The 115 year old, family-owned and operated Donohue Funeral Home, was originally located in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania at 54th and Market Streets. The business today has funeral homes in Newtown Square, West Chester, Downingtown, Upper Darby and the newest location in Wayne, Pennsylvania. When the grandsons of founder John P. Donohue discuss the business, it is with a great deal of pride - with not only a sense of history, but also the caring and integrity demonstrated for the past 115 years.
John P. Donohue and his brother, Nicholas C. Donohue, sons of immigrants from the toplands of Upper Kilmurry Castle Island, County Kerry, Ireland, who settled on South Randolph Street, South Philadelphia, founded the business together in 1898. Nicholas contracted tuberculosis while fighting for the Philippine Independence in the Spanish American War. His brother, John P., continued the fledging business. His funeral attire at the turn of the century was always formal - cutaway coat, ascot, gray gloves and a black silk top hat.
Today, John P.'s three grandsons and 7 great-grandsons - all Donohue's with the exception of Frank Huf, who is the son of John P.'s daughter, Mary, carry on the tradition. John A., Terrence J. Sr. and Francis J. Huf are partners of the third generation involved. The middle initials are almost a necessity. Raymond F. Donohue passed away in 2008 and Robert J. Donohue in 2011.
All Five brothers in the second generation are all deceased, but 7 fourth-generation brothers and cousins have entered the business - John J., Michael K., John R., Daniel F., James T. Donohue, Peter F. Huf and James L. Huf. The Donohue family has dozens of others, many of whom are in the teaching or health care industry.
John A. and the late Raymond F. Donohue, the oldest brothers in the business, talked about the evolution of the funeral business and some of its milestones. "I think the Irish always laid claim to this business because of their sense of humor," John A. says. "That may sound macabre, but the Irish accept death as an inevitability. You know, "She's in a better place". Raymond, deemed the unofficial family historian, proudly talked about the first motorized hearse in Philadelphia. "It amazed me how my grandfather was able to move around the city before he got this. In those days, burial was almost immediate because there was no way of preserving bodies. The best they could do was rest them on a slab of ice. My grandfather knew where every livery was in the city. When someone died, he sent someone ahead, usually one of his kids, to hire a horse and carriage to transport the body. Then he would take the trolley to the person's house, bringing along his professional equipment. He would dress the body and place into a casket, carry onto the hearse and would be taken to the church or cemetery".
"In those days", Raymond explained, "Everything was handled in the home. Today, of course, there are strict standards and procedures to be followed in the preparation of a body for burial or cremation."
A test of the Donohue family's endurance came during the influenza pandemic of 1918, which claimed thousands of lives in Philadelphia. "They were dying so fast that we had caskets stacked up in the street," John A. says. "People were stealing them and burying their families on their own." "Our grandfather was a pioneer, an Irish term for someone who pledges not to touch alcohol. Nevertheless, he said, John P. Donohue ordered each of his workers to take a shot of whiskey before going out on a job." "He believed that alcohol was something of a preventative against the virus and not one of his employees died from influenza", John A. stated.
Grandfather Donohue also had to be a public-relations specialist. He belonged to 33 different organizations in the city. "People wanted a friend, someone they felt they could trust, to do the burying. So he had to meet a lot of people," Raymond said. "You have to remember, there was no real advertising."
The first Donohue Funeral Home was located on Market Street in Philadelphia. In 1938, the family members opened the present location at 8401 West Chester Pike (Corner Lynn Blvd.) Upper Darby, PA in what was their summer home. In 1968, they closed the Philadelphia location.
The Donohue family expanded the business to Chester County in 1974, when it purchased the Edward L. Townsend Funeral Home in Downingtown, Pennsylvania. The funeral home had been in operation for over 40 years before the Donohue family bought it. John and Terry said that the expansion to Chester County was a natural tendency for the family. A majority of the Donohue family was moving out to the Chester County suburbs ... and even their Delaware County clients started heading west. "Many families we served in Delaware County are now customers in Chester County," said Terry. The interesting thing has been the clientele. It's a mix of town versus rural ... a real mirroring image of Chester County, he said.
Five Funeral Homes have been opened since the first one opened 115 Years ago. They are located at 8401 West Chester Pike, Upper Darby, 3300 West Chester Pike, Newtown Square, 1627 West Chester Pike, Westtown-West Chester, 43 West Lancaster Avenue, Downingtown, and 366 West Lancaster Avenue, Wayne, Pennsylvania.
The Donohue Funeral Home handles about 700 services a year, from the simplest funeral and burial to the most elaborate, custom-tailored services, cremation services with no type of funeral service or again with a custom-tailored service. There is great diversity in what services families choose for their families needs, especially with personalizing the services to fit the lifestyle and activities of one's life.
Cousin Terry Donohue, who runs the Westtown Funeral Home adds that funeral today are much more a celebration of life than they once were. People dress more casually, no longer sticking to traditional mourning colors of black and purple. Many families choose to make collages of pictures, use special music and poetry, golf clubs and other artifacts part of a one-of-a kind viewing and service.
At one time, there was just a simple casket, a service and a burial. Now, every detail can be customized, down to a special laser engraving on the outside of the casket to commemorate the deceased's special interests: a drawing of a fisherman and another of a golf club, a special design, or maybe for an activity or organization once belonged for examples.
The decor in funeral homes used to be dark. But the atmosphere has become lighter, airy, more home-like, a living room or family room setting, said John A.
A major part of the business is the pre-planned, pre-paid funeral. "People can arrange their funeral and lock in a price that we will guarantee not to change in the future," John A. said. "It takes a lot of pressure off the survivors and people know they will get exactly what they wish." Terry Donohue calls this "a more intelligent way to deal with the inevitable." Today, many nursing homes and extended care facilities require funeral planning before someone becomes a resident.
With the funeral home and cemetery industry increasingly dominated by national chains such as Service Corp. International and Carriage Inc. a particular challenge for the Donohue family is to remain family-owned and independent.