Duggan’s Mission Chapel changes hands

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Four trends shaping the mortuary business:

1. More people are adapting traditional funeral services to better reflect the unique personality and passions of the person who died.

2. People are pre-planning their funerals so as to control the last event held in their honor.

3 Cremation is on the rise. Ed Leon said approximately 80 percent of his business is now cremations.

4.Technology is influencing the mortuary business with more families creating memorial videos and some places even offering live online broadcast of the funeral service.

It’s a rare Sonoma Valley resident who has never set foot inside Duggan’s Mission Chapel on West Napa Street.

Since 1959, five generations of Duggans have provided funeral arrangements, burials and cremations in Sonoma Valley.

But this winter marks the end of an era. Two Duggan daughters, Susan and Marilyn, who have run the business for decades, have handed the reins to a new owner: Edward Leon.

Leon, 42, purchased the business at the end of December. He now splits his time between his other funerary business, Monte’s Chapel of the Hills in San Anselmo, and learning the ropes at Duggan’s.

The Duggan family has a deep history in the undertaking business – one that stretches back to 1916 when William Duggan entered the business in San Francisco. He came up to Sonoma in 1959 with his wife and children and purchased the Mission-themed funeral parlor from the Bisso Brothers, who had it built in 1952.

Over the next two decades, the Duggans added two small chapels and redecorated the main chapel. In 1987, cremation service were added, making Duggan’s the first crematory in the area and the only licensed crematory in Sonoma Valley.

In 2001, Duggan’s Mission Chapel purchased its only local competitor, Bates, Evans & Fehrensen, which was located on Broadway (where Friexnet is now) and consolidated its operations into its West Napa Street facility.

“Sonoma was definitely not a large enough market for two funeral parlors,” said Marilyn.

The five Duggan children grew up in San Francisco surrounded by 18 cousins most of whom worked, and continue to work, in the funeral business. Members of the extended family still own and run Duggan’s Funeral Home in San Francisco and Duggan’s Serra Mortuary in Daly City.

As adults, the two sisters and a third, Leticia (Tatarian), each took on roles alongside their father at Duggan’s in Sonoma.

Women running a funeral home isn’t as unusual as one might think. Today, more than 60 percent of mortuary science students in the U.S. are women. According to the National Funeral Director’s Association, women are attracted to the skills and traits needed as a funeral director, including skills in communication, compassion and a desire to comfort those coping with a death – as well as organizational and event-planning skills.

Duggan’s is a full-service funeral home, providing funerals, cremations, embalming services, urns and caskets to around 300 clients a year, as well as taking care of the necessary paperwork, permits, obituaries and other details.

Death is big business in the United States; a fact that is unlikely to change as the country’s population ages. The U.S. funeral market is estimated to be a $20.7 billion industry. A typical casket funeral in the U.S. costs upwards of $10,000.

As independent mortuary owner-operators, both the Duggan family and new owner Ed Leon are becoming a dying breed. More and more mortuaries are publicly traded corporations that stand to profit greatly from the growing aged population in America.

Leon grew up in Windsor, and has been working in the funeral industry since the early 1990s. He attended the San Francisco College of Mortuary Science and worked as a funeral director and embalmer in Marin County.

He said that he likes it when people are curious about his work.

“Thanks to shows like ‘Six Feet Under,’ people are more comfortable talking about funeral homes,” he said.

Leon added than he has known Marilyn for years from funeral director social gatherings and that he jumped at the chance when he heard she would be retiring.

“We feel confident that Ed will carry on our traditions,” said Marilyn, whose family will continue to own the buildings in which the Sonoma Duggan’s is based. “We liked to think of him as our successor. That’s what we’re calling it.” She added that Leon has kept on all of her staff and that he has no plans to change the Duggan’s name. Susan will continue to serve as one of the mortuary’s funeral directors and Marilyn is staying on in a consulting role.

“I have spent a lot of time in Sonoma and it’s a privilege to run Duggan’s and to serve the community here,” said Leon.

Meanwhile, Marilyn misses heading into Duggan’s every day.

“I love my job and I never would have retired if I hadn’t gotten sick,” said Marilyn, who is battling cancer.

“I enjoy helping through such a difficult time in their life. We’re really proud to be associated with the funeral industry.”

Email Lorna at lorna.sheridan@sonomanews.com.

Four trends shaping the mortuary business:

1. More people are adapting traditional funeral services to better reflect the unique personality and passions of the person who died.

2. People are pre-planning their funerals so as to control the last event held in their honor.

3 Cremation is on the rise. Ed Leon said approximately 80 percent of his business is now cremations.

4.Technology is influencing the mortuary business with more families creating memorial videos and some places even offering live online broadcast of the funeral service.

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