Justen Funeral Homes survive the test of time

McHENRY – Back in the early days of the family business, the bereaved paid about $38 for a complete funeral and burial package. 

Of course, that was in 1882, in the days of funeral director and mortician Mark Justen’s great grandfather Jacob. Justen is the fourth generation of his family to run what is now Justen Funeral Homes. The business operates three facilities: Justen Funeral Home and Crematory in McHenry, Justen’s Wonder Lake Funeral Home and Justen’s Round Lake Funeral Home.

It all started with Jacob and Nicholas Justen, two brothers who began their undertaking business on the west side of McHenry. According to family history and McHenry lore, after about 12 years in business together, the two brothers had a mighty falling out. 

“We were told to move our oxen cart, and Jake ended up at Green and Elm [streets],” Mark Justen said. 

Thus started the separate Justen funeral businesses in McHenry, at first known as Nicholas Justen and Son, and Jacob Justen and Sons, said Mark Justen, whose grandfather George and George’s brother, Albert, were next to take on the business at Green and Elm, which also then included furniture-making.

“George was the second generation,” Mark Justen said. “He had five children, one of whom followed in his footsteps. That was Robert.”

Robert was Mark Justen’s father. And Mark recalls the undertaking family feud lingering on in his father’s day, with competition fierce between the George R. Justen and Son Funeral Home at Route 120 and Richmond Road, and what had become Colonial Funeral Home just a couple of blocks west. 

Both businesses now occupy new, modern facilities, with Colonial, now run by Robert Mrachek, at 591 Ridgeview Drive, and Justen at 3700 Charles Miller Road.

While being family-owned and multi-generational is not uncommon in the funeral home business, being in its fourth generation is rare for any business. 

According to the Family Business Institute, only about 30 percent of family businesses survive into the second generation. Making it to the fourth generation are only about 3 percent.

Mark Justen, 59, and his wife, Nancy, who also is a funeral director and co-owner, have two sons, Alex and Robert. Alex is poised to graduate from Tulane in May with a biochemistry degree and plans to pursue his doctorate, Justen said. 

Robert, who has a bachelor’s degree in small business management from the University of Arkansas and is working for a financial firm in Little Rock, likely will become the fifth generation to take on undertaking.

Robert Justen said he admires the way his father has expanded the business to three operations that helped about 300 families in 2012. He also appreciates that his parents have not pressured him to take over, but have made clear that the option is there for him.

“[Dad] said take your college degree and go have a couple of other jobs. Experience life,” Robert Justen said, adding that he likely will return to the area and begin working in the family business within the next few years. 

“I definitely feel like there’s a challenge and an opportunity there for me,” he said. “I just think, wow, we’ve been around 100 years plus. In a way, it’s humbling.” 

To be a funeral director today is to carry dual licensing. One must be trained as a funeral director and embalmer, the elder Justen said. The field requires an associate’s degree, and many now are getting four-year degrees. Continuing education also is required. 

Like his ancestors, Mark Justen attended Worsham College of Mortuary Science, where he graduated in 1976.

It wasn’t always Mark Justen’s aspiration to become the next generation undertaker. He at one point hoped to go into sports medicine and become a trainer. But in the 1970s, after his father informed him that his sister Krista planned to attend mortuary school, sibling rivalry kicked in, he said. 

In 1978, after Justen’s mother died unexpectedly at age 48, he began to take on more and more at the family business, while Krista chose to pursue a different career. 

Mark and Nancy Justen grew the business, adding the Wonder Lake and Round Lake operations and, in 2008, opening their new McHenry facility.

Mortuary science has not changed much over the years, Mark Justen said. But the business of funerals is shifting. More people are choosing cremation, and many are interested in hosting a catered event at the funeral home. 

Today, a traditional burial with wake and service costs between $7,500 and about $14,000, depending on choice of casket, vault, etc. A direct cremation with no viewing and no services runs $2,500 or less, Mark Justen said.

Dealing with death as a means of making a living is not for everyone. Looking back, though, Justen said, he is proud to be part of the Justen family business legacy. 

“Some days I’d rather be taping ankles,” Mark Justen said. “But, in general, the funeral service has been very rewarding. Every day you’re helping somebody to get over the barrier of death, and every family is different.”

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Justen Funeral Homes:

What: Fourth-generation family-owned funeral and cremation services

Where: 3700 Charles Miller Road, McHenry; 222 N. Rosedale Court, Round Lake; 7611 Hancock Drive, Wonder Lake. 

Information:; 815-385-2400

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Business Journal preview:

This story appears in the McHenry County Business Journal, published last week.

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