“I’m more than happy to be up to my neck in projects,” said Gayle Demko, co-founder with her late husband Chet of Heritage Funeral Home in West Suffield.
She’s served as Suffield Rotary president, Economic Development Commission chair, Chamber of Commerce president when Suffield had its own chamber, ad manager, column-writer and board member of the Suffield Observer for ten years, First Church of Christ Sunday school teacher and the list goes on.
The Demkos purchased 10 acres to build Heritage in 1973 when they married. Chet was a Suffield native who wanted his own business. “He was either going to be a surgeon or a funeral director,” said Gayle. Heritage was one of the first funeral homes built for the purpose versus a redesign of an old house, she said. The 6,000-square-foot building opened in 1976 with one floor, wide hallways, no steps and space for two simultaneous services.
The couple sold the business to their daughter Cheryl in 2016. She’s already made her mark in the industry, having been named one of the “Top Ten Female Funeral Directors” that same year by the National Funeral Directors Association.
Cheryl was a crisis counselor for five years before returning to school and earning an embalming and funeral director’s license. That experience gives her greater insight when dealing with grief-stricken people, said Gayle. Today, Heritage is one of the few family-owned and operated funeral homes in the Hartford area, she said. The two feel it offers a distinct competitive advantage since they fully understand the community and its customs, offering added solace when families need it most.
The funeral business is cyclical, they said. In the winter and around the holidays, deaths increase. People are more confined indoors in cold weather and the holidays add emotional stress since the elderly can’t necessarily celebrate with their families.
Gayle noted that one big change she’s seen in the past 47 years is the increased popularity of cremations. They were a rarity in the 70s. Today there are more cremations than traditional services primarily due to changing religious beliefs.