Rita Schimunek remembers getting that first telephone call 55 years ago.
The country was still in the throes of the Great Depression. She and her husband had worked and saved to open their own business. The family of Marie Krejci, a woman who had died at 801 N. Bradford St., phoned. Rita and her husband, Charles Schimunek, were the city's newest and most untested undertakers.
"I was so jittery I could hardly speak," says Mrs. Schimunek, the matriarch of a family that today owns a funeral business that extends from the old ethnic parishes of East Baltimore along the Belair Road corridor to Md. 24 in Harford County.
But in June 1937, she and her husband, who was a newly licensed undertaker, were operating out of a narrow East Madison Street rowhouse. Rita dressed the hair of the deceased and acted as a hostess at wakes. Before long, she and her husband were burying many members of the city's old Bohemian community, the Czechoslovakian families who lived in East Baltimore north of Monument Street.
Today, Mrs. Schimunek and her daughters, Karen Lewis and Darlene Schimunek, head a firm that employs 30 people at locations in the Belair-Edison section of Northeast Baltimore and in Perry Hall. There's also a third generation of the Schimuneks at work -- Brian Lewis, Charles and Matthew Capitano.
"We're a family and in the situations we deal with, that is important to our people," says Darlene Schimunek, a woman with a sparkling personality that immediately belies any grimness associated with death.
Any family that has buried 11,888 people (the firm keeps excellent records) must know plenty about the human condition.
"We've stayed in the same general location as our [customers]. This is where their roots are. They keep coming back to us generation after generation," says Darlene Schimunek.
It was not unusual for the firm's founder, the late Charles Schimunek, to drop by five oyster or bull roasts on a Sunday. He handed out matchbooks, ballpoint pens, rain bonnets and little sewing kits to hundreds of church congregants, members of veterans groups and officers of religious sodalities.
"My father was a born salesman," says Karen Lewis. "People loved him and he loved to be around people. Once when I was just learning to drive, he made me take him through the Harbor Tunnel to get to Curtis Bay."
They pulled up in front of a house and her father told her to wait in the car while he went inside to talk to a family. "Three hours later, he came out of the house. . . . As for me, I was furious."
The family business, which began in the heart of St. Wenceslaus Church parish (Ashland and Collington avenues), has moved as successive generations left the old neighborhood and moved northward, along Edison Highway, to Belair Road and beyond.
In 1956, the Schimuneks opened a large undertaking parlor -- the brick building was done in the Williamsburg style -- in the 3300 block of Brehms Lane. In 1973, a year after they had closed their original Madison Street location, they built another funeral home in Perry Hall. They now own a tract of land off Md. 24 and Interstate 95 in Harford County where they plan to build a third establishment.
The business remains largely neighborhood based, with most of the funerals from Brehms Lane. Each of the rooms where the relatives of the deceased greet mourners is named after a local street -- Mayfield, Brehms, Edison, Belair, Erdman or Mannasota.
"You would be amazed at the number of people who will say to us, 'We want our mother to be laid out in the Mayfield Room,' " says Darlene Schimunek.
She says many older members of the community still walk to pay their last respects to friends and family. At the same time, the parking lot there is often so crowded the cars spill over onto nearby streets.
And other East and Northeast Baltimore customs prevail as well. Families pay their funeral bills on time, often in cash. It's not unusual for someone to walk to the funeral home with $4,500 in a paper bag, all in twenties.