50 years of funerals

It’s been 50 years since Connie Ryan started Ryan Funeral Home on Madison’s north side, and Ryan and the business are still as lively as ever.

“It only feels like 25 years, not 50,” says Ryan, who officially celebrated his anniversary as owner of Ryan Funeral Home on Dec. 16. “I just can’t believe it’s gone that quick, but when it’s a labor of love it goes that way, I guess.”

For Ryan, the funeral business has always been a family affair, too. Some might have noticed that the funeral home bills itself as having been in business since 1938, not 1966 when Ryan bought the business. That’s because Ryan’s father, Paul, purchased his own Ryan Funeral Home in Madison in 1938. Connie Ryan actually did work for his father for about six years, he notes, but when he bought his own funeral home his dad didn’t employ him, nor did Paul have any connection to the new funeral home operation.

Still, as a courtesy to his father and the legacy he started in the funeral industry, Ryan has long said Ryan Funeral Home has been around since 1938. At the beginning of the month, a fourth generation of the family entered the funeral home business and joined Ryan Funeral Home. Ryan’s grandson, Casey, began work as a funeral director apprentice on Jan. 1, joining his father, Roman, and aunt Diane, both Connie Ryan’s children who have been a part of the business for decades.

“They always say the happiest day of your life is when you get married or buy a home,” Connie Ryan says. “But to be honest, the day I went into business was the happiest day of my life. It meant that it was me, I had to make it, and I couldn’t blame anyone else for any failures. It was all on me. Now, to celebrate 50 years and welcome another generation into the family business is an honor.”

Family ties

Connie Ryan attended the Wisconsin Institute of Mortuary Science where he received his degree in 1964, after serving in the U.S. Marine Corps. He opened the first, original Ryan Funeral Home on North Sherman Avenue two years later.

Connie Ryan and his wife, Jan.

Twenty years later, Ryan’s daughter, Diane, made history as one of the first women in Dane County to earn a funeral director license. Ryan’s son Roman joined the business in 1992. In 2000, the Ryan family acquired Joyce Funeral Homes located on Odana Road in Madison and in Verona, as a way to better assist the needs of families on the growing west side. They sold the Verona building in 2002, and built a new funeral home there. In 2006, the family built the Ryan Funeral Home in DeForest.

Ryan knows it’s rare for family businesses to survive past the first generation, but he says it is more common in the funeral home industry. Being a family operation is something he believes is critical to effectively serve the needs of grieving families.

“I think the care is there,” Ryan opines. “There’s a large company out of Texas, Service Corp. International (SCI), that’s in the business but it’s not the same. When they go into a community and buy a funeral home what often happens is the next guy in town, the family operation, does more business. That happens all the time because people know [we really do care about them like a family].”



Changing face of funerals

Ryan has seen a lot of change in the funeral industry — dramatic change, he notes — in his 50 years at the helm of Ryan Funeral Home. One of the biggest ways the industry has evolved is with the increase in cremations.

Ryan Funeral Home added cremation services in 1997. When he started in the business in 1966, the closest crematory was located in Milwaukee. Since then cremations have, for lack of a better term, caught fire.

Ryan says there are now more people choosing to be cremated than buried in the U.S. — while it’s about a 50–50 split locally, there are some parts of the country with close to 80% cremation rates, he notes.

“My son and I argue about why,” comments Ryan. “Roman says it’s because people can’t afford burials, and I say, ‘Roman, some of these people who come in here could buy and sell you and me!’

“I think it just comes down to personal preference,” Ryan continues. “I’ve had people tell me they don’t want to be buried in the ground because they’re not going to be able to breathe! I’m serious. I’ve had people who buy a mausoleum because they figure they’ll get more air that way.”

Ryan Funeral Home was also at the forefront of video tributes, with Roman Ryan being the first in Dane County to incorporate the multimedia addition to visitations and funerals that’s become commonplace among all funeral providers.

One aspect of the business that’s also gained prominence, Ryan notes, is prearranging services.

“When families come in they’re totally overwhelmed,” Ryan says. “In recent years our prearrangement program has picked up dramatically. People come in ahead of time to preplan their funeral. In many cases they even prepay, so when the death occurs all we need to do is just go ahead with what they’ve set up. It makes it very handy for the family, who often say they’re thankful it was taken care of ahead of time.”

Two other changes Ryan’s observed during more recent years in the funeral industry haven’t been met with as much enthusiasm.

The funeral industry, like many others, is experiencing worker shortages. “It’s a personnel problem,” Ryan notes, “that’s resulted in piracy. People are being pulled away from one funeral home to join another.

“Another thing that’s come to light in many cities is what we call cut-rate funeral homes,” Ryan continues. “The guy who’s willing to set up shop but usually not with the same variety that we have because he couldn’t afford to do it and charge what he’s charging. We’re competing with that element now, but that’s just the way it is. It’s like lawyers finding that there are other services out there to help people with their wills. Every industry has got it.”

Still, Ryan notes being in the funeral industry is a privilege he’s never taken lightly. “Through the years, we have maintained a high standard of professionalism, while also trying to make a difficult process a bit easier for grieving families. My family has always been honored to guide families of all faiths through the process of grieving.”

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