At 86, oldest mortician in Minnesota says it still 'feels good to help'
Chuck DuBore intended to be an accountant, but after a few months of college, he realized he could never spend his days at a desk.
He shared his frustration about his chosen major with his roommate.
"And he had a book and he said, ‘Here's one about mortuary science.’ I'd never been to a funeral. So I didn't have any idea," recalls DuBore. "And I thought, ‘Well, what the heck, I don't like accounting, so I'll try this.’"
DuBore, who grew up in Roseau, Minn., enrolled at the University of Minnesota in mortuary science and took a job working nights at a funeral home on West Seventh Street in St. Paul.
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When he graduated he moved to the small town of Warren where his uncle owned a funeral home. He quickly learned there'd be extra duties.
"The first night I was here, we had an ambulance call, and I went looking for the ambulance," he recalled. "And they pulled out the hearse."
DuBore later convinced his uncle to buy an ambulance, got the local hospital to donate a first aid kit and started an ambulance service that eventually became the town's volunteer squad.
But in 1958 many funeral homes doubled as the local ambulance service with little additional training.
"The pay was poor and the hours were crummy," remembers DuBore. "When I started here I had one weekend a month off, and it was Saturday noon to Sunday night. And when I came back on Sunday night, I was back on call. For 350 bucks a month."
DuBore and his young family lived above the funeral home, located in a residential neighborhood, for more than a decade.
He eventually became a partner and took over the business when his uncle retired in the 1970s.
"I was alone for 17 years," he said.
"Give my wife credit and the kids credit. They never never said a word when the phone rang and I left." he said. "Luckily, they didn't throw me out."
His son Michael now owns the business. He followed in his dad's footsteps, starting college in accounting before switching to mortuary science. But he knew exactly what he was getting into.
"I was the kid that mowed the grass and vacuumed the floors and washed the cars and started working funerals when I was 16," said Michael DuBore.
He understood the demands of being a 24/7 business in a small town, but he’d also learned about the rewards from watching his dad work.
"You get to know some pretty nice people in their darkest hours and you try to do right by them, and help them celebrate their loved one's life," he said. "Otherwise, a person probably wouldn't want to work nights, weekends and holidays."
Others in the small town also watched and learned from Chuck DuBore.
"Chuck would get called away and he never grumbled, he never complained, he did it because the family needed assistance," recalls Jan Van Sickle, a mortician in the south central Minnesota town of Sleepy Eye who recently retired.
Growing up in Warren, Van Sickle spent a lot of time at the DuBore house. Their families were close and he calls Chuck a second dad and a mentor. They have adjacent lake cabins in northwest Minnesota.
Van Sickle was one of three students from Warren in his mortuary science class of 33 at the U of M, and he knows of at least a half dozen funeral directors who grew up in Warren. He thinks there was a Chuck DuBore influence.
"I don't know that there was anything earth-shattering, but, I mean, he enjoyed it. He worked hard, he raised his family, had the respect of the community. I think they saw that," said Van Sickle.
Growing up around the funeral business and watching DuBore work taught Van Sickle the running a funeral home in a small town could be rewarding, but also demanding and emotionally challenging.
"In a small town I'm burying my friends, my friend's parents, people you've had coffee with or attended church with. I think emotionally it gets a little bit harder in a small town," he said.
During more than six decades in the business, Chuck DuBore has been on thousands of death calls.
Some are still vivid memories years later.
The grandfather who died while his grandchildren were opening Christmas presents.
The day he sat down next to a mother holding her son, who had died by suicide.
"And I'll never forget, I got called to go to the hospital. And there were four young kids there from prom, all killed in a car accident," recalled DuBore with a quaver in his voice. "I walked in and looked at all of them. And every one of them, I knew the families."
There are no easy clichés in those situations, said DuBore. He learned to simply provide the support he felt each family needed in the moment.
Dubore's wife died in January. He says that experience gave him new insight into how to relate to grieving families.
"Because now I've lived it. Before I said a lot of things, but I didn't have to go through it. Now, I've gone through it," he said.
DuBore is currently being treated for skin cancer. He says he's survived throat cancer, colon cancer, prostate cancer and a previous bout of skin cancer.
In this business, mortality is a fact of life.
"I guess you realize you're not going to be here forever," he said. "If I can keep going long enough, that'll be fine. I'm not gonna get out of this alive. I know that."
At 86, what keeps him going are the personal connections developed across generations, and a feeling of helping others through a tough time.
"I like to go out and talk to these people. I probably buried their grandparents and their parents and some of their kids," he said. "I get to visit with these people and I think it keeps me thinking a little bit?"
"And it just feels good."