by Jill Ragar Esfeld
KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Not many women can claim they fell in love in a funeral home, but Helen Skradski can.
She met her late husband Matt just after high school when she was attending Donnelly College in Kansas City, Kansas, and he was at Rockhurst College in Kansas City, Missouri.
He brought her home on their first date.
His family happened to live above their place of business — Skradski Funeral Home in Kansas City, Kansas.
“We came through the prep room,” she recalled. “And I thought, ‘This is kinda creepy.’
“There was no one in there, no body or anything. But it was different; I was not used to that.”
She got used to it very quickly.
The couple continued to date through college. And when Matt joined the Navy and was often away, Helen would hang out with his family.
“I would come and go,” she said. “And, eventually, it was no big deal.”
Matt’s mother did the cosmetic work in the prep room. Helen got in the habit of visiting with her while she worked.
“It wasn’t anything,” she said. “I’d be in there with her and we would talk; she’d tell me who this was and how this one was related to that one.”
Indeed, the family knew just about everyone they buried. That’s the way it is when you’re a small business in a tight-knit community.
Serving the neighborhood
In 1892, Matt Skradski Sr. immigrated to the United States from his native Croatia.
He settled in the Kansas City, Kansas, community known as Strawberry Hill.
In 1929, Skradski Funeral Home opened its doors for the first time.
The business was passed down from father to son to grandson. They were all named Matt.
Helen married her Matt in 1969, when he was on leave from the Navy.
“After Matt got out of the Navy,” she said, “we moved to St. Joseph, Missouri, where he worked at Carnation Company.”
The mortuary business wasn’t in their plans until Matt’s father had a heart attack and needed help.
“The mortuary school opened up out here at Kansas City Kansas Community College,” said Helen. “And so, Matt started taking classes and got his degree in mortuary science.”
The couple eventually bought the business from Matt’s parents with the intention of running it in partnership.
“My mother-in-law always said, ‘This is a corporal work of mercy,’’’ recalled Helen. “I knew that growing up Catholic, Matt and I would embrace it together — and we did.
“He had the business side,” she said.
“I had the softer side.”
Meeting life’s challenges
Oddly enough, Helen had been a wedding singer for most of her life. Now she began to sing at funerals, too.
And she did it beautifully.
Singing was a talent she discovered when she was forced into performing for a musical at Bishop Ward High School in Kansas City, Kansas.
“I was a wallflower,” she said. “And then at Ward, I had a nun who pulled me off the wall.”
This pattern would be repeated often in Helen’s life — being pulled off the wall to meet a life challenge.
She was happily in the background of the mortuary business — until her husband suggested she take on more responsibility.
“So I went to school and got my license,” she said. “That turned out to be a blessing.”
A blessing indeed — Helen and her husband had three grown children and a thriving business when Matt, only 53 years old, died unexpectedly.
“He had a massive heart attack,” she said. “We were getting ready for our son’s wedding. I had no idea that he would be gone.
“But that’s part of this business — some are unexpected.”
Overnight, Helen became the sole owner, manager and administrator of the funeral home.
But like discovering her voice when she was forced into a high school musical, she discovered God had prepared her perfectly to meet this challenge, too.
And the experience of losing her husband gave her a wealth of empathy for the people she would serve with love and compassion in the years to follow.
“I needed the people here as much as they needed me,” she said. “I suffered that loss that I see everybody else is going though.”
Empathy and faith
Helen’s children had chosen career paths outside of the funeral business. When her husband died, she was on her own.
“I had never sat here and met with a family,” she said. “I did the embalming, the cosmetic work; I was in the background.”
Now she had to step out front while others took over in the background.
“It was hard,” she said. “I had to get myself up and get going — I would get up at five and probably not go to bed until one o’clock.”
But the hard work was part of her path to healing.
“For me, doing this job was what I needed,” said Helen. “Going through the grieving process — I had done that before with a mother and a father.
“But losing Matt — then I understood the losing of a spouse and your children’s father.”
She learned to mix business with compassion as she interacted with her community in a new way.
“I met with the people and learned more about them,” she said. “As far as the church community [of St. John the Baptist], I was singing in the choir and knew the people that way and belonged to the parish.
“But now, I had to feel what they were feeling.”
Helen credits her faith with giving her the strength to carry on with it.
“If I didn’t have my faith, I couldn’t have gotten through it,” she said. “A lot of people wondered ‘Can she keep this going?’ because I was it.
“And so with my faith, I said, ‘OK, Lord, you’ve got to help me. You led me all these steps — having me embraced by this family, by this community, having me go to school.
“So it must be your plan.’”
A new face in town
God continues to guide Helen.
After running the funeral home alone for 18 years, she knew it was time to turn the reins over to someone else.
But she wanted someone who would care for the community as much as she did.
She found that person in Steve Pierce.
Pierce, who owns Muehlebach Funeral Care, a Catholic funeral home in Missouri, purchased Skradski Funeral Home in December of 2014.
Like Helen, he was drawn into the business by his relationship with a family who owned a mortuary.
“I grew up in a farming community near Kansas City,” he said. “When I was in tenth grade, I had a friend with a similar situation to the Skradski family.
“They lived upstairs — so when I was at their home, I was at the funeral home.”
Pierce began helping out in the mortuary and eventually went to get his degree in mortuary science.
“It’s the only job I’ve ever had,” he said. “I always knew this is what I wanted to do.”
A mutual friend, knowing Helen and Pierce shared similar Catholic values, suggested they talk. But God let Helen know she’d found the right person to take over her family’s business.
“It was divine providence,” she said. “I really say that and mean it and feel it.”
While the two were privately negotiating the sale, Helen was involved in a funeral service with a priest from Missouri.
“It was just a beautiful service,” she said, “and Father and I were talking and he complimented me on the service.
“And he said, ‘There’s only one other person I think does such a wonderful service, and it’s a young man named Steve Pierce.’”
“He had no idea that Helen and I were in the process of talking,” said Pierce.
“No,” interjected Helen. “He didn’t have a clue.
“So I said, ‘Father, could you pray for me?’”
When Helen got home from the service, she found two roses in the back of the hearse.
“A message from the Blessed Mother,” she said. “He was the guy.”
A new lease on life
Pierce, a parishioner of St. Thomas More Parish in Kansas City, Missouri, plans to continue the traditions started by the Skradski family.
“We’re one of the few [funeral homes] that are still part of the community,” he said. “I say that because we’re involved in the community, we give back to the community and we still live and work in the community.
“And many of the funeral homes in the metropolitan area have been bought out by corporations.”
Making sure her business stayed part of the community was one of the biggest concerns for Helen.
“The big companies that buy these up don’t know the background of the community,” she said. “They don’t know how the people need to be treated and understood.”
Pierce shares her attitude.
“When they’re going through that most difficult time,” he said, “they want to deal with someone they know and they trust.”
So far, the community has embraced the new owner.
“People have been very supportive and appreciative of the years Helen has put in here,” said Pierce. “They realize she deserves to slow down.”
As for Helen, she’s starting a very new chapter in her life. She will soon be married again.
“I’m engaged,” she said. “Matt’s been gone 18 years, and I found a wonderful man that I can share the rest of however many days I get.”
“I’m going to retire and travel,” she added.
“She’s going to semiretire,” corrected Pierce.
Helen acknowledged his truth.
“You get emotionally attached,” she said. “That’s why it will be hard for me to let go.”