Obituary: Earl Holcomb, longtime St. Paul funeral director

  • Article by: JOHN EWOLDT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 4, 2014 - 8:13 PM

Earl Holcomb’s family made sure that his funeral was as traditional and honorable as the many that he orchestrated as owner and funeral director at Holcomb, Henry, Boom and Purcell Funeral Home in St. Paul. He spent more than 70 years in the funeral business himself, dying Feb. 12 at age 98.

Holcomb’s humble beginnings near Oakland Cemetery in St. Paul served as a basis for how he conducted his business, said his former employee Dennis Boom, who started working for Holcomb in 1963 and purchased his funeral home in 1981.

“It gave him great empathy and compassion for working people,” he said. “If he knew someone who was struggling, he tried to find a way to help them.”

His sense of compassion and loyalty served bereaved families and his own employees well, Boom said. Holcomb hired a widow who fell on hard times after her husband’s death to be the funeral home’s housekeeper and later the receptionist. Another woman who was disabled and struggling financially became the staff organist.

“Dad helped a lot of people, including hiring a man who had difficulty getting hired in the 1950s because he had epilepsy,” said Cheryl Holcomb of Roseville, his youngest daughter.

At Holcomb’s funeral, a bagpiper followed the service to the cemetery while the entire family waited until the vault was closed just as their father always did out of respect for the deceased and their families. “Dad would stand there in subzero weather until the vault was closed and he’d do it all over again to take a photo of the headstone once it was in place,” she said. The photos would then be sent to family members.

“He said, ‘If I were part of the family, that’s what I would want,’ ” Cheryl said.

He impressed his professionalism on future owners of the business. Richard Purcell, who bought the funeral home from Boom in 1999, said that Holcomb continued to visit the funeral home regularly even after he retired. It wasn’t until Parkinson’s disease took its toll on Holcomb about five years ago that he quit visiting. “He was my biggest critic and my biggest fan,” Purcell said. “There were times I didn’t know if Earl or Dennis [Boom] was my boss, but he always brought an innate caring for all families.”

Holcomb and wife and three children lived above the funeral home on Snelling Avenue for many years, moving to Roseville in the late 1960s. Boom said that after he was hired, Holcomb was always willing to come downstairs to help him if he was having difficulty. “He was very particular that a person looked right and looked comfortable in the way their body was positioned in the casket,” he said.

Boom described his former boss’ funeral as top notch. The family wanted to provide him with the best of everything. The casket, for example, was made of solid bronze.

“It was very unusual and very heavy, almost 300 pounds,” Boom said. Ten pallbearers carried the casket instead of the six usually required.

Services were held in Bethlehem Lutheran Church in St. Paul where his wife was baptized and the couple were married. Holcomb had the traditional visitation and viewing but with a two-part funeral, one for the Masons and one for everyone else.

Holcomb was active in many community and fraternal organizations, including the Midway Lions Club, the Midway YMCA Service Club, Osman Shriners and the Masons. In December he received a certificate for his 75th year of membership as a Mason, an honor few have received given that membership isn’t open until a person turns 21.

He is survived by his wife of 74 years, Roswitha, and children Gary of Minneapolis, Linda Lundquist and Cheryl Holcomb of Roseville.

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