by Bill Batson
When Keith Taylor leaves his office at Hannemann Funeral Home each night, he transfers the phone lines to his house. One recent morning at 1:30a, he got a call from a family from Nyack reporting their mother had passed. Ten minutes later he got a call from a hospice nurse in Congers. “We don’t rely on an answering service. When you call Hannemann’s at night you get me.” For the past 36 years, Keith has been a comforting familiar figure that many have needed to reach out to at that darkest hour when a life has come to an end.
There has been a funeral home at the corner of Broadway and Cedar Hill Avenue since 1933. Henry Hannemann bought the business from Robert McCloskey in 1957. One afternoon in the 70s, Hannemann let an eighth grader from around the corner mow his lawn. “I grew up on Depew Avenue. My six brothers and my sister and I were raised by a single mother. We couldn’t just go to mom and ask for money for snacks or the movies.”
Taylor parlayed that job into an internship, a partnership and then at age twenty-five, he purchased the funeral home from Hannemann. “Hannemann was like a father to me. When I got out of high school in 1976, he sent me to Mortuary School in Syracuse.” Keeping the name of the business as Hannemann’s is a tribute to the man who launched his career as a funeral director.
Taylor has also adopted Hannemann’s ideas about staff development. Taylor paid for the training of funeral directors Brian Knecht and Shaun Cassidy. Like Taylor, Knecht started at Hannemann’s as a landscaper, but instead of yard work, he helped Keith shovel five tons of gravel to create the addition in 1986.
Taylor’s approach to business that combines a professional guild and personal generosity might not be a product of Hannemann’s influence alone. A photo of Taylor’s maternal grandfather, Sam MacDonnell, hangs in a waiting area in the funeral home. In the image from 1917, MacDonnell’s foot rests on the running board of the first Telephone Company truck in the county. The prospect of employment is what brought MacDonnell to Nyack from Nova Scotia several years before the photo was taken. And it was the kindness of Taylor’s ancestors that provided him room and board, and eventually, a family.
When Sam MacDonnell disembarked from the ferry from Tarrytown, he walked to Gedney and Main and took his room at a boarding house that the McNulty family ran for phone company employees. MacDonnell must have impressed his landlords because he eventually married their daughter.
MacDonnell went on to become the Construction Supervisor for the phone company in Rockland County for 38 years. And his daughter and Taylor’s mother, Anna Mae MacDonnell, became an operator for the phone company, working from 99 Main Street, the old phone company building at the corner of Cedar Street.
Because of the size of his family and their length of time in Rockland, chances are that Keith knows a member of every family whose final arrangements he helps manage. But the daily communicant at St. Ann’s is proud that his funeral home attends to the needs of all faiths. “I was in Queens the other day for a Jewish service. We organize funerals for Catholics, Protestants, Muslims, Russian Orthodox, anyone.”
Taylor encourages people to make pre-arrangements for all matters pertaining to funerals. “It’s better to sit down with a funeral home before the time of a death.” He also wants people to realize that just because a funeral home is nearby, it does not mean that its interests are local.
According to Taylor, 75% of the funeral homes in Rockland County are controlled by Service Corporation International (SCI), a national conglomerate based in Houston, Texas. “Independent funeral homes are more reasonable and flexible to deal with on price and other issues,” Taylor said. There have been several highly critical media accounts about the corporatization of what is referred to as the “death care” industry, including a chilling Anderson Cooper expose on 6o Minutes.
The circumstances of walking into a funeral home are always solemn, but there is a reason to visit Hannemann that has nothing to do with final arrangements. The walls of this Victorian mansion are covered by the work of local artists and historical photos. Watercolors by Jerre Vanderhoef and Beverly Bozarth Colgan, woodcuts by Debbi Davis and historic documents that include the earliest map of Nyack made by Tunis Smith in 1825 are exhibited throughout the public rooms.
“I love my job. I am at work every morning at 5:30a,” describes Taylor of his daily ritual. “I was a kid raised as one of eight and here I am with my own business in Nyack.”
That pride is on display at Hannemann’s from the pristine lawn and manicured shrubs to the exquisite art and artifacts that adorn the interior. In the same way that cemeteries have the serene quality of a park, Hannemann has the soothing aspects of a small museum, where precious and poignant memories are honored and kept safe.
Originally published on October 1, 2013
Bill Batson is an activist, artist and writer who lives and sketches in Nyack, NY. Nyack Sketch Log: “Hannemann Funeral Home“ © 2018 Bill Batson. To see more, visit billbatsonarts.com