Fourth generation of a family legacy

Fourth generation of Tomaszewski family takes over Port Richmond funeral home

Like father, like daughter: Sandra and her father, Edward “Chet” Tomaszewski, stand in front of their family’s funeral home on Allegheny Avenue in Port Richmond.

By Melissa Komar

Marie Tomaszewski, along with her husband Antoni, started her family business in 1924, and nearly 100 years later, another woman will take over the funeral home that has been a staple in the Port Richmond community.

In January, Edward “Chet” Tomaszewski Jr., the third generation running the Edward Tomaszewski Funeral Home on Allegheny Avenue, started his transition into retirement.

His daughter Sandra, 29, who grew up working at the funeral home, will now be the funeral director, owner and supervisor, with Chet staying on as a funeral director and keeping his license active.

“I feel extremely fortunate to be a woman of a business that was started by a woman and be able to celebrate 100 years of business in 2024,” Tomaszewski said. “My great grandmom was one of the first women to get her license in the state. It was the Great Depression and she started a business. It’s incredible.”

Despite Chet, 66, giving the reins to his daughter, this isn’t just a passing of the torch or handing over the family business.

Sandra, like her father, grandfather and great grandmother, had to become a licensed funeral director.

While being involved with the funeral home seemed to be in her blood, Tomaszewski’s parents insisted she attend college and pursue a degree in something else before making a final decision to commit herself to the family business.

Tomaszewski double majored in mathematics and psychology at Rider University, but decided during her senior year she wanted to go to mortuary school.

“I was sitting in the back of a differential equations class at Rider and I just made the decision,” she said. “I just knew I wanted to go to mortuary school and keep doing what was built by my amazing ancestors and my dad.”

She attended Mercer County Community College, where she earned a certificate of proficiency in funeral service and an associate’s degree in applied science.

The bulk of the curriculum focused on science, including anatomy and pathology.

But other subjects such as art were required.

“We had to take restorative art,” Tomaszewski said. “We had to make facial features out of clay. I actually still have my nose I made. But there were a few times with all the science classes where I thought I’m just going to keep going and finish medical school.”

Four board exams later, she became licensed.

Family business: Sandra and Chet Tomaszewski proudly display their licenses.

Tomaszewski passed her final exam on Feb. 13, making her the seventh licensed funeral director in the Tomaszewski family.

Aside from formal education, Tomaszewski spent years watching her dad at work.

“I started coming here when I was little,” she said. “My dad would bring me to work and I would sit in the mortuary and watch him embalm. I had a little stool I would sit on and I still have it. I would do miniscule things: write Christmas cards, stuff calendars and organize labels. I started doing paperwork and working in the office when I was 16.”

Chet passed down not only his knowledge of the business, but his mindset of serving the community and his mental resolve.

“My dad always told me, ‘It’s one of the beatitudes: Bury the dead.’ And that stuck with me and that’s serving people,” Tomaszewski said. “Now that I’m doing it hands on, I find great satisfaction in being able to help someone in a situation they may never have encountered.”

Handling the final arrangements for families is not always an easy emotional task, but Chet has taught Sandra to handle it with focus.

“Someone used the word ‘dehumanizing’ the other day, and it’s not. I’m still a person. I feel everything everyone else does,” she said. “I still grieve inside when I hear a child say, ‘Mommy, don’t leave me.’ It absolutely breaks my heart. But I need to take myself out of the situation and think if the child is OK. I’m able to focus on the task at hand and giving the best service to the family. You focus on the family and make sure they’re OK.”

While Tomaszewski has the educational and family background to take over, she has big shoes to fill.

“I’m ‘Chet’s daughter,’ and I embrace that,” she said. “I want to do justice to the work my great grandparents, my grandfather and my dad did. I want to continue the legacy. I don’t want that legacy to stop.”

For better or worse, the legacy is one that requires total commitment, according to Tomaszewski and Chet’s sister, Debbie Skowronski.

“This business is 24 hours a day, 365 days a year,” Skowronski said. “Many times, we’d be having Christmas dinner and you just have to go. We’d take vacations up the mountains and my father [Edward Tomaszewski Sr.] would drive home for the day for a funeral and drive back at night. You’re always on call and available.”

Skowronski, who has been a nurse for 30 years, went to mortuary school, graduated and took her national board exams, but never completed her state exams to become licensed. Still, she helped run the family business along Chet for years.

“I was always ‘Chet’s sister,’ even when I was in nursing school,” she said. “But it was a good thing to be a Tomaszewski. Everyone knew you and the good service we provided to the community.”

The community encompasses not only the families the Tomaszewskis serve, but nearby funeral homes.

Chet had a major stroke in April 2015. Tomaszewski was not yet licensed and called on Carl Price, who grew up on Salmon Street and worked with Chet and currently works at Galzerano Funeral Home in Northeast Philadelphia.

“He swooped in and completely helped me with the business,” she said. “He’s someone I attribute a lot of my base to. Even from a young age, every time I saw him, he told me to get my license. And when my dad got sick, he stepped in and very valiantly helped me out until I was able to get my license.”

Even closer to home — across the street at 2711 E. Allegheny Ave. — is Eddie Czepulkowski, the funeral director at Gniewek Funeral Home.

“Eddie did his internship under my father and he also stepped in when my father got sick and helped me out,” Tomaszewski said. “So, it’s definitely a community thing. There was never any animosity between any of the funeral homes. There was a great deal of respect within the profession toward each other.”

The dedication required is one of the characteristics that earns that respect, according to Tomaszewski.

Chet and Sandra Tomaszewski are the third and fourth generation of the family to run the funeral home in Port Richmond.

“It’s definitely a calling and a frame of mind,” she said. “You dedicate your life to this. Everything else comes second to the profession. Even my dad, until he’s gone, he will always be a funeral director. He’ll never put his feet up. That’s the life. That’s the profession.”

“That’s the way it goes,” Chet said.

While his load might lighten slightly, and “paying the bills” will now be Tomaszewski’s responsibility, Chet jokingly said his input will still take precedence.

“When I’m working during the week and he’s not here, I miss having him there to ask questions and bounce ideas off him,” Tomaszewski said. “I never make any decisions without talking to him. It doesn’t happen because he’s my dad and he’s the one who came before me. “

The wisdom Chet has passed down that Sandra will carry with her into the future is a two-word phrase: Be nice.

“I always ask my father what to do if I get stuck in a situation or if I don’t know which way to turn, and he says, ‘Be nice,’ and that always triggers a solution,” she said.

Chet and Tomaszewski are in agreement, too, about what the top priority is as the transition from the third generation to the fourth occurs: serving the families.

“I want to be devoted to my families. I want to be devoted to the community,” Tomaszewski said. “I want to be able to help people in a way that not many people on this earth can. I’m extremely fortunate to have the knowledge to do so. It’s very humbling”