by Frank DeLoache

HUNTERSVILLE – In 1901, the Mendel family, which operated a funeral home in Wheeling, W.Va., published an advertisement seeking an undertaker.

Carl John Kepner, then living in Ohio, answered the ad and, in a way, set in motion the arrival of his great-grandson John D. Kepner and his wife, Claudia, in Huntersville the weekend of April 9, 2011, 110 years later.

The Mendel family established its Wheeling funeral home in 1845 and operated it for two generations, before Carl Kepner bought it from them and renamed it Kepner Funeral Home.

Through the years, the Kepners served the residents of Wheeling, as the town grew to a peak of 60,000, riding the twin industries of coal and steel. Carl Kepner’s only son, Wade, followed his father in the business, and Wade’s only son, John W. Kepner, followed him.

John W. Kepner’s sons James B. and John D. followed him into the family business, and even before they acquired the funeral home from their father in 2010, the brothers talked about how to make room for their own sons.

“We felt the need to grow the company,” John D. Kepner said this week, sitting in his office at Raymer-Kepner Funeral Home and Cremation Services.

John and Claudia Kepner always loved North Carolina, and John Kepner told a friend who specializes in the sales of funeral homes to call him “if anything  comes open in North Carolina.”

After John Raymer, who built the distinctive red-brick Raymer Funeral Home at the northwest corner of Sam Furr and Old Statesville roads, died in 2009, John Kepner got a call from his friend. And you might say the families got together after that.

The Kepner brothers came to Huntersville to meet John Raymer’s wife, Evelyn, and his children, none of whom wanted to operate the business. “We wanted to get to know them and let them know that we wanted to carry on the tradition that John Raymer started,” John D. Kepner said.

They also met Virginia “Ginnie” Putnam, who was managing the business at the time, and the rest of the staff: Charles Park, Robert Helms, Coleman Dellinger, Joyce Bosher, Henry Barkley Jr. and Clyde Caldwell.

“Quite honestly, I don’t think we would have done this if they hadn’t stayed,” John Kepner said. “We want them to feel that we’re just joining the team.”

The families announced the sale April 6, and John and Claudia Kepner moved into an apartment in Cornelius the following weekend. John Kepner, a former Rotary Club president in Wheeling, already has attended a Rotary meeting in Huntersville, and the couple have attended services at Mt. Zion United Methodist Church.

“We’re ready to dig our roots in here and be part of the community,” John Kepner said.

John Kepner’s parents, John W. and Jo, already have visited Huntersville. Early next year, John and Claudia Kepner’s son, Jonathan, who is 25 and a graduate of the West Virginia University, expects to finish mortuary school in Pittsburgh, Pa., and then move to north Mecklenburg to work with his dad, who is 55.

James B. Kepner and his wife, Lisa, remain in Wheeling, and their son, Alex, recently completed mortuary school and he joined his father.

They are the first cousins – and the fifth generation – to come into the business, but from listening to John Kepner talk about growing up together, playing basketball at the same high school, a guest can tell he’s looking forward to them laying the groundwork for a sixth generation.

Like every other industry, funeral services are changing with technology and the different cultures of each succeeding generation.

“The baby boomers are an interesting generation,” said Kepner, knowing he is speaking of himself also. Whereas their parents followed the traditional desire for ceremony and a family burial plot, baby boomers “are just as likely to want to be cremated and their ashes sprinkled some place they love – in the ocean or on a mountaintop or even their favorite golf course.”

Previous generations traditionally spent two days gathering and mourning, followed by the funeral on the third day. “Today, families are doing more about memorializing and celebrating,” Kepner said. “They’re personalizing it because they’re celebrating the individual.”

And technology has enabled families to do that, and funeral homes providing options such as video services, so that families have DVDs to keep. The Internet enables many more people to reach out to families from a distance.

Kepner is talking to a specialist right now about offering live webcasts of funerals or just family gatherings, so that relatives or friends anywhere in the world could participate with the family.

“It’s a very exciting and good mix of the traditional and new ideas,” Kepner said, “and it mirrors what’s happening in our own lives.”