MUSCATINE — Local funeral director Ed Riley has been in the business a long time — 60 years to be exact. A professional funeral directors association recognized him recently as the only funeral director in the state who has had such a long tenure.
"It seems like 65 (years)," Riley, 85, said of his career. He said the award isn’t a big deal.
Colleagues honored the delightfully brusque licensed funeral director at Ralph J. Wittich-Riley-Freers Funeral Home last week at the annual Iowa Funeral Directors Association convention. The IFDA represents more than 700 state-licensed funeral directors and 425 funeral-home locations.
Riley, who said he was working, did not attend. He said the recognition wasn't a surprise to him. After all, he has earned other recognition for 40 and 50 years of service. He said during the luncheon, the honoree would stand and his or her peers would clap, "and that's plenty," he said. Still, getting to six decades of experience had its share of unexpected events.
"When you've done something for 60 years," he said, "each day is just one surprise after another."
Funeral service is a family business, said Riley. His father, Walter Riley was a funeral director who started in the 1930s, during the Great Depression. The family moved from Iowa City to Muscatine in 1941, when Walter bought Myers Funeral Home at 7th and Walnut Streets. Ed was 4 years old at the time and lived above the funeral home growing up. He said as a high school student he could drive his car from Muscatine Catholic School to Pine Street, turn the engine off and coast all the way to the funeral home, that is, if he didn't stop at any of the stop signs on the way.
"I'm not doing that anymore," he chuckled. "That's the one thing I don't do."
The family also ran Riley Ambulance Company, where Riley first started working when he was 16 years old. He said after plans to become an engineer didn't work out, he decided to pursue mortuary science and graduated in 1956 from Worsham College of Mortuary Science near Chicago. He said he's two years behind his cohort because of his military service.
"After I got out of school, I had to serve an apprenticeship," he said, "so while I'm serving that apprenticeship I got drafted in the Army."
Riley served for two years in the U.S. Army, stationed primarily in Washington D.C. He and his wife Dorothy, who also went to Muscatine Catholic School, were married before the end of his service. He said they had a 90-day honeymoon in Washington.
Riley returned to Muscatine in 1959 and worked at the funeral home with his father, then purchased the business in 1963. He ran the funeral home until 1988, when his daughter Jennifer Riley-Vogel, now the owner, graduated from Worsham and joined him.
Riley said even though he and his father were both funeral directors, he didn't pressure his daughter to become one.
"It's something that she wanted to do," he said.
Riley-Vogel bought the business in 1996, merged with Ralph J. Wittich Funeral Home and opened in a new location at 1931 Houser St., its current address.
"People rely on ceremonies and recognition," Riley said, "so we just provide that service."
Though he said he's "retired," retirement hasn't stuck. Riley said 60 years is a long time for anybody to do anything, and he's still putting in hours at the funeral home and serving on the board of the St. Mary Cemetery.
"Retiring is like quitting smoking," he said. “You quit and then you start working again."
At the cemetery, he works on getting records of head stones up to date and recording inscriptions on the stones before they become illegible.
"The cemetery is more fun than you can imagine," he said. "People bring the darndest things in."
Over the years, he's noticed people don't put out as many real flowers anymore instead opting for plastic flowers and other memorials at the grave site. He said cost is a factor.
"It's like everything else, it got too expensive," he said.
Cost, he said, is also one of the reasons cremation is more prevalent. Choosing cremation also simplifies the funeral process for families, he said. Traffic at the funeral home as also slowed over time. He said when a person died, there would be several days of visitation between the time the body was brought to the funeral home and the funeral. Despite the changes, he's going to keep at it.
"Well, if i can learn something new I'd probably try that," he said, "but I'm not learning anything new, he said.
He said he used to be a "people person," but 60 years in the business has made him a little crabby.
"I still get along with everybody, I guess," he said smiling. "Nobody's throwing rocks at me yet when I walk down the street, so it must be all right so far. But I don't know about next week."