Final Arrangements | Our Town | Chicago Reader

Final Arrangements 

Bill Herdegen's Life in the Death Business

"Paddy Bauler died on my 25th anniversary, of a stroke," says Bill Herdegen, examining an old ledger to jog his memory. "I had to go out to Gottlieb Hospital in Melrose Park to pick up the body. In the end I buried Paddy's four sons, though I didn't get the missus. She was buried out of a home on North Avenue. She wanted to be buried with me. I don't know what happened."

Mathias "Paddy" Bauler, the 43rd Ward alderman and saloon keeper who in 1955 famously observed that "Chicago ain't ready for reform," was 87 when he met his maker. Many of Herdegen's clients don't live such long, full lives. Gay activist Danny Sotomayor was only 33 when he died from complications relating to AIDS and the Lakeview mortician coordinated his last respects. "Whoever comes here, we try to take the burden off the family," says Herdegen. "We make all the arrangements--the removal of the body, the wake, the funeral, and the contact with the cemetery--and we help with filling out insurance papers. We lighten the load."

Herdegen's father, Bill Sr., a judge's bailiff and a devoted precinct captain for Bauler, always wanted to be a funeral director. "But he didn't have the stomach for it," says Bill Jr. The best he could do, evidently, was encourage his son to answer the calling. After graduating from Chicago's Worsham College of Mortuary Science (now in Wheeling) and directing "grave registration" for an Army division in Korea (meaning he shipped the bodies out), Bill Jr. returned to Chicago and worked for a couple of other morticians before going into business for himself. In 1957, at 26, he sold the house he and his wife Maureen shared on North Bissell for $10,000 and with help from his father purchased a funeral home on Lincoln Avenue north of Diversey.

The mortuary was full of dark wood and stained glass, including a mural depicting an angel cradling two children. "People would say they loved that place, that it was so homey," says Herdegen.

"The first funeral I had came from 1503 N. Clybourn," he says. "George Kneitz was the name. He was 60 and had heart disease. I buried eight people out of that family, and they were related to the Schnellers--I handled all of them, too. Back then I was dealing either with friends of my father or friends of mine, or people who came to me through Saint Alphonsus."

Saint Alphonsus Catholic church occupies the southwest corner of Lincoln and Wellington. Herdegen, a devoted parishioner, was active on the finance, liturgy, and school boards: "And I've called bingo there every week for 35 years."

Early on Herdegen arranged burials for indigents, patients in Veterans Administration hospitals, and residents of the Municipal Tuberculosis Sanitarium at Pulaski and Bryn Mawr. Before the corpse departed for Elm Lawn Cemetery in Elmhurst, he dressed them either in his old suits or in tuxedos donated by an evening-wear shop; in 1978 he convinced the state Department of Veterans Affairs to mark 391 paupers' graves.

With his pay coming from social security and veterans benefits, Herdegen's compensation for such burials was minimal--only $705 per. "For five years I didn't know if I was going to make it," he says. Yet gradually his caseload climbed--from 44 annually to 50, then to 55, and on up.

In 1986 Bill's son Joe joined the operation. "But there wasn't enough business coming out of our little place to cover two salaries." Two years later Herdegen sold his original mortuary and some adjoining property and acquired the Birren & Sons home, a larger establishment several blocks north, at Wellington and Lincoln. In the deal Herdegen also acquired the rights to the defunct Brieske home, so the new place became the Herdegen-Brieske Funeral Home.

The facility, dating from 1925, has a foyer, two chapels, and a parlor. Herdegen, his wife Maureen, and a mortuary student who helps out live upstairs. Mrs. Herdegen helps out with the books. In the basement are an embalming lab and a showroom arrayed with caskets--wood or metal boxes with quilted interiors. An average funeral about $5,000 all told.

Yet business isn't always smooth sailing. Cremations, which are less costly for the customer, are popular these days, as are one-night wakes; families sometimes dispense with visitation altogether. And some customers fail to pay their bills. "The younger generation takes the attitude, what's the cheapest thing I can do? What can I get away with?" Herdegen laments.

Still, at the new location Herdegen has seen the total number of cases per year double; normally it exceeds 200, though for 1992 it dipped below that. One advantage has been the new home's location directly across from Saint Alphonsus. "People just come out of the church, and my place just hits them in the eye," says Herdegen.

"Plus, you'd be surprised at the old-timers left in the parish. And even if they've moved, they think of me. One fella who was living with his mother out in Wood Dale told me that she wanted to come back to Herdegen when she died. I'd buried her husband, and she'd been pleased."

Then, too, there's less competition from other small homes. Most of the small, family-run German and Italian storefront operations that once dotted Lincoln Park and Lakeview have gone out of business, victims of decreased parking and competition from funeral-home chains. Now, in the area between the Loop and Herdegen-Brieske, there is only one other mom-and-pop home where there used to be a dozen.

Another reason business is up, and a tragic one, is the AIDS epidemic.

Herdegen first encountered AIDS in 1985 when a close friend, a laborer with four children, entered the hospital. "When I went to visit him there was a note on the door that said I should see the nurse first," remembers Herdegen. "I was told to put on a gown, a mask, and special shoes. I thought the man had TB, but the nurse said he had AIDS. I didn't know what that was."

The friend died at 38. "He'd been hurt on the job a couple years before, and they'd given him a blood transfusion," Herdegen relates, "or that's what he said."

After that Herdegen boned up on precautions to take with AIDS cases; mainly they involve donning protective clothing when embalming. "When I got inquiries about taking people with AIDS," Herdegen recounts, "I said no problem." At the time many morticians would either refuse to handle AIDS case or would dispose of the body without conducting a proper burial. The Funeral Directors Services Association of Greater Chicago has since adopted a policy statement condemning such treatment.

At first Herdegen drew most of his AIDS cases from nearby Illinois Masonic Medical Center, but now the dead arrive from many hospitals. Though the annual number has dropped (Herdegen's AIDS cases fell from 55 to 38 last year), the epidemic continues to disturb him. "What strikes me most is the brain drain," he says. "We've had doctors, lawyers, the organist at Saint Alphonsus. We've had almost every walk of life here."

When Scott McPherson, Danny Sotomayor's lover and the author of the play Marvin's Room, died, Herdegen took care of his body too. The memorial service took place in Herdegen's chapel, a stately room with oak wainscoting, stucco walls, and a yellowish 3-D portrait of Jesus up front. "For Scott the chapel was set up for 184 people, but that wasn't enough for the crowd," Herdegen says. "People were standing in the back, and we had to open the windows so those outside in the hallway could hear."

Many people with AIDS show evidence of their suffering, bearing the scars of emaciation and infections, but Herdegen and his son--working with makeup and silicone--take enormous care to restore appearances. "It's very gratifying," Herdegen says, "when survivors tell me, 'Mr. Herdegen, that's just the way he looked before he got sick.'"

On the other hand, making final arrangements for people with AIDS often exacerbates tensions between the family and a surviving lover, a situation Herdegen is sensitive to. "With one boy, the family didn't want him around," Herdegen says. "So I called the boy and told him to come in early, before the family arrived, so he could spend a couple hours by himself with his friend. He put a stuffed bear in the casket, hidden from view, and then he took off, before the wake."

At the FDSA Herdegen has been a leader in AIDS-related issues, notably in helping to furnish blood to Rush-Presbyterian-Saint Luke's Medical Center for an FDSA-sponsored study on how long the AIDS virus lives on after a patient dies. The results, released in November, show that the HIV virus can last up to 22 hours postmortem.

In hindsight Herdegen regrets some aspects of his profession, especially the toll it's taken on his personal life. "You're on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week," he says. "We had six children, and when they were young we'd be all set to go someplace, and some family would come in unannounced with a death--I had to take care of that. There were lots of picnics canceled, let me tell you.

"We could never go anyplace on the holidays because so many people died then. Still do--we had five deaths this Christmas week, and six the week of Thanksgiving. I don't know what it is, whether it's the anxiety people feel around the holidays or what.

"Yet it's also been wonderful to help people in their time of need. I get such wonderful letters from people, thanking me and my wife. When I first started out 35 years ago, I heard through the grapevine that I wouldnt last six months, that I'd be out on my ass. But here I am, still going strong."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/David Schulz.

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