John P. “Jack” Bruce, 66, retired in December as the owner of two funeral homes that have stood the test of time: Hart & Bruce Funeral Home, 117 N. Massey St., and Bruce Funeral Home, 131 Maple St., Black River. But the funeral homes still will be in hands he trusts.
His 39-year-old daughter, Jill C. Bruce-Wiley, bought the funeral homes from her father in December after working by his side since 1994. Ms. Bruce-Wiley, who grew up living in the Watertown funeral home, said she had wanted to continue the family business since she was a young girl.
“Serving someone who’s lost a family member is the most important service you can render,” she said. “I’m honored to have the tradition continue and to continue serving the families that my father’s served for the last 40 years. My family’s business will hopefully be open for the next 30 years.”
The funeral homes are long-standing fixtures in the community. In 1938, Francis P. Hart and John J. Scherer partnered to open Hart & Scherer Funeral Home at the site of the former Samuel J. Payne Funeral Home on Benedict Street, now Sherman Street. Mr. Hart became the sole owner of the funeral home in 1950, when it moved to its current spot on North Massey Street. In 1973, the home was sold by the Hart family to Wesley Johnston, becoming the Hart & Johnston Funeral Home.
Mr. Bruce entered the picture in 1978, when he purchased the Watertown funeral home from the Johnston family. He graduated in 1966 from Simmons Funeral Institute in Syracuse and had spent the early part of his career as a director for Cleveland Funeral Home in Watertown and Singleton Funeral Home in Glens Falls.
Choosing to carve his own career path, Mr. Bruce in 1972 launched Bruce Funeral Home in Black River with his wife, Karen E., whom he met in Watertown.
Daughter Jill was actively involved in the family business as a youngster, Mr. Bruce said. When she earned a mortuary science degree from SUNY Canton in 1994, he knew she’d eventually take over the business.
“It’s nice to keep it in the family because you need to have someone who wants to be in the funeral business,” Mr. Bruce said. “She has been passionate about this since she was a little girl adding flowers to arrangements. And we now have a chance she’ll see the 100th anniversary of our Black River funeral home.”
Along with continuing the family’s legacy, Ms. Bruce-Wiley will host services for families that have known Mr. Bruce more than four decades.
“We’ve always treated our customers as family here, and many people have come back over the past 40 years,” Mr. Bruce said. “I’ve slowly turned the business over to my daughter since the day she started working with me, and she’s fit right into the mold.”
Numerous funeral homes in Jefferson and Lewis counties have been owned by the same family for multiple generations. Those in Watertown include Cummings Funeral Service, D.L. Calarco Funeral Home and Cleveland Funeral Home. Those outside the city include Carpenter-Stoodley Funeral Home in Belleville, Bossuot-Lundy Funeral Home in Copenhagen, Frederick Bros. Funeral Home in Theresa and Piddock Funeral Home in Adams.
“Normally, when a funeral home transitions to a son or daughter, it’s going to be a more reasonable financial situation than if it were bought by someone else,” said Piddock Funeral Home owner David W. Kellogg, who is a member and past president of the Jefferson-Lewis Funeral Directors Association. “The biggest difficulty to sell them (outside the family) is the fact they are often big and expensive buildings.”
Ms. Bruce-Wiley and her husband, Jeffrey L. Wiley, athletics director at Jefferson Community College, have two children, Benjamin M., 8, and Brooke E., 5, who attend Dexter Elementary School.