Archive for Wednesday, April 19, 2000

Tonganoxie man’s company fulfills need in time of sorrow

April 19, 2000

Phil Weide does more funerals than a mortician.

"Saturday, I had 15 funerals," Weide said. "Monday I had two and tomorrow I'll have eight."

The Weide company, currently attracting attention for its tornado shelters, handles about 4,000 funerals a year.

In fact, between the Iola and Kansas City, Kan., locations, the company provides burial vaults for most of the funerals in the eastern third of Kansas.

What's more, the company not only manufactures and delivers burial vaults to cemeteries, but also provides and installs graveside service tents, carpets and chairs, making it a business funeral homes rely on.

For instance, Calvin Quisen-berry, owner of Quisenberry Funeral Home, Tonganoxie, said he shifted all of his business to Weides' firm about eight years ago.

"I like doing business with them because they're very small-business oriented," Quisenberry said. "It's a big business but they're all very down-home people. It's a family business and they're hard-working people."

Quisenberry noted that the company has grown considerably since adding Gray Vault Company five years ago.

Because the vault company workers do the before and after work and are rarely seen during a funeral service, most people probably aren't aware they exist.

Says Weide, who lives in Tonganoxie: "No one seems to know what I do for a living."

Weide's family established D of K Vault Inc. in 1984 in Iola, and five years ago, the company expanded when it acquired the Gray Vault Company, Kansas City, Kan.

At an 11th and Parallel location, northwest of downtown Kansas City, Kan., workers manufacture from 12 to 15 burial vaults each day. Inside the dimly lit, damp, cavernous plant, workers pour cement in grave-sized molds to form the vaults and lids. After curing and being coated with a waterproofing oil, the vaults are ready.

Usually, deliveries run smoothly.

"But once in a while we'll pull into the cemetery at 6 o'clock in the morning and there's two-foot of snow on the ground and no one to tell you where to go," Weide said.

Or, he said, a truck might break down.

"We're really under the gun if we're late and still working on it when a funeral pulls in it's crazy," Weide said.

But fortunately, that happens only a few times a year, he said.

Since the Gray Brothers Vault Company was started four decades ago, society's growing acceptance of cremations has changed the nature of the business, Weide said.

"It used to be that about 5 percent of funerals in the Kansas City area were cremations," Weide said. "Now it's running about 20 percent."

While one might think that any business dealing with the sensitive issue of death would present its own set of challenges, an additional challenge stems from the location of the inner-city plant.

For instance, the main door to the office building is always locked. It's a beautiful spring day, but inside Weide's office the only window is cloaked by heavy metal blinds, closed, of course. Outside, razor-sharp loops of piano wire top fences and gates. Across the street is the charred remainder of a house torched by gang members. Crack houses and dealers are a dime a dozen in this neighborhood, Weide says. And, on his first day on the job there, a man was murdered on the front porch of the house next door.

So clearly, this is not a place where Weide brings his family to visit.

"We're in the murder capital of Kansas," Weide said. "There are more murders in Kansas here in this neighborhood than anywhere else in the state."

But there's also good to be found in the neighborhood where many of his longtime employees live. Neighbors look out for each other. Weide knows the best eateries in the area to get homemade tamales and soul food, employees are allowed to use the mechanic shop at night to work on their vehicles and Quindaro neighborhood kids stop by and ask Weide or other workers for help in repairing their bicycles and mopeds.

As for the future of the company, Weide said he wonders where growth will lead the firm.

"We started this business from scratch and now we've created a $3 million monster," Weide said.

Six days a week he works hard, sometimes almost too hard, he said.

But the bright side is, he's his own boss.

"And you do get to meet a lot of good people," Weide said. "And we know that we're doing a job that most folks aren't too happy about but we're serving a need."

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