Redwood Falls Gazette
  • Dearly departed

  •   After 42 years as a funeral director, Jim Johnson of Redwood Falls retired on Aug. 1. Also retired are his white shirt, coat, and tie. “Even when I went out at two in the morning, I would put on a white shirt, coat, and tie,” he said this week.&...
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  • After 42 years as a funeral director, Jim Johnson of Redwood Falls retired on Aug. 1.
    Also retired are his white shirt, coat, and tie.
    “Even when I went out at two in the morning, I would put on a white shirt, coat, and tie,” he said this week.
    “At one hospital in the Twin Cities, the nurses used to compare me to another funeral director who would show up in a t-shirt and Bermuda shorts.”
    Ah, the joys of retirement.
    “This summer, I’ve been living in Bermuda shorts!” Jim said. “I think I’ve had long pants on four times all summer.
    “We’ll be in a restaurant, or at the grocery store, and people will walk up and say, ‘I should know you.’
    “I’ll say, ‘I’m the funeral director at Echo,’” and they’ll say, ‘That’s how I know you! I didn’t recognize you without your suit and tie!’”
    Jim never set out to become a funeral director.
    “I started out majoring in accounting at Moorhead State. This was right at the beginning of computers, though, and I thought computers would replace accountants,” he said.
    “I heard funeral homes were hiring college students to work nights answering phones, so I applied. I got and apartment and $75 a week.”
    Spending nights in the funeral home, visiting with the directors on a daily basis, was enough to get Jim to switch his major to mortuary science. He got his degree from the U. of M. in 1968.
    Jim met his wife Judy in the funeral home where he was working as an intern, introduced by a mutual friend. They were married in 1968, and lived in Minneapolis and Wisconsin.
    The Johnsons moved to Redwood Falls in 1982 to be closer to their families. In 1997, Jim accepted the directorship of a funeral coop in Echo and Wabasso, and spent 13 years commuting.
    “One thing about small towns, you’re known for whose house you live in. For years, we lived in “the Evanson’s house,” said Jim. “Then after we planted 75 rose bushes, we lived in ‘the house with all the roses.’”
    Jim said he’s going to miss “working with families in their difficult times. Families in rural America are so supportive of each other. In rural areas, you’re more apt to know someone in the family, or the deceased themselves.
    “I’m not going to miss getting up at two or three in the morning, being on call 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.”
    “We’re actually going to have a small family get-together soon, and he’s not going to have to worry about having to leave,” said Judy.
    “At Thanksgiving or Christmas, I’d have to get up and go out. The kids just got used to it,” said Jim.
    “Judy spent 30 years dealing with the phone, since we’d have the funeral home calls forwarded to our home.”
    Years of eating funeral food have also taken their toll.
    “I learned to never make hot dishes for dinner,” she said. “Jim got enough of those at work.”
    Life in rural American brings its own challenges for funeral directors.
    “At one funeral, we had wild turkeys in the cemetery. We had problems getting people to come out of their cars. Those wild turkeys can get pretty aggressive.
    “Then there was one funeral where a hog wandering through the cemetery. I kept chasing him away, but he kept coming back.”
    Other memorable moments from Johnson’s career.
    • At a summer military funeral at Fort Snelling, the widow passed out from the heat just as the honor guard fired their rifles in salute.
    Right on cue, a small child called out, “They shot grandma!”
    • During one funeral service, a member of the family had a heart attack in church.
    Once the excitement was over and the heart attack victim had been taken away in an ambulance, the pastor continued with the sermon.
    “The deceased’s son said to me, ‘This is over, now,’” said Jim. “We stood in the back of the church doing this (draws finger across throat in the universal sign for ‘Cut it short’), and the pastor just said, “I’m not going to stop delivering my message!’”
    “The son was ready to be done, so we went up and wheeled out the body as the pastor was still talking.”
    • “It’s sad to see families fighting and divided at funerals,” said Jim. “They’ll be sitting on different sides of the church during the service.”
    However, one memorable service reversed it.
    “At one funeral in Wisconsin, they brought in the son in leg chains and wrist chains, and accompanied by two armed guards. The daughter sat on the other side of the church; she hadn’t talked to her brother in maybe 15 years.
    “The minister started his sermon with the story of the prodigal son, and I thought, ‘Oh no. Does he know what he’s doing?’
    “The pastor said if the father could see his two children sitting in the same room, it would mean so much to him.
    “After the service, the daughter went over and hugged her brother. To this day, I remember that sermon more than any other I’ve heard.”
    • The smallest funeral Jim directed: “Not a soul showed up. There were only the pastors and the funeral director.”
    • Jim’s largest funeral was when a father and son died together in an accident. The joint funeral was attended by over 1,300 mourners.
    • Once in the Twin Cities, Jim and Judy were out driving and saw a man lying in the road.
    “It was a hit-and-run accident, and we got there just moments after it happened,” said Jim. “I stayed with him while Judy ran for a pay phone to call 911.”
    Several days later, the victim was brought into the funeral home where Jim was working at the time.
    “I went to my boss and said, ‘Um, I’m listed in the police report about this man’s death. There might be a problem if the family saw my name there.”
    It went fine.
    How does life after retirement look now?
    “They say if you want a large funeral, die young,” Jim said. “I’d rather have a small one.”
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