Fourth generation leads Catonsville funeral business

Witzke has been a familiar name in the funeral services business in the Baltimore area since 1912, when Harry H. Witzke, Sr., opened the first Witzke Funeral Home in his house at 510 Ramsey St. in Baltimore.

Harry Witzke's son, for example, coordinated the funeral arrangements for famous Baltimore writer H.L. Mencken.

The family business has traveled to several other city locations since, with stops on Lombard Street, Hollins Avenue and Edmondson Avenue before establishing its first Baltimore County presence with a 1969 move to Catonsville.

Craig Witzke, the great-grandson of Harry Witzke, began working in the family business in 1986.

But two days before Christmas in 2006, the publicly-traded conglomerate that had acquired the funeral homes 16 years ago eliminated Witzke's position.

The conglomerate continued to run the Catonsville and Columbia locations while Craig Witzke was out of the only business that he had ever known. After being forced out, Witzke signed a non-compete agreement with his former employer.

"At that point, I found myself unemployed," Witzke said. "But I wanted to continue making a difference and being active in Catonsville, so I started finding older properties and cleaned them up."

His absence from the business didn't last long. In December 2011, the 48-year-old graduate of the mortuary science program at then-Catonsville Community College became the owner-operator of the independent Craig Witzke Funeral Care.

"The funeral-service business is a calling," Witzke said. "I didn't want to build a new funeral home, which would have cost about $5 million. I thought my great-grandfather had a really good business plan when he started, and I wanted to emulate that."

The new Witzke's is headquartered in a modest home on Newburg Avenue, a block south of Frederick Road in the heart of Catonsville.

But it's not a traditional funeral-home setting. Instead, the Mt. St. Joseph High School graduate has tailored his business to adjust to the changing nature of funeral services.

The new location contains several rooms, but none are used for viewings.

A large front room, highlighted by framed prayer cards from the 1963 funeral of President John F. Kennedy, serves as the business office.

Downstairs is a room with different casket models. An attached room contains cremation cases and urns, along with models of caskets suitable for cremation.

Witzke also offers guidance on alternatives to traditional burials, such as the Eternal Reefs Memorial, in which the deceased's ashes can be interred inside a coral reef at the bottom of a body of water.

When Witzke handled the 1995 services and burial for popular WJZ-TV news anchor Al Sanders, he was struck by the fact that Sanders' memorial was held in a Columbia community center and not the traditional funeral home or church setting.

Witzke observed that family members are now more inclined to move away from a traditional funeral home or church setting.

"Customs and times change, and during my five-year absence in the business I went to more and more funerals where the family had done a private service and then had a celebration in a restaurant," Witzke said. "I wanted to be able to help people in that capacity by offering a simple service and making it meaningful."

Such a non-traditional funeral appealed to Mary Theresa "Tresie" Yost. After the Eldersburg resident's mother, Mary Regina "Jean" Owings, died several years ago, she wanted something more personal. The viewing and service were held at St. Joseph's Monastery in Irvington, Owings' parish in her youth.

"It was a little different, but I actually liked it better that way," Yost recalled. "It was special for her to be there, very peaceful and comforting.

"That church was a special place for my mom and our family, and the way that it was done made it more personal for us," she said.

There will be a fifth generation in the Witzke family business some time in the future. Craig's daughter Ashley, who will graduate from Catonsville High next June, is now working for her father.

"I watched my dad help people, and I want to be like him and help others in the community," said Ashley, who will begin the mortuary science program at CCBC-Catonsville in January.

Eventually, Ashley will take over the business. But her father is far from retirement, and still gets plenty of satisfaction from helping others during a trying time.

"I've had the opportunity to work with my grandfather, my father, my sister, and now my daughter, and that is a tremendous experience," he said. "People come to you at a time when they need your trust, your help, and your assistance. I try to do what they expect me to do, and treat them with compassion. People are always very grateful, and that's rewarding."

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