Marilyn Duggan Caselli always said she didn’t fear death, even when she was diagnosed with metastasized cancer.
As the funeral director of Duggan’s Mission Chapel for 35 years, “Mar,” as she was called by loved ones, had plenty of practice with death and dying. It’s an inevitability, of course, and paradoxically, a surprise. Growing comfortable with its processes takes a special kind of person.
Casselli, 77, was that person, in spades. “She was the life of every party,” daughter Tisha Chinn said.
A mother of four, three of whom live in Sonoma, Caselli was deeply committed to her children. She stayed at home raising them until they entered high school, at which point she stepped into the family business.
The family’s history in undertaking stretches all the way back to 1916, when patriarch William Duggan entered the business in San Francisco. He came to Sonoma in 1959, and purchased the mission-themed funeral parlor on West Napa Street. By 1982, “Mar” Duggan Caselli – her children nearly grown – joined the enterprise. A year later she earned her funeral director’s license, and four years after that, her crematory license, ushering in a new era for the chapel. Though Marilyn and her sister Susan sold Duggan’s a year ago, it remains the only licensed crematory in the Sonoma Valley.
Caselli’s life helped her prepare for her own death, accustomed as she was with the process. “At first, it was really hard for her to help people who were grieving,” daughter Teresa Caselli said. “But when she realized how much she was helping people as she guided them through unknown territory, it grew easier.” Heartbreak and loss are never easy to bear, and the sadness of strangers is particularly complex. “Mom found it hard to get through it without crying in the beginning, but when she realized people were turning to her for help, she found a way,” said Caselli.
Her children remember their mother coming home with unique stories, tales of faith and transcendent mercy. A devout Catholic herself, Caselli saw beauty in others’ cultural traditions, and often regaled her children with their stories. She strove to find the commonalities that bind people together despite language or religion, believing that the sum of human experience trumped the dividing details of its parts.
Caselli loved going to the movies; she traveled often and visited exotic ports of call. But what she loved most was having her family together. “She bought a large house about 10 years ago and, initially, we all wondered why,” said her daughter Teresa. Caselli wanted to be sure there was room for everyone at once, a big, happy place for all the children and grandchildren to gather. They were her life’s work, even more than the chapel. Her family was – in the end – her highest calling.
Her children surrounded her on the day that she died, calm in the knowledge that she was at peace. The battle had been long, difficult to witness and likely harder to bear, but they’d all been given time to say what needed saying. “It was very beautiful. Very peaceful. There was no struggle or pain,” Teresa Caselli said.
“Mar” Duggan Caselli reminded her children that her life had been sweet, that she’d lived all her days without regret. She wasn’t afraid and she was ready to go. “It’s been a great life,” she told her children.
On Friday, Caselli’s funeral Mass will be said at St. Leo the Great Church, in a service she planned in its entirety. After helping hundreds of Valley residents cross the divide, Caselli most certainly knows the way there.
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