This August marks the 150th anniversary of the oldest business in Columbus – the Gass Haney Funeral Home, 2109 14th St., and Aug. 9 also marks the 14th anniversary of when co-owners Gary Sharman and Brad Ramaekers bought it.
The two said they are carrying on the tradition of the business, and were mentored by a previous owner, Steve Haney, who Sharman noted was just a good guy.
“(Haney) knew everybody…he grew up in the community so he knew people, he knew where they lived, he knew who their parents were,” Sharman said. “And now, after being here for 20-plus years, we're starting to get to the same position, because we're starting to bury people that we know in the community and we know how they're related to so and so.”
This career is not for everyone, the two said. You have to be called into it and realize it’s not a job, it’s a lifestyle, Sharman added.
The duo have degrees in Mortuary Science, as one requirement for the job is education. They learned a lot of science, but also psychology and religion.
“We were both taught right away from our mentor Steve Haney that the answer to any question is 'no problem.' If they wanted something, no problem. You figured out how to try to make it work for them,” Sharman said.
“If they’re asking it must mean something to them -- it might not mean anything to us. It might seem silly, goofy, whatever, but to them it’s important,” Ramaekers said. “Every church and every nationality and ethnic group do different things, so you've got to learn to accommodate them. You learn to put your own beliefs aside.”
Ramaekers said much of helping families deal with grief is listening. Sharman added that sometimes dealing with grieving families is very difficult.
“Especially if you’re working with somebody that has lost a child and no matter what age,” Sharman said. “Because we’re parents also and so sometimes you feel like what would it feel like losing your own child and trying to put yourself into their shoes to see how they feel. You can kind of deal with it a little bit better that way.”
The two met after they started working at Gass Haney in the late 1990s, and they bought the business in 2006. Although running a business is stressful, they said it gives them the freedom to make their own choices and decisions.
“You work a lot of goofy hours, a lot of evenings, weekends, holidays,” Ramaekers said. “We miss a lot of family things, but it’s rewarding when you help a family and they tell you 'thanks.'”
In 1870, the Swiss founder of the business, Henry Gass Sr., started out making furniture, coffins and offering funeral services after moving to Columbus. The funeral home was moved several times, once due to a fire.
Gass Sr.'s sons, Samuel and Henry Jr., took over the business in the early 20th century; their father passed away in 1926. Henry's daughter Marjorie and her husband, William Haney, bought the home after Henry died. Marjorie operated the business until 1960, after her husband died in 1952.
Steve Haney was William and Marjorie's son. He sold the business in the early 1990s to Equity Corporation International. Gass Haney changed hands to Service Corporation International before finally being purchased by Sharman and Ramaekers in 2006, four years before Steve Haney passed away.
“I think it's just neat to know that you're part of history, the city's oldest continuous running business,” Ramaekers said.
Gass Haney has also been a Columbus Area Chamber of Commerce member since 1948, said Membership & Community Engagement Director Sandie Fischer.
“I mean just having them as a part of the community and supporting everything that the Chamber does (show) that they believe in Columbus and want to see Columbus continue to grow,” Fischer said. “Having a business like that in our community, we’re excited to have them celebrate their anniversary.”
Fischer, who said Gass Haney handled her husband’s funeral, said it is a unique business, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I think that they’ve been very creative as to how to deal with families that are going through a loss and how to accommodate their needs,” Fischer said. “They’re very compassionate people in the career line that they’re in.”
Their line of work is unlike many others – it all depends on how many people die and they have no control over that. It can be uneven year to year.
“It’s such a roller coaster, up and down,” Ramaekers said. “Sometimes we’re really busy and then you’ll go for weeks and you don’t have a funeral.”
This year, Ramaekers noted that they were grateful to not see a rise in funerals from COVID-related deaths, but they were sad families who lost a loved one couldn’t have a funeral visitation.
“We know the importance of a funeral, the grief process that we can provide,” Ramaekers said. “It brings people together so they can express their sympathies to a family. I think we’re seeing that more now with this COVID, how important those things are for people to get together.”
It was about closure, Ramaekers added.
Everybody grieves differently and they need that camaraderie to pull themselves together, Sharman said.
In March, Gass Haney hosted a funeral at 10:30 a.m., Sharman said, and at 11, Gov. Pete Ricketts announced the state of Nebraska was shutting down. They ended up creating a Facebook page and live-streaming funerals.
Now Gass Haney is getting booked up in September for makeup memorial services.
“You think about 150 years and all the things that have happened and for this business not to have ever closed or shut down, which is impressive,” Ramaekers said. “It clearly tells you that they did something right from the very beginning.”
Carolyn Komatsoulis is a reporter for The Columbus Telegram. Reach her via email at firstname.lastname@example.org