Mortuary marks its 100th year

Posted: July 28th, 2017 | Communities, Feature, Hillcrest, News, Top Story | No Comments

By Jess Winans

Community celebration is planned for Aug. 9

The Merkley-Mitchell Mortuary in Hillcrest will be celebrating its centennial on Wednesday, Aug. 9, with an open house for the community.

“Beyond funeral services, we feel strongly that the mortuary role is to carry on the legacy of the citizens of that community,” said Sean Bulthuis, current manager of the mortuary. “Every life deserves to be celebrated. The mortuary is no different than a museum or library. Our role is to support citizens and the community during a difficult time when they’ve lost a loved one.”

Merkley-Mitchell Mortuary in Hillcrest is celebrating its 100th birthday with an open house on Aug. 9. (Facebook)

The centennial celebration will be held from noon to 7 p.m. and features music performances by local bands like The Push-Pins and Grupo Reo, bingo, raffles and food.

The mortuary, located at 3655 Fifth Ave., was founded in 1917 by Henry W. Merkley and Gloria Mae Merkley West.

A Canadian by birth, Mr. Merkley was a funeral director, business owner and involved community member in San Diego. According to an old newspaper clipping, in 1923 he founded an all-girls band, The Merkley Musical Maids, which played for many years at San Diego area functions. He also helped organize the first newspaper in Hillcrest, according to another newspaper report.

Civic engagement was important to Merkley. He was an active member of many groups, like the Board of Freeholders for the city of San Diego, and was a supporter of the controversial “Ham and Eggs” movement in the 1930s.

According to the San Diego History Center, the “Ham and Eggs” movement began during the Great Depression with the goal of providing an old-age pension for Californians. The movement qualified a state initiative, but it was defeated in 1938.

The movement was brought to San Diego by a retired car salesman, Roger M. Coffin, who had been a resident since 1932. Coffin wanted to operate a local office and promote the old-age pension proposal that would help poor elderly people. The plan recommended that $25 in warrants should be given each week to every unemployed Californian over the age of 50. Critics dubbed it the “Ham and Eggs” movement becaused they believed that undeserving citizens would be eating ham and eggs during the mornings their warrants arrived.

In 1936, Archie Price, a 64-year-old La Jolla resident and a county relief recipient, notified the local press that he would kill himself when his savings were depleted.

On July 25, 1938, Price committed suicide in Balboa Park leaving a note in his pocket explaining that he only had two cents left to his name. Like many other Americans at the time, Price was too young to receive an old age pension but too old to find work. Social Security didn’t begin monthly benefits until January 1940.

In response to Price’s burial in a pauper’s grave without a funeral service, Coffin and Merkley conducted a public funeral at Glen Abbey Cemetery, located at 3838 Bonita Road. According to Jackson Putnam in his book, “Old Age Politics in California,” about 7,000 “Ham and Eggs” supporters touched by Price’s sad story attended the funeral.

In 1941 Merkley invited Warren Austin, an involved community member who worked for the city of San Diego, to be his business partner.

“I have chosen from our community’s young manhood a partner,” Merkley said, according to an old newspaper clipping. “He personifies the sterling qualities of loyalty, character, sincerity and friendship. For ten years he has served San Diego faithfully and ably.”

That same year, they moved the mortuary from the Mercy Hospital complex at 4077 Fifth Ave. to its current location. They purchased the property from Kate Sessions, also known as the “Mother of Balboa Park,” to build a larger mortuary that had architectural appeal.

The new Merkley-Austin Mortuary was acclaimed as “San Diego’s 1941 home-beautiful” in an old newspaper clipping, and a local minister said it was “privacy, seclusion and peace; here [the mortuary] is true beauty to lighten the burden of grief.”

“We’re definitely in close proximity with Kate Sessions’ Balboa Park,” said Sean Bulthuis, current manager of Merkley-Mitchell Mortuary. “She’s definitely intertwined with the beautiful architecture we have here.”

Merkley and Austin were business partners for 15 years, holding funeral services at the mortuary and managing the all-girls band under a new name: The Merkley-Austin Girls’ Band.

After Merkley died in 1956, mortuary ownership was passed on to the San Diego Cemetery Association under the Legler Benbough group for 12 years. In 1968, the mortuary was purchased by funeral director and manager Richard C. Mitchell.

Previously, Mitchell had managed Dorothy Goodbody’s Ivy Chapel at 317 Ash St. from 1948 to 1968. After the Ivy Chapel closed, Mitchell purchased what is now the Merkley-Mitchell Mortuary, which he owned and operated for 28 years.

“You have to be a special kind of person to do funeral service,” said Victoria Nilsen, Mitchell’s daughter. “My father was a very sensitive and compassionate person.”

Mitchell, like Merkley and Austin, was also very involved in the community. He was a member of many groups and handled funerals of several mayors, including Frank Curran in 1992.

In 1996, Mitchell sold the mortuary to the Loewen group, which went bankrupt and became the Olderich Group. It is now the Dignity Memorial Group.

Although no family members are involved in the mortuary these days, Mrs. Nilsen worked there for six years and met her husband, Tedd Nilsen, in the embalming room.

“I loved Mr. Mitchell like my father,” said Mr. Nilsen, who was a fee-for-service embalmer at the mortuary for 20 years. “He was a warm, caring gentleman who had a lot of empathy. No family was ever turned away due to lack of funds.”

Mortuaries historically serve big roles in society and communities, and the Merkley-Mitchell Mortuary exemplifies that. Merkley, Austin and Mitchell were all active community members and they all saw mortuaries as staples in their neighborhoods. Early on under the Merkley-Austin ownership, they held an annual Christmas party for the community. For the last five years, the mortuary has been a voting location.

To learn more about the centennial celebration or to RSVP to this free event, call Iris Carini at 619-295-2177 or email her at

“One-hundred years is a great celebration,” Bulthuis said. “We’re always looking for different ways to honor and celebrate lives because that’s what it’s all about.”

–Jess Winans is an intern with San Diego Community News Network. You can reach her at

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