Sundberg Funeral Home has been a thriving business for more than 100 years. Learn why the brand has a trustworthy reputation.
Being a funeral director is more than a job for Darryl Johnson.
“I feel that it’s a calling,” he says. “I was 12 when my father passed away. That experience shaped me, even though I didn’t realize it at the time. As I got older, I realized I could help other people in similar situations. That’s how I got into the business.”
1980 was a big year for Darryl. He married his wife, Marsha, and he graduated from mortuary school at Southern Illinois University. Since then, he’s been working at Sundberg Funeral Home, a Queen Anne-style Victorian facility at 215 N. Sixth St., Rockford. He became part owner in 1995, then sole owner in 2008.
Marsha joined the business when Darryl became sole owner.
“We always try to put our customers’ needs ahead of our own,” Marsha says. “We spend a lot of time listening. With any business, you have to be flexible, but it’s especially important when you’re a funeral director. When the phone rings at 2 a.m., Darryl gets up and goes out himself.”
It’s not uncommon for the Johnsons to get calls from hospitals and nursing homes at late hours in the night. Instead of waiting until morning, Darryl leaves right away to retrieve the deceased. If the person is going to be embalmed, he finds that results are best when the process is done right away.
Being on call at all times doesn’t bother the Johnsons. They emulate the compassion of the original owners, Collins and Norma Sundberg.
“It might sound cliché, but empathy is an important quality to have,” Marsha says. “We’ve had a lot of holidays interrupted throughout the years, but our two daughters understand. As hard as it is to interrupt our holiday, think of what another family is going through. That puts it in perspective.”
Throughout the years, Darryl has learned that it’s important to keep up with tasks that seem less important. For example, updating the building’s landscape proved to be a tremendous improvement in the building’s overall aesthetic.
Marsha often hears from clients how “homey” the building feels.
“I’m proud of the fact that this building is 100 years old and well-maintained – I think it’s important for Rockford to have buildings like this that show our city’s history,” she says.
Despite the long history, the Johnsons aren’t afraid to adapt to change. They’ve kept up-to-date as cremation has grown in popularity and as services have become more personalized.
“You have to learn to adapt, no matter what you’re doing,” Darryl says. “That’s how you survive.”
Regardless of what a family’s budget is, the Johnsons find it’s important to honor a person who has died. Whether it’s a traditional funeral or a private tribute in a home or restaurant, having an opportunity to mourn is pivotal in the grieving process.
“A lot of people try to just put death out of their minds, but you’re better off acknowledging the hurt and the loss,” Darryl says. “Death is a fact of life. It’s healing to acknowledge the people who touch our lives.”
The Johnsons recommend personalizing a service as much as possible to honor the person who has passed. They’ve had motorcycles on display in their chapel, they’ve welcomed live musicians, parked antique cars in the parking lot, and encouraged families to bring in objects that the deceased person was fond of, such as gardening tools or fishing equipment. They’ve seen families dressed in Cubs attire, families wearing all purple, and other unique personal touches. For cremation, they’ve seen families bring in cookie jars to store the ashes.
“It’s important for us to pay attention to detail,” Darryl says. “We ask our clients a lot of questions when we’re meeting with them, and a lot of times I’ll give them ideas they may not have thought of.”
“That helps the family to honor the person properly,” Marsha adds.
These days, the Johnsons see many more cremations than traditional burials. Cremation saves money in that there’s no need to buy a casket or embalming, or even necessarily a grave. It also can buy time, in that a family can wait a few weeks to host a service when more people are in town.
Traditional funerals involve embalming, dressing, casketing and usually a service or visitation, where the body is present.
Direct cremation simply involves removing the deceased to Sundberg’s facility, completing paperwork, and transferring the remains to the crematory. Oftentimes, people add on a memorial service, where there’s no body present, but still a tribute to the deceased person. The Johnsons can facilitate both funerals and memorials at many locations, such as a park, restaurant or their own facility.
Oftentimes, families have a funeral, but bring the body to the crematory after the event instead of the cemetery.
“It’s important to talk about these options ahead of time, if possible,” Darryl says. “The best thing people can do is get as much information ahead of time, before emotions kick in.”
“Yes, because it’s overwhelming when the death occurs,” Marsha adds. “Try to know your parents’ wishes, or make your own wishes known. A lot of people think that cemeteries are full, so they feel forced to be cremated, but that’s not true. Track down as much as you can ahead of time, such as a maiden name or place of birth, since you need that for the death certificate. It makes everything easier.”
The Johnsons find that people don’t always realize their legal rights. An authorization for cremation cannot simply occur over the phone. If there’s no spouse, children have the right to make legal decisions. However, all children must agree upon cremation or relinquish the right to make the decision.
“There’s a reason there’s a lot of work to it,” Marsha says. “It’s the final disposition. With burial there’s a way to reverse it. With cremation, there’s not.”
Darryl is happy to meet with someone at their home to make arrangements, if the person is unwilling or incapable of meeting at the Sundberg facility. As the owner, he finds it’s important to be involved throughout the entire process.
Since he’s a licensed funeral director and embalmer, he can follow certain rules and regulations about retrieving remains. From there, he takes families through the process of making arrangements, and then works the funeral or memorial with his staff. Whether it’s a traditional Catholic or Protestant funeral, a non-denominational service, or another ethnic or religious service, Darryl knows the little details.
He’s also a life insurance producer for pre-arrangers, or people who want to set up funding.
“I think it’s crucial that he’s an involved owner,” Marsha says. “He’s knowledgeable across the board. Sometimes people don’t remember Darryl’s name, but they’ll call and ask to speak with the ‘tall guy’ because they worked with him in the past and he made sure everything was done correctly. He’s done a great job at continuing on the Sundberg’s trustworthy reputation.”