Meet a family that’s spent more than a century helping others through their grief, and discover how personal challenges have provided the foundation to a long-lasting business.
Bruce Olson knows all too well the heartache that comes with death. The fourth-generation owner of Olson Funeral & Cremation Services, Ltd., 1001 Second Ave., Rockford, has spent a career helping people grieve the loss of loved ones.
But for Bruce, the pain is also personal. In 1963, his older brother, Fred C. Olson III, who was a 20-year-old senior in the mortuary science department at the University of Minnesota, and his younger sister, Joan, 15, were killed in a jet airliner crash deep in the Florida Everglades. All 43 people on board died in the accident.
The tragedy rocked the Olson family. Bruce was a 17-year-old senior in high school at the time, and the accident had him reconsidering a possible career in medicine. “Things were very difficult for our family,” says Bruce. “Here my parents went from having three children in the house, to seven months later having no kids at home. Talk about a quick empty nest. The only way my dad survived his own grief was that, as a funeral director, he was able to help other people who were going through their own terrible losses. I learned a lot about grief – mine and others – throughout this process and decided I wanted to help people, too.”
Bruce went on to earn his bachelor of science and bachelor of arts degrees from the University of Minnesota. Upon graduation, he joined his grandfather, Fred Sr., and father, Fred II, in the family business. These days, Bruce runs the business with his son, Scott, who also serves as president. “There is a high degree of sadness in what we do,” says Scott. “But we’re also helping people celebrate life.”
Olson Funeral & Cremation Services has been in business for 125 years. The founder was Nels Olson, an immigrant from Skane, Sweden, who moved to the United States in 1868, settled in New Milford, and eventually became a farmer. When a friend by the name of Ugarf, a funeral director, became seriously ill, he asked Nels to move to Rockford to lend a hand with his business. In 1888, Nels became a full-time funeral director.
Nels had two sons, who divided the business into two parts: Olson Undertaking, which was owned by Vern Olson, and Fred C. Olson Mortuary, which was operated by Fred C. Olson Sr. “Vern’s part of the business didn’t survive very long, but Fred’s business flourished,” says Bruce. In 1929, Fred Sr. built a facility on Second Avenue. Six years later, Fred C. Olson II joined his father in the family business. Fred Sr. stayed active in it until the early 1970s, and Fred II remained involved until 1987.
In 1966, Bruce became the fourth generation to join the business, following his graduation from the University of Minnesota. “The door was always open to join the business, but I was never pressed,” says Bruce, who lost his grandfather in 1975 and his father 13 years later. “My grandfather took me under his wing. He introduced me to families and taught me things like how to be sensitive to people’s feelings. He always said to me, ‘Walking into a funeral chapel can be one of the most difficult things a person experiences.’ How many people get the opportunity to learn life lessons from their grandfather like that?”
Scott took a different route in becoming the fifth generation Olson to join the business. After graduating with a communications degree from Denison University in Ohio, he moved to Colorado to join his now wife, Rebecca, who was attending school there. Scott spent four years working as a fishing guide, bartender and working in a ski shop, before coming back home in 1999 to attend Mortuary Science School. Scott, who has three siblings who pursued other career interests, joined his father in 2000.
“I knew I’d get into the family business eventually,” he says. “I had to learn pretty quickly. Fortunately, I could bounce ideas off my father; he’s always been open to my suggestions.”
“Scott’s doing a wonderful job,” says Bruce. “The world is changing so quickly. Any business today needs young people at the helm.”
Olson Funeral & Cremation Services has seen steady growth over the years. In 1994, the business opened a second Rockford location at 2811 N. Main St., in a building that formerly housed both retail shops and restaurants. Olson offers visitations and services at both of its locations.
“We needed to expand,” says Bruce. “Our facility on Second Avenue is almost 90 years old. Despite a great deal of history, architecture and warmth that it provides for so many people, the cost to expand that location would have been much greater than opening a second facility.”
In 2005, Burpee-Wood Funeral Home merged with Olson Funeral Chapels, when owner Brad Wood retired. There had been a cordial relationship between the two companies for more than 100 years.
Three years later, Olson expanded its market territory by acquiring Quiram Funeral Homes in Sycamore, Genoa and Kirkland. “We’ve had a business relationship with the Quiram family since the 1970s,” says Bruce. “This move was made to ensure that people in those areas continue to be offered the same high-quality service that they’re used to.” Bruce adds that future expansion is always a possibility.
Over the years, the Olsons have seen a number of changes within the funeral industry. For example, what was once a male-dominated profession has now leveled out. Bruce says half of Olson’s full-time employees are female.
Most changes, however, center on cremation services, which have seen a steady rise. “For a majority of people we serve, it’s a personal preference as opposed to a financial choice,” says Scott. “The interesting thing about cremation is the doors it’s opened in our industry. Before it was pretty much death, visitation, funeral and burial. Thanks to cremation, we now have memorial services at a church, funeral home or someplace else, without the body being present. The service might even be held weeks later.”
Cremation jewelry, also known as funeral, memorial or remembrance jewelry, is used as a way to memorialize a loved one. It’s available in the form of pendants, rings, bracelets, necklaces and lockets. The jewelry, which holds a small portion of the cremated remains or displays the thumbprint of a loved one, can either be worn or displayed in a jewelry box. “More and more people are asking for it,” says Scott. “It’s another way to hold that special someone close.”
Having an online presence has also become an important marketing tool for all funeral providers. Olson is working on a new website that will give clients the opportunity to take care of a lot of the arrangements online, instead of coming to the funeral home. And people are reading obituaries online more than ever.
“It’s amazing the number of hits we get on our website,” says Bruce. “There are people who don’t feel comfortable coming to a funeral home. That’s why we’re trying to make things as convenient as possible.” Olson staff members will even travel to a client’s home to make funeral arrangements and pre-arrangements, if requested.
The Olsons see every service they offer as a form of family therapy. “We all grieve differently,” says Bruce. “Usually with couples, one of them will be having a more difficult time than the other. As the journey of grief goes on, that will change. They will help each other. Grief manifests itself in different ways, and at different times. Our fast-paced society wants people to work through grief quickly. Unfortunately, it’s not always that easy.”
The Olsons agree that the most satisfying aspect of their business is caring for clients in their time of need. “We have people all the time who thank us for taking care of their loved one,” Bruce says. “It’s not morose. It’s a rewarding experience.”