The Lakeside Family: Joanne Rudnicki
Joanne Rudnicki worked with Lakeside Memorial Funeral Home as a part of the concierge staff for almost 17 years. I interviewed her about a month ago about this experience, when I wrote up this article, before her health took a turn for the worst. We held off on posting this for a bit, wishing to be more present for both Joanne and her family. Joanne passed away on June 10th, and we are all still reeling from the loss. I hoped to share this interview so that you could all see the caring, clever, and vibrant woman that we had the great fortune of working with, and the woman who I knew since I could walk.
Joanne has known my father, Charles Castiglia, for almost 30 years, when he would bring funeral breakfasts to her church, and she would serve the families after their service. My dad had always been amazed at Joanne’s ability to work with grieving families, and it wasn’t long before he started asking her if she wanted to work at the funeral home as a part of the concierge team, greeting families at the funeral home and guiding them through calling hours. Joanne wanted no part of that, and she was very open about her dislike of wakes. At funeral breakfasts, the family has recovered a bit, they’ve gone through the pain already and are looking for a reprieve, which she happily gave to them. Joanne had taken a course on Death and Dying, but that was her only training, so she felt like she wouldn’t be able to give the families what they needed.
Eventually, my dad let up on trying to convince Joanne otherwise, though he kept the offer open for her. And finally, 17 years ago in February, Joanne walked into the funeral home, dressed in her Sunday best, without warning. She was on a mission, she wanted an interview. My father, in his hurry to meet with family members and his full faith in Joanne, said “Well just go down there and go to work!” And that was that.
From there, it was simply learning what families needed. Of course, it wasn’t “simply”, but if you saw the ease Joanne had with helping people, you would have never guessed the learning curve that she had to go through. Often when working with people stricken with grief, it’s hard to know what to say, and it’s even harder to know how to help them. When Joanne first started out as a greeter, she would end her interactions with the families with “Is there anything else I can do for you?” to which most people could only respond with, “Well, you can bring them back.” Sometimes, Joanne told me, the phrasing that comes out of your mouth is simply wrong, and you can’t take them back, you can only try to learn from what you’ve done.
Another example of this came with how she was greeting families as they walked through the door. When Joanne started out, the most common hours for calling hours was 2 to 4, 7 to 9. Then, more people started to prefer having their calling hours from 3 to 8, so Joanne became perplexed. When is the best time to shift from “Good Afternoon” to “Good Evening”? This became such an odd thought that she approached Charles Castiglia with the question. My father looked at her with a bit of wonder when she asked him, and he simply said, “No one walking in here today is going to be having a good anything, are they?” And when Joanne pressed him further on the best way to greet families, he smiled and said, “Why not just, hello?”
Joanne didn’t want to work at a funeral home, that was never her goal. And yet she worked hard for 17 years to be there for the families that came into Lakeside Memorial Funeral Home. I asked her what got her through it all, the grief, the pain, the people in need of support, how could she handle it with the grace and poise that I had grown up marveling? And her answer was simple: “Your father.”
A Different Kind of Service
If you’ve ever attended a funeral at Lakeside Memorial Funeral Home that wasn’t for your immediate family, the odds are that the staff that you’ve seen the most of was the concierge team. The people who stand at the door ways with a smile, offer to take your jacket, and direct you to the doors that you need to go through to see your loved ones. The people who can be your hand to hold, a comforting presence, or simply a silent guide. Joanne explained to me that the most important thing that the concierge do is transitioning families into the service, because the hardest thing to do for many people is crossing the threshold of the funeral home.
Through her years working with the funeral home, the most inspiring thing that Joanne had witnessed was watching widows and mothers come in to their calling hours. “You had to know they were falling apart, you had to know this was the worst day of their life,” she said, briefly awestruck. It’s hard to take that first step into the funeral home, knowing that your loved one is at the end of the hall, and it was Joanne’s job to be the support they needed. And they would get time alone for a moment, wondering why their child or their spouse had to go so soon, but often times, in only a half hour, these women would become the strongest people Joanne had ever seen. They would begin grief counseling for their spouse’s coworkers, for their child’s friends, for every person in mourning who followed them into the funeral home. From watching the bravery of these women, Joanne realized that if they could support the world on the worst day of their life, Joanne could surely help them through it all.
Lakeside Memorial Funeral Home holds a grief service every summer called the Butterfly Release, which now takes place at both our Hamburg and West Seneca locations. This had always been Joanne’s favorite event that we hosted, and every year she would bring us her trademarked butterfly umbrella and her butterfly net. She enjoyed this event immensely, and thought it was made even more special because it was optional, because it allowed people to say, “I just don’t think I’m up for it today.” But for those who choose to come, it’s just pure magic, because when you get so many people together, butterflies in hand, and everyone lets go together, it’s fascinating to watch how people change. Because there we are, holding on to a wish or a message to a loved one, and the butterflies, well, as Joanne told me, “They stay with us.” And the crowd gets to stand in wonder as the butterflies land on hats, in bushes, on shoulders, and there’s a sense of comradery for the rest of the day.
A Shift In Perspective
Once again, I’d like to remind everyone, as Joanne reminded me, that she did not particularly like attending wakes before she chose to work for our funeral home. And part of that, she explained, was the “idea of a funeral director” that most of us hold. She took great amusement in demonstrating what we all imagine: a very straight backed, stoic individual. But then she came to work for the funeral home. There were many times that she would be in the halls as Charles Castiglia was making arrangements with a family in the office, and she was always amazed by what she witnessed without even being in the room with them. “Well, you could hear the laughing,” she said, her face immediately brightening at the memory, “And by then, they had just lost their person, and he made it into, you know, remembrances and good thoughts.” Joanne learned the process that the funeral directors went through in this way, and she reflected that she was doing good by working with us.
“As it went along, to me, it wasn’t just a job, it was a mission. It was, I can help these people, I can do ok.” This is how Joanne shifted from a wary beginner to a passionate part of the Lakeside Family. There were days that were harder than others, of course. The funerals where you knew someone, or the funerals that struck to close to home, it begins to wear on your heart, even 17 years in to the job. But watching the families’ reactions to what we do completely changed the perspective that she began with. “The good that is done here… I am a part of that.”
Some Departing Thoughts
As I’ve said before, Joanne Rudnicki is a woman who was very close to my heart. If she had been in better health, she would have been my sponsor for my Catholic Confirmation. She helped me, and still does, through my own health problems, no matter if she is having a good or bad day. As I sit here, rewatching the interview we had together, I’m amazed at how much laughter we shared while talking about such a dark topic. The final 20 minutes of the interview was just us, enjoying each other’s company, and knowing that despite all the time I’d known her, we both still had so much to share with one another.
I am honored to be able to share this part of Joanne’s life with all of you.