Funeral home gives thanks to neighbors; Those who have mourned at business invited to 100th anniversary party


No one came to mourn the dead at Hampden's only funeral home yesterday. Visitors packed the halls, instead, to play bingo, eat hot dogs and watch a puppet show.

How else for a funeral home in one of Baltimore's quirkier neighborhoods to celebrate 100 years of burying the neighborhood's dead?

"I think this is the first time I've been here for fun," said Tabitha Curry, 30, who was playing bingo in the rear parlor with her daughter Vanity, 9. "Something to do on a rainy day."

Burgee-Henss-Seitz Funeral Home on Falls Road, where Hampden residents have wept and prayed for a century, was turned into a balloon-filled playground yesterday. No signs of caskets or hearses were at the party, which the owners threw for the neighborhood.

"This is where a lot of history has taken place," said Lynn Henss, whose great-grandfather started the business. "It was just a way to pay back the community."

Face painting was done in front of the embalming room, which was off limits. Lemons with peppermint sticks were in the front salon, where coffee is usually served to grieving relatives. Where the hearses and flower van are usually parked, children threw darts at balloons, tossed rings and painted swirly pictures.

The bingo-playing Curry wasn't planning to attend the funeral home anniversary. But yesterday morning, when she was cashing a scratch-and-win lottery ticket at a store, one of the owners invited her.

Why not, she thought. The lifelong resident has been to the home no less than 15 times for relatives' funerals.

She wasn't uncomfortable going to the place where she had been so many times to mourn.

"We don't think about those things when we're having fun," explained Curry, a part-time hairdresser.

If balloons and popcorn seem out of place at a funeral home, no one seemed to notice. The owners said the century-old business is as familiar to residents as, well, hot dogs.

"Hampden is different than a lot of places," said Tracey Carpenter, who runs the 275-burials-a-year business with her husband and parents. "People have lived here their entire lives. It's not uncommon for people to say 'I'm going to Burgee's tonight.' "

The news "just circulates. Their neighbor tells their hairdresser," Carpenter said.

This is not the first time the funeral home has departed from traditional business practices. About four times a year, the owners take residents from nearby elderly housing units on bus trips. Once a month, they hold a bingo party for the elderly.

"We happen to be funeral directors, but more importantly we're members of the community and have been for more than 100 years," Henss said.

Connie Frederick, 73, has buried "two husbands and a mother-in-law" at Burgee's. Yesterday, she stood in the hallway eating a hot dog laden with onions. She said she had no qualms about attending a party at the place where her family members had lain in caskets.

"When you learn to accept what happens in life, you take the good times and the bad," she said.

Pub Date: 10/11/99

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