Hispanic community embraces funeral home director





“The Mexican community has treated me as one of their own”





“They said, ‘You have done so much for us, we want you to be one of us,’” he says. “Being honored like that from the community – it was just heartwarming for me.”



BY JOE ARCE AND COREY CRABLE


Robert “Bob” Kalkofen has served a countless number of families in his 40 years with Kansas City’s McGilley Memorial Chapel in Midtown, but he has created a special bond with Hispanic families in the community he calls home.


“I’ve seen a lot of personal growth working for McGilley,” reflects Kalkofen, who started in the business as an embalmer and then was promoted to director in 1988. “I’ve served a lot of families over 40 years through a lot of hard times, and it’s been an honor to be able to do that.”


Over the course of decades, however, he has grown especially close with members of the Hispanic community, who have adopted him as one of their own.


“When I first started with McGilley, I think the Westside community was right there, and they are very family-oriented people. I noticed that when I worked visitations for Latino families, those were more well attended than some of the Anglo services, just because that’s how close the community is,” Kalkofen says. “Over the years, I’ve served many families from the Westside. A couple of families call me ‘Uncle Bob’ because I’ve served them so long. That is a true badge of honor for me because they consider me family.”


A few years ago, in fact, Kalkofen was invited to join his church’s Guadalpana organization – a group primarily consisting of women from a church who honor Our Lady of Guadalupe with performing specific services, such as evangelizing, showing devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe in prayer, assisting the priest, and having fundraisers to help the priests buy items for the church. When a man is invited to join, he becomes a Guadalupano.


“They said, ‘You have done so much for us, we want you to be one of us,’” he says. “Being honored like that from the community – it was just heartwarming for me.”


Ramona Arroyo met Kalkofen at the church, and Arroyo was immediately struck by Kalkofen’s curiosity about the Hispanic community and his heart of service for others.


“He has excellent customer service and compassion when dealing with a death,” Arroyo says. “I know he wanted to know more about the Hispanic culture, and he asked me a lot of questions. He asked us about Our Lady of Guadalupe, and he was instrumental in getting images of Our Lady of Guadalupe (on prayer cards). He became a Guadalupano. … There aren’t enough words I can say to express my gratitude and how wonderful this guy is. He is a blessing to our community, and he is a great guy. I am honored and blessed to have gotten to know him.”


The feeling, Kaklofen says, is mutual.


“The Mexican community has treated me as one of their own, and it’s just humbling to be accepted like that,” says Kalkofen, adding that he would like to see many of his clients in a leisurely setting more. “A lot of my friends tell me, ‘You’re always at the funeral home!’ And I tell them, ‘I know, I want to be in jeans and boots at a fiesta and have a beer with my friends. Outside of the funeral home, I want to see my friends without the connotation of death around us.”


Kalkofen celebrated 40 years with the business in March, and since that time, he has only had worked a short stint at one funeral home in Johnson County and another on State Line. But McGilley, he says, just feels like home.


“When I came back to Midtown, it felt like I was home. It was the feel of family and community that was missing,” he says. “It just didn’t feel as comfortable as working at McGilley. It’s where I started, and that’s where I’m going to retire from. … Midtown has always been home to me, and that will never change.”


The past year, however, has been difficult for everyone, both in the funeral industry and in the families it serves. The spread of COVID-19 created restrictions in funeral services that made it hard for members of a community used to gathering in large numbers to grieve in their own way.


“What was most hard about (the past year) was that the Hispanic community traditionally has large funeral Masses and large visitations. A lot of folks opted for a private Mass or just cremation. Some folks even did memorial Masses a year later because they were concerned they couldn’t get everyone together. The thought was, ‘We’ll do this later when this is over.’ I think there will be a lot of big Masses and gatherings this summer and fall,” Kalkofen says. “It was very hard, and we had a couple of families who were resentful of (COVID restrictions), but the city told us we couldn’t do more than 10 people in the chapel at a time. That included the funeral director and staff. That was totally against all we do.”


Still, Kalkofen says he thinks positive change is ahead.


“Luckily, things have become more relaxed, though we’re still with a limited number of people in the facility. So, we’ve gotten back to a little bit of normalcy. … The number of people we can have (in the chapel) has been eliminated as long as there is social distancing.”


The most difficult part of adherence to COVID restrictions, he notes, has been limiting the amount of physical contact among grieving family members and friends in attendance at funerals.


“In the Mexican community, there is so much hugging and kissing,” Kalkofen observes. “(Touching) removes a bit of the weight of the loss with each hug. So that was hard for a lot of people at that time.”


Kalkofen has put many special touches on the funeral services he offers to Mexican families over the years, even including a small piece of home in each burial he oversees.


“I’ve noticed when we go to graveside services that the family wanted to put dirt in the graves, and it seems there was a company in Ireland that sent in dirt from Ireland for Irish funerals,” he explains.


“I thought, ‘This would be perfect to get dirt from Mexico.’ I had someone who went to a cemetery in Mexico and brought back a five-gallon bucket of dirt – so, it’s dirt from Mexico, and it has been blessed. If they want a little bit of Mexico to be with their loved one, we can do that for them.”


Kalkofen also says he feels it is his duty to work with grieving family members when it comes to paying for their loved ones’ funeral, and that he wants the process to be as easy for them as possible.


“I don’t want to sell anybody something they don’t need, I don’t want to have them make selections of items or services that are going to financially hurt them,” Kaklofen says. “They’re already hurting emotionally and sometimes physically, and I don’t want to cause another world of hurt for them.”


Word of mouth about Kalkofen’s outstanding customer service and dedication to the Latino community has spread, creating plenty of business for him over the years.


“I’m referred to by a lot of families I’ve served to other people I haven’t served previously,” he says. “It’s a deep personal honor to be trusted with that kind of responsibility.”


Now, his Hispanic customers – his extended family – always make sure to check up on him and express their gratitude for ushering them through the loss of loved ones.


“They ask me about my grandkids, and people will ask about my mom and have sent condolences on her passing,” Kalkofen notes. “It’s so comforting to have those heartfelt concerns. It happens nearly every visitation.”


So what’s the secret to amassing such a large group of friends and family in his business? The answer, he says, is quite simple.


“I treat the families like I want to be treated when I have a death. It’s the Golden Rule,” Kalkofen says. “These 40 years have been an honor, because I’ve worked with a lot of great people as our clients. I look forward to going to work, not because someone has died, but because I’m going to see and help a friend. … I want to thank the friends I’ve made. I’m honored by your friendship.”


For more information on McGilley Memorial Chapel-Midtown, visit www.dignitymemorial.com.