Coronavirus, Change And Competition: A Mortuary In Durango Deals With An Evolving World

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Monty Daniel/for CPR News
Hood Mortuary in Durango has been in operation since 1902 and has been at its current location at the Amy Mansion on East Third Avenue since 1932.

For many, operating and living in a mortuary doesn’t sound ideal. But for Ryan and Kristal Phelps, it’s their passion. 

“It’s more than just a livelihood, honestly, it’s a way of taking care of our community.” said Kristal. 

Hood Mortuary in Durango has seen many changes — to their community, the people they serve, the city itself — during its 119 years of service, but the coronavirus pandemic and construction of a competing funeral home is new territory. 

The Phelps' story begins 26 years ago, when Ryan started working at the mortuary. At first, he began vacuuming carpets and cleaning cars. Eventually, the ownership of the mortuary was passed down and placed into his and Kristal’s hands. 

“The rule-of-thumb for the ownership of Hood Mortuary has always been owner to apprentice,” Ryan Phelps said. “It’s never been sold to a family member or passed down to a family member. It’s never been corporate. It’s always been to the next guy in line who picks up and carries the mantle.” 

When an emergency happens and community members need help, Ryan and Kristal are just a few steps away: They live upstairs and are on-call at all times. COVID-19 has brought many challenges to communities all over the state and nation. And the way each town or city deals with those challenges is different. As the coronavirus took hold in Durango, it meant an increase in how many people need mortuary services to lay their loved ones to rest. It may seem morbid, but for the Phelps, the increase in demand is not about more business, but about serving the people they care for. 

“This is still a small community, so sometimes the death rate is really low and it’s fine,” said Kristal Phelps. “But there’s times like right now where it’s really busy and there’s no free-time, you just work constantly.” 

For now, Hood is handling the increased demand in stride, but as Durango grows, so too will demand for funeral and mortuary services. U.S. Census figures show the city’s population grew nearly 12.5 percent from 2010 to 2019, and a series of annexations over recent years has meant even more growth could soon be on the way.

Monty Daniel/for CPR News
Ryan and Kristal Phelps are the caretakers of Hood Mortuary. Ryan has worked at Hood for 26 yeras.

Phelps is realistic about what that means for his business: One day, he may not be able to serve everyone who needs it. And he may soon have a competitor  as the Williams Funeral Home gets closer to opening. La Plata County approved plans for the new mortuary in 2019.While there is no set date for the new mortuary to open,. Its impending arrival has the Phelps a little worried about what it could do to their business. But Ryan said he sees a silver lining.

 “Obviously, it’s not something that I would ever want to wish for my business and me continuing on to hopefully be successful,” said Phelps. “But so long as the community of Durango is being served to the best of everyone’s abilities, whether it be though my firm or another, that’s okay with me.”

That servitude is one of Hood Mortuary’s main goals, Ryan Phelps said. Every aspect  of the funeral home — from artwork and plants previously owned by families they have served, to the chapel where all are invited to gather — is centered around the community, And it has not gone unnoticed.

First Baptist Pastor Jimmy Thoma said he has visited the mortuary with grieving families and witnessed the care Ryan and Kristal put in.

“I’ve had a great experience in general with them,”Thoma said. “They do a really good job of balancing the business of death with the care of families.” 

Josh Magyar, Chaplain Supervisor at Mercy Regional Medical Center said the service Hood provides connects people in Durango with the bigger questions in life, especially during a pandemic in a smaller city where people’s families extend beyond the nuclear family to include the tightly knit community around them. 

“The hospital teaches you to tell your loved ones what you need to tell them: that you love them and to watch your intersections,” said Magyar. “Hood Mortuary and people that work in mortuaries all over the country play a huge role, bigger than is widely understood, in helping people to face the meaning and the truth of vulnerability in life.”

Even though sometimes it may seem like all doom and gloom, especially in a pandemic as Colorado faces a tremendous amount of loss and death, the Phelps’ still find ways to celebrate joy and life. Staying positive helps them, Ryan Phelps said, and even as inexplicable new challenges are thrown their way, they still have one tradition to help them remember that not all is lost.

“After about five o’clock, the music gets cranked up and the dance party begins.”