Cotter Funeral Home remodel brings flexibility to inflexible times under third-generation ownership.
DENMARK—Life is defined and colored by a series of unexpected events, and any plan which is ultimately effective accounts for something going awry along the way to the objective. Our goals and future hopes are stunted by the unforeseen, and the lives of our loved ones are cut short without notice or time to prepare.
When those unavoidable and devastating moments have been upon families and friends in the Denmark area to bear over the last 57 years, Cotter Funeral Home—formerly bearing the names of Knutson and Wochos— has often been the shoulder of stability amidst the chaos of piecing together their final farewells.
“It’s kind of a mix between a therapist and an event planner,” said Matt Cotter, funeral director and vice president of the business, “At the start, we know that people have a lot going on in their minds and are still very early in the grieving process. We’re here to support families regardless of the circumstance and find out the best way they want to honor and remember their loved ones without adding any more stress or worries, and then delivering that memorial and celebration of life.”
Piecing together the funeral envisioned by the family takes, “both a science and an art approach,” Cotter said, balancing empathetic emotions with logistical realities.
“We deal with a lot of vendors for any service,” he added, “so it’s not uncommon to get a phone call after midnight the day before with news about how X or Y went wrong and you need to find an alternative, fast.”
Of the family’s three funeral homes, which include De Pere and Wrightstown as well as Denmark, the overall support of community members and businesses here has made such untimely twists less frequent and easier to navigate, Cotter said.
That became especially clear over the last four months while the Cotter Funeral Home on County Rd. R was inoperable during an expansive remodeling project that changed the building’s layout, hardware, and functionality for the first time since it was built in 1992.
Beginning right after Memorial Day, the renovation was planned to try and affect the fewest number of families as possible.
“Believe it or not, there is a busy and a slow season for funeral homes, and summer is usually when it tapers off a bit” Cotter said, adding with a mix of grief and ‘what can you do?’ humor, “Of course, this year was an exception.”
Giving praise to the churches of the area who opened their doors and office space for Cotter staff and families during the planning process, Cotter said there were only slight hiccups and inefficiencies in the general planning—such as not having a library of sample books to peruse options or not being able to access online databases in homes without Internet. Holding services at multiple churches, as well as Scandinavian Court Assisted Living, across what amounted to most of the Denmark School District added plenty more layers of logistics for planners and vendors to work through.
“The community has been great. We didn’t feel like we let anyone down, which was worth the extra work,” Cotter said.
Long as the stretch may have seemed while in the thick of it, Cotter said that general contractor Keller, Inc., completed the project on the early end of initial estimates. Much to everyone’s surprise, the builders did not incur one significant setback over the course of the overhaul.
“We have three locations, a cremation center, and I’ve been involved in some other projects as well,” Cotter said, “With this, we didn’t hit a single major obstacle. That’s the first time in any project that I’ve seen that happen.”
Though no one on staff is necessarily happy to see new faces come through the door, Cotter said the newly renovated space is something he and the business are excited for others to see, if only to reimagine how a funeral can be conducted.
What had long been an enclosed rectangular conference room used for planning meetings only is now connected to the rest of the floorplan as a walkway and reception area; restaurant-style tables of standing height dot another portion; the walls have been repainted to off-white and LED light fixtures bring a brighter, calmer sense of being.
All of this, Cotter said, is to diminish some of the inherent emotional discomfort that can inherently attend funerals to encourage, “people to feel like they stay a little longer, tell stories, share memories, and maybe not feel as stiff or closed off. It’s a celebration of that person’s life, and you wouldn’t be there unless they were important to you or affected you in some way. If that person was a jokester, they’d probably let you know that it’s okay to tell jokes. That sounds simple, but understandably it’s not always the case.”
Investments in new technology will broadcast the service on a screen facing the overflow area, should it be filled, and a threefold increase of air conditioning power is more than enough to quell some stuffiness during the service.
The most significant alteration, though, may be the least drastic. Dark purple drapes which served as the backdrop for those being laid to rest, whether in casket or urn, have been replaced with a multicolored wall of stone veneer similar to that of mantles and fireplaces in homes across Wisconsin.
“It brings out more colors and adds some dimension and shapes. There are all kinds of colors throughout this wall but nothing really dominates, so the focus will still be on either the casket or the urn but there’s more definition to it now,” Cotter said, admitting through a laugh that it was an interior designer from Keller who shepherded him to the concept.
“Everything we did was centered on making the building feel more like an actual home people are used to socializing in and less like a funeral home in the traditional sense,” he adds, “We still can and are more than willing to provide a more traditional service if that is what the family wants, but the trend is moving toward the celebrating life idea.
“These additions make the building more multipurpose and multifunctional, so if the family has a different idea about how they want to honor their loved one we can easily accommodate to almost anything,” Cotter said.
Having grown up a funeral director’s son, Cotter spent his adolescence cutting grass and landscaping, preparing the building’s organization and decoration for services, and attending to various tasks as they arose and as he was qualified to handle them. He’s experienced plenty of funerals, and counseled dozens—if not hundreds—of families with some of their most distressing moments since he earned his mortuary license in 2012.
The job can be especially taxing, though, as one would imagine. Aside from handling massive event planning on a 3-4 window, there is constant interaction with families of individuals whose lives were taken in a variety of ways, sometimes tragically.
“Funeral directors have one of the highest rates of alcoholism and drug abuse due to the emotional stress it puts on you,” he said.
Strong bonds with family, friends, his wife, and personal religious practices have kept him moored down. Sometimes, though, tragedy can bring beauty in its wake and provide reasons for happiness when all is dark.
“There were two instances with students; they were kids. Those are the toughest, especially for my staff because they have children of their own, too,” Cotter said, “but when the services came around, the building was packed because this community turned out to support those families, even if they didn’t know them fully but were part of the community they shared together. That’s…that’s pretty unique.
“In a lot of ways, this is more of the community’s building than it is ours.”