Most family businesses only last two or three generations, but in a city like Frostburg, with families and small businesses dating back a century, you can expect the unexpected. Last month, Stephanie Durst of Durst Funeral Home became a fifth generation, fully licensed mortician, and the first woman in her family to do so. She has followed in the footsteps of over 100 years of relatives before her, including her younger brother, to carry on a family business as established as Frostburg State University.
Stephanie’s great-great grandfather, Jonas Durst, came down from Bittinger in 1895 to work for Mr. Nickel on Main Street at what we now call the Au Petit (Nickel building). Nickel was a local land developer as well as the first furniture maker/undertaker in Frostburg. The two industries often went hand in hand as cabinet makers typically made caskets as well. When Nickel died in 1904 Jonas Durst bought the business and continued working out of the Nickel building. In those days funerals were most often held in the deceased’s family’s home, so the building was used primarily for the more scientific side of things.
In 1914 Mrs. Nickel no longer wanted the undertaker business in the building and the Dursts moved up-street. They moved around for a bit; first in the old YMCA building and then a new property that burned in one of the famed Frostburg fires. The seven Durst family members very nearly gave up at that point but ultimately took out loans and tried again, constructing their own building this time between Murphy’s and Pritchard’s on Main Street.
In 1953 Stephanie’s grandfather moved the business to their current location, 57 Frost Ave. The business was passed down the generations and prospered. In 1978, while Stephanie’s father John was away at mortuary school, his father passed away. So John learned most of the practice from his grandfather before ultimately taking over. When the business was originally established every member of the family owned a piece, but, as John states, “it gets to where everybody in the family owns a piece of it and only a certain few are doing the work. And they are having to split the money up with everybody else and that doesn’t sit too well after awhile.” So in 1989 they dissolved the company, put it on the auction block, and John, with help from his siblings, bought it all back so that it would belong solely to their branch of the family. For the past 15 years John and his wife Sandy, have been the sole owners.
Throughout the years they have updated the historical Victorian style building but always kept the historical touches. The fountain out front was installed during the Frostburg bicentennial in 2012 after being relocated from its original home on Layman’s farm (Maplehurst). The fountain is a popular photo stop for local events. The funeral home was also the first historical building in the district to install solar panels. The 54 panels keep energy costs extremely low for a business that needs upwards of 100 lights on during services. The house still retains original fireplaces, chandeliers, and shutters that give it a comforting but timeless feel.
Stephanie grew up around the funeral home and in high school planned to go to mortuary school to follow in the family tradition. After graduating high school in 2000, she found that it wasn’t “in her heart” and she spent about 9 years in nursing school, art school, and moving to various areas of the country. She states, “It took moving all the way across the country to appreciate what I had back here,” and she returned home and attended mortuary school in Catonsville, completed her apprenticeship here under her father, and just became fully licensed this October. In mortuary school she learned anatomy, biochemistry, and all the skills you would expect a mortician to learn, but also accounting, business law, and psychology in order to effectively deal with every aspect of funeral planning from talking to the bereaved to preparing a body, to managing the business.
Her younger brother, Nick, went straight to mortuary school and has been licensed for about 14 years. Over the past few years John has backed away from many of the day to day responsibilities in order to allow Stephanie and Nick, the 5th generation, to start to take over.
Today the Durst Funeral Home is the oldest family business in town and their business has evolved over time as one would expect. John describes that years ago he dealt with 90% burial and 10% cremation. Now it’s more closer to 50/50 and they are “seeing more creativity and more alternative things. People want to customize it, everything changes, and if you don’t change with it you’re going to be lost in the wind.”
Even with all the changes to traditions, the funeral home has consistently performed about 100 funerals a year throughout the century. Each funeral takes about 3 days and with only 365 days in a year, the Dursts are always busy. John says, “As a family we can’t all do things together because we can’t all leave at the same time.” Someone always has to be on call, just in case.
“Funeral planning is a lot like wedding planning. It’s an event,” John explains, “There’s going to be a minister, or not, there’s going to be flowers, music, and family coming together. Except with a wedding you can take months to put it together and we have to put it together in 2-3 days.”
Sometimes working in the funeral business can be hard, Stephanie describes, “it’s a small town, everybody knows everybody. More than half the people that come through this door we are going to know.” She continues, “the good thing about working in a small town is you know 90% of the families, and have some connection; the bad thing about working in a small town is you know 90% of the families, so when they walk in you’re feeling it too.”
The Durst Funeral Home has always had a tight emotional bond with the city of Frostburg, and, as the city gives them community support, the Durst’s are quick to support local events and community functions in return. Stephanie and Nick are proud to be carrying their century old family business to the next generation of Frostburg. To continue providing a necessary service that everyone needs and few like to think about, and to show that today, there is no field in which a woman cannot excel.
FrostburgFirst Marketing & Communications Coordinator