By Everett Brazil, III
The Newkirk Herald Journal
NEWKIRK — John and Pamela Miller and their families have left a deep impact on the Newkirk community. Operating Miller-Stahl Funeral Home, they have helped countless families in their darkest hour of grief. Now, after more than half a century, they are moving in a new direction and into retirement, but pledge that they, and the funeral home, will remain in Newkirk.
Sitting in their office on a sunny winter afternoon, they reflect on their time in the funeral business.
“Working with people, I think, is the greatest thing about it, and it has been a good community to work in,” Pamela said.
The Miller and Stahl families are not native to Newkirk. The Stahls arrived from Nowata, in northeast Oklahoma, in 1951, when Bill and Evelyn Stahl bought the former Roy Hill Funeral Home.They rechristened it Hill-Stahl Funeral Home for a time, before naming it Stahl Funeral Home. Pamela was 5 at the time.
The Miller family hails from Carrier, Okla., northwest of Enid, and never actually lived in Newkirk, other than when John and Pamela relocated there in the late 1970s. His parents, Clarence and Nona Miller-Lang remained in Carrier.
Neither had an interest in the funeral business, instead pursuing careers in education. John became an elementary school special education instructor, while Pamela taught band and vocal music. They met by chance at a teachers’ meeting while they were both working at Waukomis Public Schools, south of Enid, in 1970. They were married in 1971.
Their interest in the funeral business slowly grew during the next few years.
“We would both come here on holiday, and I’d help her father out, and he offered me the opportunity to go back to school and get what I needed,” John said.
He received a degree in mortuary science from the University of Central Oklahoma, Edmond, and started full time at Stahl Funeral Home in 1977. John and Pamela relocated to Newkirk that same year. They bought the funeral home in 1983, renaming it Miller-Stahl Funeral Home.
“It just kind of fell into place,” Pamela said of their transition from educators to funeral home directors.
The Millers would go on to raise their own family, daughters Natalie McBride and Vanessa Miller in the community.
There is a lengthy process leading up to a funeral, and the first step is collection of the body.
“You get an initial call from someone – nursing home, hospital, family,” John said. “We go remove the deceased individual, and there needs to be a determination if it’s a casket service, or cremation.”
If the deceased individual will have a casket service, the Millers have the body embalmed, and sit down with the family for arrangements, such as funeral location, as well as a cemetery for burial. The body is dressed and makeup is applied, and is placed into a casket for a viewing, and finally, the funeral itself.
Cremation is the process of reducing the body to ashes, and while some funeral homes have their own crematory machines, the Millers rely on a facility in Tulsa for the process.
While similar to a casket funeral, cremation services have their own processes, and typically involve an urn with the ashes, along with a picture instead of a casket and viewing.
“The medical examiner has to be contacted. He issues a permit for the cremation to occur,” John said. “They work with others to determine the cause of death, prior to cremation, such as foul play.”
The Millers average about 40 funerals a year, both for Kay County and Newkirk residents, as well as out-of-state individuals who wish to be buried in the Newkirk and Washunga cemeteries. Those numbers were higher in years past, as fewer bodies are being returned to Newkirk today. Cremated remains are easier to return by car, but some bodies are still flown home.
“A lot of people, because of the cost, don’t fly bodies like they used to,” John said. “It’s changed quite a bit over the years.”
For deceased individuals who are returned home, Miller-Stahl Funeral Home may have to work with out-of-town funeral homes, and retrieve the body at the airport.
“They (other homes) are a part of the process, as far as where the death occurs, and what the families want to do,” John said.
There may also be more than one service for those who lived elsewhere, but wanted to be buried at home.
“A lot of times, they have a service in whatever state they happen to be in, and they fly the body home for another service, and maybe it’s just a graveside and burial,” Pamela said.
The Millers have seen other changes to their role, both within the industry as well as their own funeral home.
They formerly operated out of an office at 200 S. Main, where the funeral home has historically been located, but their headquarters are now located at 128 S. Main, due to a tornado that heavily damaged their roof, leading to water damage and a severe mold problem. They found their new office not long after that, and started renting the new office from Roy Chaney.
They were awoken early in the morning to see widespread damage to their building.
“We went down, and saw that the storm had peeled off one-third of the roof, and some of the decking,” Pamela said. “Our daughters came to help us when they heard it, and helped us salvage what we could.”
They also saw changes due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and funerals were temporarily suspended due to social distancing in spring 2020. Even when they started holding them again later in the year, hey had to do it with social distancing in mind.
A funeral home isn’t just a full-time job, but one that leaves little room for personal time due to working with so many families. It is hard to leave on a vacation when families are grieving.
“You have no family vacations, (you have) interrupted dinners, interrupted holidays, but it has been good,” Pamela said.
Miller-Stahl Funeral Home will remain in the community, having been sold to Grace Memorial Chapel in Ponca City, itself part of the larger Legacy Funeral Group, in Houston, Texas. Local offices will remain open.
“We wanted to make sure Newkirk still had a funeral home. We always felt of it as an important service to the community,” Pamela said.
As for the Millers, they also plan to stay in Newkirk, and remain a part of the community, mostly catching up on activities they may not have had time for before, Pamela said.
The Millers may be retiring, but they are proud of their service, as well as being a part of the community to help those who are in a serious time of need.
“We’ve been able to help the families at one of the hardest times of their lives,” John said. “Some jobs are just a calling.”