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Grace Shackman

Keeping up with the changing Ann Arbor funeral

Muehlig Funeral Chapel's 1928 move to the corner of Fourth Avenue and William was a milestone in the changing funeral practices of Ann Arbor. When Florian C. Muehlig began making caskets as a sideline to his furniture business in 1852, "families took care of their own, even burying them on their own property," says Dave Hamel, who today is co-owner of the firm with Neil Bidwell and Florian's great-grandson, Bob Muehlig. "Now it has evolved to have others handle it."

Over its first seventy years, the business slowly changed from what was primarily a furniture shop into a full-time undertaking service. But retired Muehlig's partner Fred Rogers recalls that as late as 1921, when he started in the business, "it was impossible to get [a bereaved family] to let you take the body to the funeral parlor." Muehlig's staff had to make house calls to do embalming, and helped out with funerals that were usually held either at home or at the deceased's church.

That pattern changed, Rogers says, "all of a sudden. People got different ideas - they found it more convenient to have the body in the funeral home, less confusion, no people coming into the house." It was for this reason, just seven years after Rogers started, that Muehlig's owners left their upstairs quarters on Main Street to open a bigger, more accessible full-service chapel in the spacious and imposing Lynds house at 403 South Fourth Avenue. Expanded and remodeled several times in the years since, Muehlig's is, at age 138, both the oldest funeral home in Michigan and the oldest business in Ann Arbor.

Florian C. Muehlig, born in 1810 in Rossbach, Bavaria, was a cabinetmaker who came to Ann Arbor in 1840. He began making caskets as an offshoot of the furniture, lumber, and upholstery business he opened in 1847. This combination of services was common in those days - wooden coffins took the same materials and skills used in making furniture. By 1868, his services had expanded, and funerals became an important part of Muehlig's business. A full-page ad in the city directory that year promised "Metalic burial cases and coffins. A good hearse, always in attendance. Persons wishing their friends laid out can call on us night or day, free of charge."

The original Muehlig's was on the second floor of a frame building in the 200 block of South Main, about where the Full Moon now stands. It stayed in this location during Florian's day and that of his son, John, who inherited the business when his father died. When Florian J., son of John Muehlig, inherited the business in 1897, he moved it a block south to 307 South Main, above what is now the Manikas Sirloin House.

Muehlig's used two floors in their new location. Fred Rogers slept on the third floor from 1921, when he began working, until his marriage in 1926. Rogers would go to homes to embalm the bodies as soon as people died, even if it was the middle of the night. He would return later to dress the corpse and lay it in the casket, which he would bring back with him. He and the rest of the Muehlig's staff would continue to help the family, not just with the funeral and the burial, but by arranging flowers, bringing extra chairs for the many callers, and helping to set up the prayer services that were often held in the home before the funeral.

An important part of the job, then as now, was transporting the body, to the church if the funeral was held there, or directly to the cemetery if the funeral was at home. The hearses, sometimes called "death wagons," were stored in a barn and garage behind the houses of Florian and his sister, Bertie. In those days of high infant mortality, the fleet included a white carriage used just for children. Around 1918 Muehlig's switched to motorized vehicles, although they continued using horse-drawn carriages in bad weather for a few more years.

Although most funerals were held in churches or private homes, Muehlig's did have a small chapel that was used occasionally. Its second-floor location was cumbersome, however. The body would be delivered at the back of the Main Street building, taken to the second floor by a rope elevator housed in a small building also used as a car wash, and then carried over to the chapel on a tramway built to connect the two structures. After the funeral, the body would be taken back the same way, loaded in the hearse, and then driven via an alley to Main Street, while the family waited out in front.

When Florian J. died in 1926, his widow sold the business to five partners -- her two brothers-in-law, Ernest and Edward Muehlig; Fred Rogers; and two other employees, Roland Schmid and Emma Graf. The first thing the new owners did was to look for a new location better suited to holding funerals on the premises. In 1928 they found what they were looking for just a block away: the old Lynds house, an 1884 brick Queen Anne that had been designed and constructed by local builder John Gates for Joseph Jacobs, a men's clothier. Jacobs later sold it to Dr. J. B. Lynds, who used it as a private hospital until he died in the 1918 flu epidemic. His sister, Eleanor, then took it over, running it as a rooming house for "business women."

The Muehlig partners remodeled and enlarged their new quarters, adding office space on the Fourth Avenue side, a porte cochere on the William Street side for funeral exits, and a large garage accessible from both sides. Further remodeling was done in 1951 and 1964, and the parking lot was enlarged over the years by moving or tearing down several homes. (One home moved from the neighborhood stands today at 259 Crest.)

The tradition of ownership by a mixture of employees and family members has continued to this day, retiring partners selling their shares to employees who are familiar with the business. The present owners, including Bob Muehlig, the son of Edward, started as employees.

Not much has changed in the sixty years that Muehlig's has occupied the Fourth Avenue house. Bob Muehlig, who has been with the company since 1934, finds the biggest change is in the number of cremations. About 8 percent when he started, it has recently leveled off at about 40 percent. Other than that, it's rare for families to modify funeral services as freely as they do weddings, for example. But, says Neil Bidwell, there is "more participation in the planning of the service by the survivors than in the past." Occasionally a family will write their own eulogy or add poems or music. And from time to time, a family member may actually make the casket.

[Photo caption from original print edition]: Muehlig Funeral Chapel today (above) and in the early 1940's (top).

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Grace Shackman