owns Bruss-Heitner Funeral Homes in Wells and Bricelyn, there were no alternative career choices, not after she researched mortuary science for a seventh grade English class assignment.
“I did two interviews for that assignment,” Nasinec said. “The first was my minister, who had baptized me as a baby, and the second was Mr. Howard Frederich, funeral home director in New Richland. My mom, who was waiting in the car while I interviewed Mr. Frederich, had to come in to get me. I did well beyond my research and I was hooked. He and I still stay in touch.”
Aiming for a perfect grade on the assignment, Nasinec arranged a bit of extra credit—a tour of a funeral home in Ellendale, where her classmates viewed a hearse and embalming machine. She received only 198 points out of a possible 200 because of being in the restroom when her classmates arrived, instead of at the door greeting them. It’s a lesson she hasn’t forgotten.
Nasinec recalled other experiences preparing her for her career. The oldest of three children on a crop and dairy farm north of Ellendale, she baled hay and did calf chores. “My dad taught me the animals still needed to be fed, even if I wanted to go out,” she said. “He taught me not to assume he’d do the chores if I didn’t ask him to do them. I developed communication and time management skills.”
Nasinec’s trademark enthusiasm led her to enjoy a variety of subjects at Ellendale High School—agriculture, outdoor activities, science, art and English. But she wanted more. She said, “I would love to have studied chemistry in high school and had more choices of classes.”
After graduating in 1987, she enrolled in a two-year program at the University of Minnesota-Waseca. During that time, Nasinec worked at a candy and yogurt shop, where she learned to treat demanding people with niceness, and as a caregiver for a man with quadriplegia. “He challenged me to be quick with words,” she said.
At college in Waseca, Nasinec met her husband, Nate. She smiled as she began to explain: “Our first date was a costume party. We went as a caveman and cavewoman, and we won first prize. I asked him to the party, and we have been together ever since. We celebrated 22 years of marriage in August.” The couple has three sons, Brandon, Aaron and Cameron, and a grandson, Zander.
Nasinec transferred to the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis to complete a Bachelor of Science degree in mortuary science. While there, she worked with mentally challenged clients who exhibited aggressive behaviors. She said, “I think everyone should work in that environment for a time. You learn to change how you react. I learned to pray for patience.”
Nasinec brought the lessons learned to an internship at Bruss-Heitner Funeral Homes in 1997. “They kept me on,” she said, “and Nate and I bought the business on January 1, 2008.”
The Wells chapel, located on 2nd Avenue Southwest, has been a funeral home since 1893, first owned and operated by the Hanson family, then by the Heitner family from 1951-86. Stan and Kathy Bruss, from whom the Nasinecs bought the business, owned and operated it through 2007. Nasinec is pleased she and her husband are carrying on a tradition.
“When the Heitners took over, Erna Heitner was the mortician,” Nasinec said, “and her husband, Bill, worked alongside her, just as Nathan does with me. Neither Bill nor Nate are morticians. Nate’s background is mainly in agriculture; he has bred dairy and beef cattle and worked in sow farrowing. Now he’s a small remodeling contractor and most definitely my right-hand man in the mortuary. He’s the pre-insurance agent, handles much of the funeral home building and finances, and maintains the buildings and grounds. We’re a well-matched team.
“After Bill and Erna sold the business to their son, Maynard, and his wife, Betty, Stan Bruss was employed as the mortician,” Nasinec said. The Brusses bought the business in 1986.
Nasinec has always had a second licensed mortician on staff. When her family takes its annual vacation, she calls in Stan Bruss and a former employee for backup. As she begins to talk about her employees, her enthusiasm rachets up another few notches.
“Newly hired Mara has five years of experience as a mortician,” Nasinec said. “We have a group of part-time people who are greeters, drivers, flower movers—and most importantly they are there to make sure food is on our own table. When we’re busy 15 to 20 hours a day, and sometimes I’ve been up 24 hours straight, someone asks me, ‘Have you eaten today?’ They take care of us because we’re taking care of others.”
The wearing of similar apparel contributes to the mortuary staff’s appearance as a team. Black suits set off shirts, ties and blouses in shades of purple. Winter wear includes silver shirts and red ties. Nasinec and other female staff wear skirts to every funeral. Nasinec explained, “We’re professionals and want to look the part.”
The Nasinecs’ home is next door to the mortuary. The entire family has always been influenced by the mortuary’s purpose. “Our boys could be fighting like cats and dogs, but when the mortuary phone rang at home, they would stop until the call was completed,” Nasinec said.
“Our oldest son, Brandon, who now is in college, washes and waxes the hearses and works funerals as a greeter. Aaron, our 15-year-old son, helps him. Thirteen-year-old Cameron picks up around the grounds, runs things to the mailbox and gets flags from the post office for military funerals.”
Nasinec and her staff go the extra mile for local veterans. Each year they celebrate Veterans Day by serving a fine meal to the military veterans who have been involved in the color guard at military funerals. Sixty-eight men and women were guests last year.
The mortuary serves a 50-mile radius, in addition to hospitals in Owatonna, Rochester and Iowa. Because the funeral home in Bricelyn is only four miles from Iowa, 20 percent of the families served are in Iowa. Nasinec is licensed by both states.
Staying abreast of regulatory change is an ongoing process. Even seemingly minor regulations must be followed. For example, the funeral home must have a license to play music during a service. If, however, the family brings in a recording and plays it on their own equipment, the requirement does not apply.
Nasinec has never had to work on a family member, but over the years she has had friends killed in car accidents.
“Who better than I to prepare them for viewing?” she asked. “It’s not customers or clients we serve, but families. Each and every day, we serve each family with dignity and respect. Every family is different. Some want something traditional. About 25 percent want cremation. Those being cremated are done so in Janesville, at another family-owned funeral home. People don’t know that most funeral homes are part of a corporation.”
Nasinec sees a trend toward cremation—not as much in her area, but more in urban areas. The resulting ashes, also called cremains, are usually placed in an urn and kept by the family or interred. In both Minnesota and Iowa, the ashes may be scattered by the family on land that is not a drinking water source.
Other trends have been more unusual. Nasinec said, “Some things become popular for a while, such as making your own casket or making your own urn. Some people would like to have more contemporary music, but that’s a church decision. We offer a lot of options even though we’re in a small town. For example, we have a horse-drawn hearse.”
The 1880s-style hearse is the only black vehicle in the mortuary’s fleet, which includes two silver hearses, two silver sedans and a silver van used for flower delivery to every service.
“The horse-drawn hearse is solid oak,” Nasinec said. “It was built from a photo by Eugene (“Jake”) Jacobson of Kiester. He had the wheels built by the Amish. He has two teams, both of which pull our hearse. The original driver was Don Rauenhorst, from Wells, who helped build it. He was transported to his funeral in the hearse. Now Jake is the driver. We use it for one or two funerals a year and have displayed it at the Faribault County Fair. Jake drives it in parades, along with our son Aaron.”
Nasinec’s responsibilities include being available 24/7, with the help of an answering service, to respond to the mortuary phone at their home next door to the chapel. After receiving a call, she goes to the place of death with a hearse, brings back the deceased, embalms the body, and dresses and caskets the body. With input from the deceased’s family, she writes the obituary for the newspaper and plans the service.
“I meet with each family for about two hours,“ Nasinec said. “I’m a counselor and a mom. I remind people to drink water and get enough sleep. I tell them not to eat too much comfort food if that’s not what they usually do.”
Nasinec’s job is easier if the deceased left written plans or talked about their wishes. She said, “It’s a given you will eventually die, so plan for it. We plan vacations, we plan careers, so give your children a chance to understand and accept your funeral plans. Talk about what you want and write it down. If you write it down, the kids are usually ready to do it.”
When advance plans don’t exist, Nasinec asks, “How would your mother like to be remembered? How would you who are in this room like to remember your mother?” Sometimes she offers a suggestion, saying, “For some families, this has worked.”
If the family’s conversation brings some laughter along with tears, Nasinec knows the family will be okay. “When an older person dies after much suffering, there’s a celebration of life,” she said. “It’s a much different experience for the family than when a 24-year-old is killed in a car accident. It also helps when the minister has a relationship with some of the family and when I’ve had a relationship with some of them.”
For Nasinec, it’s all about relationships. “I love getting to know people and love the relationship I have with the community,“ she said. “I’m networking every day I walk out of the door. At the grocery store I’ll see a family we served recently, so I stop to talk to them. My boys dislike going shopping with me because it takes time, but people like to see the mortician doing ordinary things.”
Nasinec’s knowledge of the community offers opportunities to provide families with a memorable farewell to their loved one. On one occasion, she learned a WWII veteran had been a pilot and prisoner-of-war. She arranged for a fly-by at the cemetery by a local crop duster.
“The family didn’t know in advance,” Nasinec said, “and were blown away by it. We try to exceed every family’s expectations.”
Nasinec sees every memorial service as a form of family therapy.
“People need a service,” she said. “The family needs to reminisce together, and phone numbers get exchanged. Kids and grandkids need to hear the stories that friends will tell. We each know the deceased in a certain way. I’ve buried people’s spouses and the children of those people, and I’ve heard all kinds of stories. Sometimes the children don’t know those sides of the deceased.
“I facilitate family requests,” she said. “Every family is unique. I’ve had services where I have felt I’ve done nothing for the family, and then out of the blue I get a package with a pin or a gift card for Starbucks.”
After the service, while a mortuary staff member drives the hearse to the cemetery, Nasinec rides in the lead car with the minister and the pallbearers. The deceased’s spouse and children drive their own cars, but occasionally the spouse rides in the lead car.
“The local and county police are fantastic about providing escorts for us,” Nasinec said. “I’ve served some of their family members.
“I’m proud of being a licensed mortician, a female owning my own business. Although the 2014 University of Minnesota graduating class in mortuary science will be 70 percent women, I believe I’m still in a male dominated field. I’m proud we are family-owned and operated. Our motto is ‘Always have been, always will be.’”
- Wells Chamber of Commerce, member and past president
- Wells Jaycees, past president
- Wells Economic Development Authority Board
- Wells Public Library Association former member, initiated luncheon fundraisers
- Bricelyn Community Club
- Kiester Civic and Commerce organization
- University of Minnesota Alumni Speakers Panel
- St. Casimir Catholic Church, member
- Minnesota Funeral Directors Association, member
- Iowa Funeral Directors Association, member
- National Funeral Directors Association, member
Sue’s self description: Workaholic, extrovert, caring, and a bit sassy.
Hobbies: I read four to six books a week, paint sunsets and sunrises in oils, and like to get in my Camaro and go-o-o. I visit my sister in Wisconsin, go shopping with my mom, or take Nate on a date.
Most valued possession: My 2012 Camaro convertible. It’s orange and graphite, with a black ragtop.
Most valued intangible: My adventurous spirit and deep faith.
If you weren’t in this business: I would be working alongside Nate in his business.
THE ESSENTIALS: Bruss-Heitner Funeral Homes
Address: 255 2nd Ave SW, Wells, Minnesota