SANDPOINT — Over the course of 45 years in business, Dale Coffelt has grown close to the community he serves. He has seen children grow into grandparents and watched as one generation gave way to the next.
Perhaps more than anyone, he has been there when community members passed away, comforting families, making a hard and heart-breaking situation, in his words, “softer.”
Coffelt Funeral Services was established in 1970 after he took over the operation of the business and the associated Pinecrest Cemetery from Bud Moon, whose father started Moon Funeral Services back in 1922. Dale still remembers the day he entered the building at the corner of Division and Pine, not because it was particularly notable, but because it was the first entry in what would become a long and illustrious local career.
“I walked through that door on March 1, 1967,” he said, pointing to the entrance. “I came up from Payette, Idaho, and went right to work.”
Spending so much time in a community, getting to know the families and their histories, has been a two-sided coin for Coffelt. On one hand, it has allowed him to help with funeral arrangements on a very personal level. On the other, it makes it almost impossible to keep an emotional distance when one of his many close friends has died.
“Knowing the families so well is an advantage and a disadvantage,” he said. “Sometimes, while we’re making the arrangements, they’ll turn to me and ask, ‘How are you doing with all of this, Dale?’ Usually, I was doing OK up to that point, but as soon as they say that, I head over the hill, emotionally.”
There is not wall space enough in this 5,000-square-foot building to house the multiple professional licenses, awards and accolades Coffelt has earned over the years, including terms as Idaho Funeral Service Association president, Sandpoint Rotary Club president and Paul Harris Fellow, board member and treasurer of the National Selected Morticians and 21 years of serving as Bonner County coroner, which included training at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Va.
It was that chapter of his career — which ran from 1972-’93 — that held some of the most interesting moments for Coffelt, whose early years as coroner preceded the high-tech image that surrounds that field today.
“At that time, DNA and all the forensics we use today hadn’t been developed,” he explained.
Asked if there were cases that stood out in his memory, Coffelt settled back in his chair, lost in thought.
“You could write a book about some of these things,” he said at last.
He did, however, mention that he testified in numerous trials as coroner, including the one where he signed the arrest warrant after a coroner’s inquest into the death of a young boy who died during an outdoor concert event after being left unattended by his father, who was found to be drunk at the time.
“There was also a soft side to being able to help through an elected office,” Coffelt said, listing the time he determined, using DNA evidence, that a man had died from polycystic kidney disease. Not only was Coffelt able to establish grounds for Social Security benefits for the survivors, he contacted the man’s siblings to alert them to the possibility of similar health concerns they should be aware of.
Coffelt served as president of the Idaho Coroners Association from 1991-’93, but his most cherished memories are attached to some of the more intimate moments he has encountered as funeral director — in the homes of families, in the office and, sometimes, at the graveside.
He told the story of a small funeral for a woman who died in Noxon, Mont., leaving behind a son with Down’s Syndrome, who stood near Coffelt during the service.
“It was a cold November day — the priest was done and the few people who attended were leaving,” he said. “I was standing there when the little boy took a flower from his mother’s casket and put it in his pocket. Then he looked up at me, got another flower and put it in my pocket before he left with his cousins, who were the only family he had left.
“I’ll tell you, I wasn’t able to turn around for a long time after that happened,” he added. “I never drive through Noxon that I don’t think of that little boy.”
Another memory that has held on over the years is associated with the time he was called to pick up an infant who had died. Coffelt carefully swaddled the tiny baby, carried it out in his arms and placed it in the funeral coach. The father, who had been watching from an upstairs window, approached him at the service with a heart-rending request.
“I never got to hold my baby,” he told Coffelt. “Can I shake your hand?”
According to Dale’s wife, Nancy, the nature of his professional life has required the family to drop plans in an instant when their services are needed. Because the office phone rings straight through to the Coffelt home on a 24-hour basis, she is always prepared for things like Thanksgiving dinner to be put on hold.
“It takes a total family commitment,” she said. “It’s hard to plan, because when someone dies, you need to head right out to help that family.”
Starting this month, Dale and Nancy begin the transition of Coffelt Funeral Services to their grandson, Dale McCall, who was raised in Sandpoint and graduated from Sandpoint High School before attending mortuary school in Portland.
“Growing up, I always saw him here at work and admired what he did for the community,” the younger Dale said.
His grandfather smiled as he described the business succession plan in this way: “I take more time off and he takes less.”
Passing the torch to his grandson means a lot to Dale Coffelt, who feels it keeps the connection with local families intact.
“In our business, the big corporations always want to come in and buy you out,” he said. “But it was important to us to keep it in the family.”
After a moment’s pause, he stood up and motioned toward an adjoining office.
“Let me show you something,” he said, opening a sliding closet door and displaying stacks and rows of neatly organized paperwork. “These are funeral records, arranged alphabetically by name, from 1934 on — 14,200 of them.”
Coffelt reached out to straighten a box that was only slightly askew, then slid the door shut again.
“I always felt that if we took care of the community, the community would take care of us,” he said. “And it has worked out just that way.”