Funeral Business Advisor sat down with Kate Swenson, funeral director with Litwiller-Simonsen Funeral Home and Crematory in Ashland, OR to learn more about her career, experience in the funeral industry, and what excites her about the future of funeral service.
Did you always want to be a funeral director? How did you get into the funeral industry?
I had just turned 31 and had a history of employment in commercial fishing, working with people with disabilities, waitressing, and farming. I felt like I needed to focus on something career wise. At that time I was watching the series Six Feet Under. I started to entertain the idea of going into funeral service and the more I looked into it, the more it seemed to encompass many of the things that I was good at. I am naturally a great listener and taking care of others is important to me.
When I became a funeral director, I discovered that the fit was even better than I had originally thought. I am an advocate for people in general and with all the ways people are changing and changing how they look at the death care industry, I love being able to find ways to get their needs met when it comes to funeral service. In my conversations with people they have concerns about whether their needs will be met because of what they hear about the funeral industry and funeral directors being resistant to their needs and desires. I feel like I am in this industry at the perfect time because I am ready for the changes and ready to help the industry adapt to those changes.
What makes Litwiller-Simonsen Funeral Home stand out from others in the industry?
In 1934, Clarence Litwiller first opened the doors of Litwiller Funeral Home and ran it with his family until 1983 when the Litwiller Family sold the funeral operation to Tim and Kathleen Simonsen.
Tim was very innovative in the way he dealt with people and viewed funeral service. He was bringing in locally made wood caskets, organizing home funerals, and utilizing shrouds way before anyone else was. He was doing all of this as means to educate the families and community he served – not just to offer additional products.
Tim continued to manage day to day operations until he retired in 2013. Today, we continue to follow in his footsteps. For example, we have a mushroom shroud here at the funeral home and we have not sold it yet, but people kept asking questions about it and that is why we decided to carry it. It’s exciting that families are interested in seeing it and asking for alternate options in today’s industry and our funeral home is a place that fully supports the change happening.
We encourage open discussion about how funeral service is changing and we are blessed to live in a community that is opinionated, engaged, and insistent that they be involved in taking care of their dead the way they want to. We host talks about demystifying the funeral process. We want to make it easier for things to change. As a funeral home, we don’t see any loss in educating the community and taking a listening role. Tim and Mel have set the standard for listening and I think this is why we have been so successful in being a part of the cultural shift locally.
I want to emphasize that the people who came before me are so important to this funeral home and the industry altogether. Specifically, Tim Simonsen and Mel Friend, who is currently a funeral director and the manager at Litwiller-Simonsen. Mel has given me an incredible amount of freedom and support as an incoming funeral director with a new set of ideas. The receptivity of this business and community is something I am very grateful for.
In addition to directly serving your community with your business, how else are you involved in the community?
We have hosted many discussions on death care with the public, we open the funeral home for tours, we make ourselves available to answer questions, and we host speakers as well. I also visit churches to speak about the process of a funeral and personalizing what that means. I get to introduce myself as a female funeral director all over my community and normalize the discussion of death. When I meet people for the first time, they have usually never met a funeral director and by hosting these events and encouraging these discussions and conversations, we help the funeral industry open itself up to change and remove the mystery.
What is your favorite part about working in this industry?
The change that is happening is honestly so exciting. To see people like Catlin Doughty, Elizabeth Fournier, Katrina Spade, Stephen Jenkinson, and countless others talk about our relationship with death and what that looks like. The conversation has become really exciting. There are so many great people really committing to changing this industry and making it better – and that is really cool.
Looking forward to the future, what are you most excited about in regard to the funeral industry?
The funeral industry does not have the greatest reputation for participating in the changing culture surrounding death. But the voices of change both within the industry and without are rising and demanding new needs be met. Today, the voice of change says we aren’t hiding from death or hiding from the discomfort of trying a new way of doing things. In a time where many are terrified for the future of the funeral industry, I am part of the few that is excited for the shifts, changes, and new ideas. By talking about death and taking the time to both educate and listen to my community, I can make society better and help to fix that disconnect people and the industry have with death practices.
People are more openly interested in death today than they have ever been in the modern age, and I think that is something to be celebrated. People are constantly asking me questions and continuing the discussion and it is so exciting to be a part of an industry that is on the cusp of some big shifts. The massive change scares many, but I know it should be embraced.
Do you have anything else you would like to say to our readers?
Our energy is better spent finding creative solutions that focus on WHY things are changing. I believe there has been a void created around death in our society in the past and now people are rising up with clearer eyes. They are beginning to ask “what is our connection with our ancestors like? What is our purpose here on earth about? How do we deal with the grief of living on a dying planet?” All of these questions are what has put the industry in it’s current position and if we start looking at that, I believe this where we can really begin to do good work and not become obsolete. FBA