Mercer selected for Hall of Fame
This year marks 30 years since Chris Mercer took over ownership and management of Mercer Funeral Home in Holton, becoming the third generation of his family to own and operate the business, a mainstay of the Holton community since 1934.
During those three decades, Mercer has been involved with supporting countless Chamber of Commerce, community and school activities, in addition to helping hundreds of families in the area deal with one of the most traumatic times in their lives — the loss of a family member.
“When it’s all said and done, and families come up and say, ‘There’s no way we could have gotten through this without you,’ that’s the thing that keeps you going. That’s what drives you on,” said Mercer, one of the newest additions to the Holton/Jackson County Chamber of Commerce Hall of Fame.
Mercer will join new Hall of Fame inductees David and Evelyn Allen, Vern and Cari Andrews and Dean Tuley in being honored this coming February, although he says the honor left him “a little stunned.”
“I was kind of surprised, but I thought, that has to be the reason, because I’ve helped so many people through the funeral home,” Mercer said. “When you help a family get through one of the toughest things they’ve ever dealt with, it keeps you going.”
A lifelong resident of Holton and a 1983 graduate of Holton High School, Mercer admits that at first, he didn’t see himself following in the footsteps of his grandfather, Wendell Mercer, and his father, Bill Mercer, in the funeral home business.
“I saw what they had to do, I saw the hours that they worked and I saw them getting up in the middle of the night, and I was like, ‘No way I’m doing that,’” he said.
But his father encouraged him to help out a little, working as a licensed insurance agent for the funeral home starting in 1986, when it was located at 603 New York Ave., north of Holton’s Town Square. Bill asked him for a little more help with funeral services, being a little short on help at that time.
“I thought to myself, if I’m going to be in here working services, I might as well go to school and do it. But that was the point where I really did enjoy working with the families… It grew on me,” Mercer said.
Mercer earned his mortuary science degree and his funeral director and embalmer licenses, and in 1991, he took over the funeral home after his father retired. In the next few years, he oversaw the funeral home’s relocation from its original facility on New York Avenue to its new home on West Fourth Street, as well as the family business’ expansion into the Valley Falls area with the purchase of that community’s Nellis Funeral Home in 1996.
Mercer credits former embalmers Dick Shove and Jud Brown with helping him to do a better job in setting up funerals, particularly when it came to preparing the deceased for display at their funerals.
“I couldn’t have picked any better people to learn from, so I was pretty fortunate in that way,” he said.
Mercer was also involved in “all kinds of things” outside the funeral home, serving on the boards of directors for the Holton Cemetery, the Jackson County Friends of Hospice and the Jackson County Training Center, in addition to doing things for the Chamber.
“We’d given a lot to the Chamber over the years, but being involved has been hard with this business,” said Mercer, who noted that his work at the funeral home has lessened his involvement with outside organizations over time.
But he’s had some help from his family in keeping the funeral home a viable part of the community. His wife, Tracy, has served as an assistant funeral director since 2004, and their oldest son, Kaleb, also works at the funeral home as a funeral director and embalmer.
Eventually, he sees Kaleb taking over the family business when it’s time for him to retire — although he has given his son a few words of warning about following in his footsteps.
“I’ve tried to talk him out of it,” Mercer said with a laugh. “I told him, when he started here, you know, this place is going to consume you… It changes your plans all the time.”
Those words, he said, come from his own experience — “Most of our social life is in here,” he said. But it’s the work that he and his family do at Mercer Funeral home, helping families get through “one of the toughest things they’ve ever death with,” that keeps them going, even during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“When you’re friends with everybody, you’re used to going up and giving people a hug when they come in the door, and you couldn’t do that,” he said. “Everybody’s kind of hesitant about it. There’s a lot of hugging that goes on at funerals. And handshakes. Everybody was afraid to shake hands.”
The respect for the families he’s helped get through those times remains, however, and over time, many of the people he’s worked with during their time of bereavement have become like family to him and Tracy.
“When you work with families for 35 years, you develop more of an intimate relationship with a family because they’re going through something that’s pretty traumatic,” he said. “You’re dealing with families of the kids you’ve known forever, or even the older people.”