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Otteson knows the personal touch helps the grieving

Funeral Director Todd Otteson says sitting down to talk with people when they’re planning a loved one’s funeral is both difficult and rewarding. (photo by Ruth Nerhaugen)1 / 2
Todd Otteson of Red Wing is a familiar figure at Hanisch Bakery’s front counter, where he picks up doughnuts to bring to work at Mahn Family Funeral Home. (photo by Ruth Nerhaugen)2 / 2

Editor's note: This story is part of Faces A to Z, a series highlighting familiar — and not so familiar — faces around Goodhue County. Learn more about the series and how to get involed here, and check back to the A to Z page for stories, history lessons and Q&As.

When he left the farm, Todd Otteson didn't expect to find himself in a career that is every bit as demanding when it comes to work schedules.

Just as farming requires a 365-days-a-year commitment, so does working as a funeral director.

But Otteson, who has been with Mahn Family Funeral Home since late-1993, has no regrets. To him, working in the death care industry is rewarding — just as his college adviser promised.

He grew up on the family dairy farm in Paynesville, located between Willmar and St. Cloud, the youngest of four children. "That's where I learned the work ethic," he noted.

But farming was not for him. "There's more to offer in life," he decided. Otteson visited with the community college adviser in Willmar and was told that "helping people in some way" would be a good career path for him. The man suggested various jobs, but it was mortuary science that struck Otteson's interest.

He took some classes and worked part time at a funeral home, then attended the University of Minnesota and graduated in mortuary science in 1988.

"I have always seen it as a career where you help families and individuals in one of the most difficult times in their lives," Otteson said. "I didn't know the hours were going to be very similar to farming," he added with with laugh, because that factor no longer is important.

"It's very rewarding to know that you can help people through this difficult time. Helping them create a celebration of the life of their loved one with a memorial service or a funeral service in turn helps them through the grieving process."

Otteson worked in the Twin Cities and Willmar, then followed his future wife to Red Wing. The former Patty Loveless grew up on a farm, too, in Wells, Minn.; they met on a blind date arranged by friends and family.

She came to Red Wing in 1989 to teach health at Twin Bluff Middle School. They married in June 1994 and have two daughters — Amy, who is in the nursing program at St. Olaf College, and Emily, a senior at Red Wing High School who also is destined for St. Olaf.

Being a funeral director means working closely with families, guiding them through all the different aspects of a funeral service, Otteson said. There are many details to cover to make sure their loved one has a proper burial.

At the "arrangement conference," he said, he assists people with such details as filing death certificates, creating/helping them create an obituary that tells their loved one's life story, and designing a celebration of life service, including the music.

The funeral director assists with the casket, makes cemetery arrangements, and coordinates the church and clergy if that's what the family wants. They may choose an earth burial or cremation.

"There are up to 100 different details we will work through," he said.

Funeral home staff members also attend visitation and the services and go to the cemetery with the family. And, Otteson added, there is also aftercare — providing sources for support groups, brochures and printed materials.

The funeral home also offers workshops/classes on prearranging funerals and will coordinate pet cremation services.

He is seeing change, Otteson said, including a trend toward more personalized services. Celebration of life gatherings today may be held in parks, restaurants, homes and other places that are meaningful to the one who died or the family. Similarly, he added, the luncheon doesn't have to be ham salad sandwiches and Jell-o, but might be favorite Norwegian baked goods.

All of that is fine with him, "as long as we continue to remember the person who has died by honoring them and the life they lived," he said, "by having some type of service and visitation to give friends and loved ones the opportunity to know the reality of the death that has occurred — and to honor and celebrate all they have done."

Accepting the reality of death is important to helping individuals through the grieving process, he stressed. "It brings closure. We need to see to believe."

Funeral directors, who are licensed through the Minnesota Department of Health, also do the necessary preparation work such as embalming and restorative work, Otteson noted. Mahn's has six licensed directors in Red Wing plus an intern and a secretary.

Start to finish, the process can take up to 75 hours per family, and the funeral home probably averages five a week.

Like the others, Otteson is on call 24-7, including holidays.

It can be a sad time, he acknowledged. But at the same time, "I also learn so much about people and families. They share tears and laughter, which makes it rewarding."