Sacred Grounds - Transcribed

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Sacred Grounds – Transcribed

[00:00:00] Pete Waggoner: Hello again, everybody and welcome to the Good Grief Podcast from the O’Connell Family Funeral Homes. You can check us out online at https://oconnellfuneralhomes.com/. That’s plural. It is July. The weather’s great, and it’s time that we see a lot of people in the cemetery, obviously, because the weather is conducive to that.

[00:00:16] Pete Waggoner: And we’re gonna discuss how important cemeteries are and what they represent to those that are buried there and the survivors they leave behind. We’re joined by Mike Miller, and he’s from Willow River Cemetery in Hudson, Wisconsin. And Mike’s gonna share his insight while working with families in choosing their special place in the cemetery to honor their loved one. 

[00:00:35] Pete Waggoner: Looking forward to getting into this one. Amber Miller picks the topic. She knows what she’s doing, and she has us teed up for one that we’ve never done here on Good Grief. So I’m looking forward to that. We’ll have Mike coming up right after this.

[00:00:46] Amber Miller: Hi, it’s Amber Miller from the O’Connell Funeral Home. Have you ever felt like negative emotions were controlling you? Boy, do I feel that way sometimes. We understand that many people who are grieving are just going through the ups and downs of life [00:01:00] experience this. That’s why we created a series of positive affirmations with you in mind.

[00:01:05] Amber Miller: Head to our website, https://oconnellfuneralhomes.com/, to sign up. You’ll get a series of emails every other week that will give your day the boost that it needs. If you’d like to change your mood, your state of mind or manifest the change you desire, get the affirmations now. 

[00:01:21] Amber Miller: The best part, the emails are risk-free, so if at any point you don’t feel they’re helping you, you can opt-out at any time.

[00:01:29] Amber Miller: My gut, though, says you’re gonna enjoy them. 

[00:01:32] Pete Waggoner: And we welcome you back to the Good Grief podcast. So great to be back, Amber. Every month we’re here, we’re firing off a new topic. And I kind of tip the cap to you with the great topics that you bring up. And I tell people I do this podcast.

[00:01:44] Pete Waggoner: And oftentimes they’ll say to me, well, how do you guys come up with topics? What do you talk about? I go, there are so many things you wouldn’t even believe it. 

[00:01:51] Amber Miller: So true. So true. Lots of different parts of this industry, job, grief, loss, the whole thing. 

[00:01:56] Pete Waggoner: It’s pretty incredible. Mike, you’ve got a nice history in the [00:02:00] business.

[00:02:00] Pete Waggoner: Thanks for joining us here today. And I do like the idea of weather being conducive, but sometimes it’s not just about the weather, right. I mean, you know, people come at all times of the year. So we know that, but can you do just a quick summary of yourself and how you’ve got into the business, and what that looks like?

[00:02:16] Mike Miller: Sure. Well, I take you all the way back to the summer of 1979. A friend of my Dad’s was Leroy Johansen, who was the caretaker of Willow River Cemetery at the time. And he asked my Dad, “what’s your kid doing this summer?” So my first summer job was working at Willow River Cemetery in 1979, and I worked there throughout high school and college, and then five years went by when I went out into the real world and did what I went to school for.

[00:02:46] Mike Miller: But then in 1991, the caretaker job was available, and so I went for it, and I always loved the place, and I’ve been caretaker since 1991. 

[00:02:56] Pete Waggoner: So was that a job that, when you were doing it in high school, you just [00:03:00] kind of, what was it about that that drew you to it that you liked? 

[00:03:03] Mike Miller: It’s really, it’s, you know, now I’m older, and I can say it without embarrassment. But that first year as a 15-year-old, I fell in love with the place. I couldn’t explain it. In fact, at the end of that season, I was kind of sad I was going to school. 

[00:03:18] Mike Miller: Going into playing football and leaving my daily duties at the cemetery. So there’s a definite feel, I’m sure there’s a definite feel at every cemetery, but there is a definite feel and personality at Willow River Cemetery, and I just fell in love with it right away. 

[00:03:35] Pete Waggoner: Can you define what that is? 

[00:03:37] Mike Miller: I can’t, really. I think, and some people like my coworker, Dave Tostrud, who works with me and does so much work for the cemetery, he gets it. He’s got kind of the same passion as I have for the place.

[00:03:50] Mike Miller: It’s much more than just going to work and mowing grass. We always joke about it, but I think it’s true. The beauty of Willow River Cemetery is in its many [00:04:00] imperfections, so. 

[00:04:01] Pete Waggoner: Sure. 

[00:04:01] Mike Miller: Being a very imperfect person, I think I kind of glue to that.

[00:04:05] Pete Waggoner: This is by far our most grounded guest.

[00:04:08] Pete Waggoner: Yeah. No pun intended. Sorry. Sorry. 

[00:04:10] Mike Miller: There you go. 

[00:04:10] Pete Waggoner: So honest, obviously it’s a place of honor and remembrance and grieving, and you probably see all sorts of different layers of that. Can you talk a little bit about that component that goes into your space? 

[00:04:23] Mike Miller: Yeah. Well, and as always, I’m sure, I speak for Amber because she and the workers here at O’Connell’s obviously are more in-depth with their relationship with families than even I am. 

[00:04:37] Mike Miller: But that end of it is, when I meet with a family at the time of death, the thought that you’re talking to people at maybe the worst moment of their life. 

[00:04:48] Mike Miller: It’s a big responsibility, but there’s also some reward that goes with that if I feel like I kinda got ’em through the process of burial arrangements, a little less painlessly, [00:05:00] or a little less painful than they thought it might have been. 

[00:05:03] Mike Miller: So that relationship with families, someone loses a son or a daughter, especially, is specifically very difficult obviously. And that relationship and that part of the job is the most important, most rewarding. And it’s nice because I have developed relationships with some of the people that have come through.

[00:05:26] Pete Waggoner: I was gonna say, is it fair to say that, like, you know, everybody in the Hudson area? 

[00:05:30] Pete Waggoner: I mean. 

[00:05:31] Mike Miller: My kids say that. They’re probably right. 

[00:05:35] Pete Waggoner: No, but I mean, you know, along with that comes trust in you and where they’re going to. And you know, in terms of legacies and things that they share with their loved ones, how does that look?

[00:05:50] Pete Waggoner: I mean, are there different types of things that people do? 

[00:05:53] Mike Miller: Yeah, I mean, every person is different, obviously, and every situation is different. And again,[00:06:00] Amber and the, and the folks here at O’Connell’s know that better than anyone. 

[00:06:04] Mike Miller: It’s a thing that I used to be. So when I got a call, for instance, from O’Connell’s that a family was coming over to purchase a grave site. In my younger years, I would be scared to death because I just, again, that realization that they’re going through this terrible time.

[00:06:19] Mike Miller: What do you say? Those things went through my head so often. Over the years, I’ve learned not to get too nervous or excited until they get to the cemetery because every family handles death differently, too. 

[00:06:34] Mike Miller: So now it’s a case where people come in, I can kind of read how they’re doing. Some people are incredibly strong, and some people are not so much. And so it’s just an adjustment of how to handle each family uniquely. 

[00:06:50] Pete Waggoner: How close to families do you get on the day, for instance? Or is it pretty much prepared, and you [00:07:00] just step back and let it happen? 

[00:07:02] Mike Miller: Well, again, my main goal, I don’t like to hurry them through the process, but to get them into the cemetery, show them what we have available for sale, and get them out of the cemetery as quickly as possible is kind of my goal, just so they don’t have to endure too much of an experience at the cemetery. 

[00:07:25] Mike Miller: But again, it is different from family to family. For some people, that’s the way they express their grief. They like to talk. And so I’m there to listen. Some would rather just, let’s get this planned and get going.

[00:07:40] Mike Miller: So again, every family’s different. But as Amber, I’m sure would attest, that family that you’re dealing with at that particular moment is the most important person in the world to you at that moment. 

[00:07:53] Pete Waggoner: How does that sale process work?

[00:07:55] Pete Waggoner: So you’ve obviously got space, are there [00:08:00] premium type spaces or, you know, how do you go about selecting that? 

[00:08:05] Mike Miller: Well, again, everyone’s different. Every situation is different. But the first question is whether or not the person is thinking in terms of traditional burial or cremation.

[00:08:16] Mike Miller: Once we have that established, then we can go to cremation-only areas and columbariums, the above-ground units. 

[00:08:25] Mike Miller: If it is going to be a traditional burial situation, then we know to go to the traditional sites. So, as far as premium spots, no, everything is basically priced the same.

[00:08:36] Mike Miller: But it raises a really good point that I like people to actually go into this section that we’re looking at and just, it sounds a bit strange, but to get a feel, what feels best to them. Because as I remind them, this is gonna be a place that’s gonna be here for a long time.

[00:08:54] Pete Waggoner: Are you finding trends in terms of below ground? I mean, as you’ve gone through this, do you see where it, oh, this is [00:09:00] happening a lot more now than maybe it did 10 years ago? 

[00:09:02] Mike Miller: You know we are, and I guess that goes with the personality of Willow River Cemetery is that you just, you can never predict.

[00:09:10] Pete Waggoner: Right? 

[00:09:10] Mike Miller: Right. It’s like one year, we will have 70% cremation and we think we’re going towards that national trend, and then, for instance, this last winter since November, we’ve been getting predominantly, up to this point, traditional. So just when we think it’s going a certain way, it swings back the other way. So very unpredictable. I know not to plan. 

[00:09:33] Pete Waggoner: So Mike, you’re telling me there’s no trend in that? 

[00:09:36] Mike Miller: Not here, anyway. And like I said, in every cemetery, I’m sure the people feel theirs is unique, but ours seems to have her own personality. 

[00:09:45] Pete Waggoner: How about when people come in on a day-to-day, week-to-week, month-to-month, year-to-year basis, and tend to the space, whether it be flowers, arrangements, changing them, how do you see that shakedown and do you [00:10:00] get involved with that at all or do you kind of, do you have rules?

[00:10:02] Mike Miller: We have rules. They’re pretty loose. And I’m a terrible one for following regulations, especially with regard to people grieving. And that may sound a little bit irresponsible on my part, but I think it’s just so important for each person to be able to grieve the way they need to grieve. And when they come to the cemetery to be able to, especially that first year, I think Amber would probably agree that the first year is just the most difficult. 

[00:10:32] Pete Waggoner: That was my next question. Do you notice a trend in terms of body language and how people are over the years? Does it become almost where it’s a peaceful thing in their lives where they can go really have some solitude with a loved one?

[00:10:45] Mike Miller: Right. Again, it varies, and then it depends on the situation, but I think the one common thing that never goes away is just the look of loss and sadness in their eyes, regardless of what the situation may [00:11:00] be. But it does help. And the old adage that “time is the best healer,” I think, does apply very much so in this world of death and burial arrangements and then memorializing.

[00:11:14] Mike Miller: Yeah. 

[00:11:15] Pete Waggoner: Amber, I’m gonna drag you in on this one a little bit. This question that you put forth about ancestry.com and 23andme and those types of things, and genealogy and its space within a cemetery. From what angle were you coming from there? So yeah, complete blank slate here. No idea, please. 

[00:11:33] Amber Miller: Sure. Well, when meeting with families at the time, that’s a big question, are people still doing burials? What’s the trends look like? And especially if you’re looking at maybe the West Coast where people are leaning maybe more towards scattering. 

[00:11:46] Amber Miller: I’m always a huge advocate for burial sites. And one of the biggest reasons that we kind of talked about, you know, some others, whether that’s honor a place for remembrance, a place for their legacy ancestry and 23andme, that genealogy component, I [00:12:00] feel like in the last, what, three years, four years? That whole genealogy thing has really grown immensely, especially with the internet and people being able to connect with families all over.

[00:12:11] Amber Miller: And I think cemeteries serve as a great way for that. People come through, and I’m sure Mike, you’ve seen it often, people coming through and looking at families upon families of families of stones and plots of people who were, had been in their family for generations and kind of learning about their family tree.

[00:12:28] Pete Waggoner: Right. And people coming from probably out of the area too. 

[00:12:31] Amber Miller: Exactly. 

[00:12:31] Mike Miller: Right. Yeah. It’s funny, we have; it’s almost annually that August for some reason. I don’t know if it’s the end of the summer months or what, but that seems to be the busiest time of the year for me in terms of people doing their family tree studies and looking up. And I find those fascinating.

[00:12:50] Mike Miller: And usually, I probably ask more questions than I should with these families. 

[00:12:56] Pete Waggoner: Right? Why not? 

[00:12:56] Mike Miller: Regarding, because we mow over these sites [00:13:00] countless times a year, and it’s just kind of neat to get a story behind who these people are. And most of the time, people are more than willing to share their stories and what they know about their ancestors. 

[00:13:10] Amber Miller: Nice kind of sense of community too. I mean, we did a burial there a couple of days ago, and in talking with the family, you know, at the end of the graveside service, they said, “He would’ve really loved to be surrounded by his Mom and Dad, and his grandparents are over there, and his brother is over there.”

[00:13:27] Amber Miller: And it just, you could feel that sense of peace that brought to the family knowing that he was with his loved ones surrounding him. 

[00:13:32] Pete Waggoner: Right. That’s then one of the things you brought up, and it just mowing and just the overall look. How important is that? 

[00:13:41] Mike Miller: Extremely. And it’s a thing that, over the years, it does, gets to a point where you’re constantly concerned about it, especially this time of the year. We don’t do any type of spraying. So our big thing now is the dandelions, and they’re going to seed, and how are they gonna look on Memorial Day? [00:14:00] So that’s a constant thing.

[00:14:01] Mike Miller: We literally start on a Monday, and if everything goes right with the weather, we’re done Friday afternoon with mowing, and then we start the process over again. 

[00:14:10] Pete Waggoner: Well, and with Memorial Day, that can know the whole community, like you were saying, where you know, it’s probably pretty busy. 

[00:14:15] Mike Miller: Yes. Yeah, it is the busiest week of the year for us next week, going into Memorial Day weekend. 

[00:14:22] Pete Waggoner: How about scattering? This is a topic for me, which is intriguing. Like, I don’t ever wanna be scattered. Because if you’re a Catholic like me on the resurrection, I want it all in one spot, just in case. I’m just saying, you know, like, how are they gonna get me from that side of the ocean when I was in the stomach of a fish?

[00:14:40] Pete Waggoner: Like, that’s probably, sorry, but you know, you know what I’m saying? 

[00:14:45] Mike Miller: Exactly. 

[00:14:45] Pete Waggoner: Let’s get into that a little bit. It’s obviously more and more it’s going toward that, and how does that play in with you? 

[00:14:51] Mike Miller: Well, you know, obviously in a cemetery, being a cemetery, we’re a place for burial or inurnment, so the scattering [00:15:00] aspect doesn’t really apply to us. But I think what you’re kind of alluding to is the importance of having a place to go. 

[00:15:07] Pete Waggoner: Correct. 

[00:15:08] Mike Miller: So often when, and Amber again will attest to this, that people with regards to cremation, they’ll hang on to the cremains for a couple of years. They just can’t give that person up, so to speak, for a couple of years.

[00:15:22] Mike Miller: But then the mindset changes more often than not, where they want a place to go and for their kids to go. So then they’ll approach us and want a place to. 

[00:15:34] Pete Waggoner: What does that say to a person like myself that sounds so cold? Like, I didn’t, I don’t want it there. I want it there. You know, so it’s the, it’s the inverse of what you said, where it’s hard to let go. But I don’t know if I ever could if I did. Personally. And so I just think the value of what you have is so important. Because it’s almost, you know, for me, it’s mentally a home. You know, it’s their home now. At least earthly [00:16:00], for me. Do you feel as though the people that are in the position where they can go to a cemetery have a real great level of comfort because it’s still tangible?

[00:16:11] Mike Miller: Right. And that’s another one of our goals at the cemetery is just to take away the scariness of a cemetery. And I mentioned Dave Tostrud, that works with me. He’s done so much with regard to our website and daily photos. He and I walk the grounds every morning, and he always captures the place very well.

[00:16:31] Mike Miller: And our goal with that is just to make it so people feel more, hey, this is a place for us to go to. And that also ties in also with people always asking, who owns the cemetery? And I can’t stress enough that we are not a part of the City of Hudson municipality program. We’re a separate entity nonprofit.

[00:16:53] Mike Miller: And so when people ask me who owns it, I say, you do, or everyone that’s here. So that makes [00:17:00] ’em feel more like, “Hey, this is our place. This isn’t just someplace we have to go and adhere to a bunch of regulations. It’s a place for us to go to.” 

[00:17:09] Pete Waggoner: So it always seems as though every cemetery, it seems like they never fill up.

[00:17:14] Pete Waggoner: Like there’s always space. So can you talk about that? Are you in a position where you’re like, we gotta carve some space here? We gotta get more land. I mean, how does that work? 

[00:17:21] Mike Miller: Well, it is getting to a point where, and I just mentioned this to a recent family. I’m almost apologetic that we don’t have more options in terms of different sections.

[00:17:32] Mike Miller: We’re getting down to probably about three or four options that they can look at, at the cemetery. Because we are getting a little bit confined. Now, the space that we own predominantly what’s left is on the west side of Ninth Street, which, if people know where I live, would be just to the north of my house and south of the old cemetery.

[00:17:55] Mike Miller: The wooded area is ours. So there’s a lot of land space there, [00:18:00] especially when you talk in terms of cremation burials. So we have enough land for many generations to come. 

[00:18:09] Pete Waggoner: Did you hear that? 

[00:18:09] Amber Miller: Mm-hmm. 

[00:18:10] Pete Waggoner: That’s, that’s it. That’s crazy. Yeah. You know? 

[00:18:13] Mike Miller: Yeah. 

[00:18:13] Pete Waggoner: So that’s interesting. So, but you know, you’re always obviously planning ahead and looking ahead, and you know, it’s not like you go, oh, we better get going here. 

[00:18:21] Mike Miller: Right. So often, it comes up in conversation that things will take place after we’re gone. But it has to be in place and ready. The other kind of positive development in that area, too, is the growth of columbariums, which are above-ground units for cremation inurnments.

[00:18:41] Mike Miller: And those can basically be placed anywhere. So if we wanted to utilize the old cemetery because of its historical value and appeal perhaps we could put columbariums there in alleyways and so. So if you put that into the equation, then it’s kind of infinite. 

[00:18:58] Pete Waggoner: That’s huge, I think, [00:19:00] for everybody listening too. I don’t know if it crosses people’s minds, but that’s worth putting out there.

[00:19:04] Pete Waggoner: Anything that you have for Mike Miller? 

[00:19:06] Amber Miller: No, I think he really shared it perfectly that cemeteries, Willow River specifically, is an amazing place to kind of start the process of grief work. It’s an important place. 

[00:19:19] Amber Miller: I just think there are very few places in this world where it’s meant that we kind of turn off our phones and be with ourselves, and we kind of remove ourselves from the hustle and bustle. I mean, we’re always connected to our phones, our emails, and our work computer is dinging. We’re hearing the traffic, we’re going to and fro. 

[00:19:35] Amber Miller: The cemetery’s a perfect place to come be with your loved one, and share in their legacy. Remember them, honor them, and just do that whole grief work, which I’m always an advocate for.

[00:19:47] Pete Waggoner: Yeah. Well said. 

[00:19:48] Mike Miller: Yes. 

[00:19:49] Pete Waggoner: Amber Miller, Mike Miller. No relation, right?

[00:19:51] Amber Miller: Nope. Okay. 

[00:19:52] Pete Waggoner: I know everybody’s dying to know. 

[00:19:53] Mike Miller: Much to Amber’s benefit. 

[00:19:55] Pete Waggoner: No, well. 

[00:19:56] Mike Miller: Some say that she’s my niece. 

[00:19:58] Pete Waggoner: Yeah, no. So, so [00:20:00] what? It’s convenient. Right? But that might work, you know. Just to push the deal over. No, I’m just kidding. No, I’m kidding. So thanks for joining the show here today.

[00:20:08] Pete Waggoner: Very insightful. Good stuff. And obviously, your cemetery from the O’Connell Family Funeral Home it’s just right down the road. You bump right into it. 

[00:20:15] Mike Miller: Yes. Yeah, that’s the other convenient thing too.

[00:20:17] Amber Miller: Yeah. Yeah. 

[00:20:18] Pete Waggoner: We’re talking two blocks. 

[00:20:20] Mike Miller: Yeah, two, three blocks. 

[00:20:22] Amber Miller: Yeah. Yeah.

[00:20:22] Mike Miller: Basically, and you’ll see it at least. If I could just plug one more time, our website because it’s just a great place, a great source of information, and it’s very simply, Willow River, https://willowrivercemetery.com/. Great place to go if you have any questions. And if that doesn’t do the job for you, you can always call me.

[00:20:45] Pete Waggoner: Awesome. Yeah, he’s available. That’s some good stuff. 

[00:20:48] Pete Waggoner: Amber, Mike, thanks for joining the show. 

[00:20:50] Mike & Amber: Thank you. So thank you so much, so much. 

[00:20:51] Pete Waggoner: That’s gonna do it for our July edition of Good Grief. I’m Pete Waggoner. So long, everybody.