SIDNEY — Salm-McGill & Tangeman Funeral Home is the oldest continuously operating business in Shelby County.
This month, it marks its 150th anniversary.
Funerals were a sideline when the business was opened by Fred Salm in 1866. Salm had emigrated to the U.S. from Germany some five years earlier. He joined cabinetmaker John Bruebaker to establish Bruebaker & Salm. Because they made wooden cabinets and furniture, it was a natural progression to make wooden coffins.
At that time, funeral homes were rare. The dead were “laid out” in their coffins in their homes and services were conducted in churches.
“What happened over a period of time,” said Doug McGill, a current part-owner of the firm, “was that people asked for the coffins to be delivered to the house and then (the coffin-makers) began setting them up in the homes.”
As the coffin part of the Bruebaker & Salm business grew, undertaking (staff undertook to prepare bodies for burial) was added as a service. In 1878, Bruebaker sold his share of the firm to John T. Morton and the business changed its name to Salm, Morton & Co. Morton sold out to Isaac Betts five years later and two years after that, Salm purchased full interest.
O.B. Taylor joined as a partner in 1896 and the firm name changed to Salm & Taylor.
Two of Salm’s three sons became licensed embalmers. William F. and Louis Salm worked with their father. An invoice for a 1920 funeral was headed “Fred Salm’s Sons, Furniture and Rugs, Funeral Directors.” Louis’s son, William E., also studied embalming and in 1940, Louis and his son, William E., became owners of the business. By then, cabinetmaking was a thing of the past.
William E.’s daughter, Judith Salm, who was a great-granddaughter to the firm’s founder, married Joe McGill. Their son, Douglas W. McGill, is the embalmer and a consultant today.
“Joe worked here for a couple of years, but ownership skipped his generation,” Doug McGill said.
The firm moved from its downtown location to its current home on S. Ohio Avenue in 1939.
“They sold the furniture business for $15,000 and bought this building for $4,300,” McGill said. Built in 1888, it had been the home of C.F. Hickock, the founder of a popular candy business.
“Back in the day, this was an elite area of town,” McGill said.
Don Tangeman joined the staff in 1988 and became a partner in 1991, which is when the name became what it is today, Salm-McGill & Tangeman Funeral Home. Tangeman is a funeral director.
Both men were fascinated by funerals even as children.
“My mom’s family has a funeral home in New Bremen: Gilberg-Hartwig,” Tangeman, a Fort Loramie native, said. “I would always watch funeral processions.”
McGill remembers his grandfather lifting him up to look into the coffins in the funeral home.
“My grandma’s house was next door to Cromes Funeral Home. I loved to watch the funerals,” McGill said. “She would let me watch them take the casket out.”
He grew up in Vandalia and was 13 when he first came to Sidney to help out. The first funeral he helped for was a Catholic Mass. When it was over, his grandmother asked his grandfather how McGill had done.
“It’s like he’s done it his whole life,” was the reply.
For his part, Tangeman didn’t begin his professional life in the funeral business.
“I worked at the bank,” he said.
“When I met him, he was at Heck’s Department Store,” McGill said. McGill hired him soon after.
“I started here washing windows and I’m still doing it,” Tangeman laughed.
McGill studied at the Cincinnati College of Mortuary Science and earned his Bachelor of Mortuary Science through Xavier University. He served a year’s apprenticeship in the family business and passed state and national board exams.
Tangeman received a Bachelor of Business Administration from the University of Cincinnati and was licensed as a funeral director after he passed exams given by the Ohio Board of Funeral Directors and Embalmers. Funeral directors and embalmers must take continuing education classes to keep their licenses.
In addition to Tangeman and McGill, the funeral home employes 10 part-time workers who help with visitations and funerals.
McGill admitted to trying to get away from it for awhile. He moved to New York City to take a chef’s course. But, as much as he liked to cook, his heart wasn’t in it.
“When I was away and came back, it was very emotional for me,” he said. “In my opinion, it’s a great honor that someone calls us and asks us to take care of a loved one. It’s a huge responsibility.”
Because the business has stayed in one family and in one place for so long, there are many carefully preserved reminders of what undertaking used to be like.
“We have records going back to 1872,” Tangeman said. There are also a make-up kit from the 1930s, instruments from when embalming was a gravity-fed process, an embalming table built from a hospital cot, a wicker body basket in which bodies were transported from places of death before the advent of body bags and advertising items: yardsticks, dustpans, funeral cards.
The business has changed a lot from 150 years ago. It’s even changed in the time Tangeman has owned controlling interest, which he purchased in 1997.
“Death certificates with the state are all on computer now,” he said. “I used to type them.” McGill embalms with internal dies instead of using make-up on corpses’ faces. Funeral services take place amid picture boards and videos of the deceased. Cremations have become a regular choice in the last 20 years. Those are done in Piqua.
“And I stay with the body the whole time,” Tangeman said.
The most surprising thing that’s changed, he said, is the attitude of people who attend the funerals.
“People talk on their cell phones during the service. People used to wear suits,” he said. Dress has become much more casual through the years.
Something that doesn’t surprise him anymore is what and how many things are put into caskets by the deceased’s relatives. Cremated pets’ ashes, fishing poles, bottles of whiskey, hearing aids, money and letters are some of them.
“I always hated to see gorgeous jewelry go down,” Tangeman said. “Sometimes caskets are loaded up with stuff.”
The men think that theirs is the oldest funeral home that has remained in the same family since it’s inception.
“There are funeral homes older than us, but they’ve been sold out of the family. The National Funeral Directors Association thinks we’re the 10th oldest in the country,” McGill said.
While a 150th anniversary certainly invites a warm look back, Tangeman and McGill are firmly looking at the future, too. They recently purchased the house next door, something the business’s various funeral directors have tried to do for the last 5o years. The purchase will allow them to expand their existing building and make decisions about how best to use the added one.
“Don wanted to tear it down. I wanted to keep it,” laughed McGill.
Both of them recognize that their chosen profession is a special one.
“Funeral service is not something you go into as a business,” McGill said. “It’s a calling.”
“To me, it’s a ministry,” added Tangeman.