Brookfield’s oldest, family-owned business turns 110 this weekend, whose history is entwined with Chicago’s greatest maritime disaster.
For over a century, Brookfield-based Hitzeman Funeral Home, has been owned and operated by the same family. Four generations of Hitzemans have provided dignified services to families in their darkest moments.
“My great-grandfather and his wife worked together, my grandfather and grandmother, my dad and mom, and my wife, Susan, and I have all worked together and run the funeral home as a team. It makes it more of a family affair,” fourth-generation owner Todd Hitzeman, 59, said. “I’m one of those employers who feels that it’s not only me, I have a number of great employees, without whom we wouldn’t run as smoothly or be as good as a business.”
The family business was founded by Hitzeman’s great-grandfather, Frederick, who for some unexplained reason switched from owning a tailor shop to opening a funeral parlor at 4115 W. 26th St. in Chicago, in 1904.
Frederick operated out of his frame house, using the first floor rooms as a parlor, and the second floor as living quarters. In those days, wakes would last for three nights and funerals usually took a whole day because of horse transportation.
On July 24, 1915, tragedy struck in Chicago. The Eastland, an excursion boat rented out for the day by the Western Electric Company for its employee summer picnic, capsized while docked in the Chicago River, killing 844 people.
“Back then everyone in the neighborhood worked at Western Electric and the funeral home was located not to far away,” Hitzeman said. “We had a lot of the Eastland victims and a lot of the families. My great-grandfather and grandfather, Charles, were so busy they were running out of caskets, they had to have them shipped in.”
Over 60 undertakers on Chicago’s West Side tended to the Eastland victims. Hitzeman is the only funeral home that is still in existence today, noted on the Eastland Historical Society website.
“Multiple funerals were held at one time because there weren’t enough hearses available to carry victims to the cemetery,” Todd Hitzeman said. “They were starting to run out embalming fluid. All the suppliers were running out in the Chicago area.”
By the 1920s, families were eschewing holding wakes and funerals for loved ones at home. The caskets were often too big to fit through doorways, and scaffolding had to be built to lift caskets through windows. People began turning to funeral homes to take care of arrangements for deceased loved ones.
Hitzeman’s grandparents, Charles and Emma, built an impeccable reputation based on high standards of dignified service and high decor in their viewing rooms.
In addition to the funeral home's Eastland connection, Hitzeman's helped Illinois Bell retire Chicago's 26,000 manually operated telephones by placing the last operated assisted phone call to Charles F. Lohrentz on Sept. 18, 1960.
The family acquired the Brookfield property at 9445 W. 31st St., when Frederick made a loan to a real estate agent who put up the deed to the lot for collateral.
Norbert Hitzeman, Todd’s father, opened the Brookfield location in 1963. The original location in Chicago remained in operation until 1975.
Todd joined the family business as teenager in the 1970s, starting from the bottom driving hearses and doing maintenance work.
“At our business, we’re a firm believer that everyone starts working at the bottom. You got to learn the business from the bottom up,” he said. “You just can’t walk in and sit behind a desk and tell people how to do a job if you haven’t done it yourself. I think that’s why we've stayed in business so long.”
From noon to 4 p.m. Saturday, June 21, Hitzeman’s will be holding an open house to thank the community for its business and support at 9445 W. 31st St., Brookfield. The 110th anniversary celebration will feature a special veterans’ recognition, a singer, a magician, and refreshments. All are invited.
“I like helping people and I’ve always liked being active in the community,” Todd Hitzeman said. “I really enjoy being able to help people when they really need it.”