DISTANT – After more than 90 years as a staple of the New Bethlehem area, a local family-owned business officially closed its doors at the end of August.
The New Bethlehem Burial Service of Distant has not only served much of western Pennsylvania, but has been a part of the Hetrick family since its inception.
“The business started in either 1929 or 1930,” said Jean Fowkes, whose father, V. Ray Hetrick, began the business. She explained that her father had originally sold concrete silos to farmers, but the depression in the 1930s took its toll on the business. That’s when the burial service was born.
“Dad got together with a friend of his, Mike Lang, and they decided that, since the government was outlawing wooden boxes to be used as burial receptacles, they would make concrete ones,” she explained, recalling that the remaining concrete silos from Hetrick’s initial business were eventually sunk into the ground.
“They had two here [on property] as goldfish ponds,” she said of the silos. “They also made a round concrete cottage out of one of the larger ones in Tionesta.”
According to Fowkes, Hetrick built the current brick building at New Bethlehem Burial’s Distant location in the early 1930s, replacing an abandoned church building that he had purchased from a nearby town and had hauled to his father’s property. Around the same time, Hetrick also began hauling steel vaults in from Ohio because some customers preferred steel to concrete.
“[A special] truck was built by his men to haul 21 vaults,” Fowkes said.
By 1940, there were branches of New Bethlehem Burial Service in Oil City, Bradford, Cambridge Springs and Altoona.
“They were so quickly established,” Fowkes said. “It was hard to believe that he did that from 1930 to 1940.”
Fowkes said that when the war started in 1942, Hetrick had to close the Altoona branch because his employees were all in the Army. Likewise, the ensuing shortages of steel and gasoline posed additional challenges for the business.
“He bought up all the gasoline tokens from his neighbors and actually went on the black market for steel,” she said.
Additionally, Fowkes highlighted the contribution of her mother, Virginia Hetrick, who served as the company bookkeeper, and also made velvet lining for the funeral tents.
“Without my mother, he would have never made it,” she recalled. “She was the heart and soul of the business.”
Ann Hetrick said that aside from the earlier closure of the Altoona branch, the other branches remained a viable part of the company until relatively recently. The Cambridge Springs branch was sold sometime in the 1960s, and the Oil City branch was incorporated into the New Bethlehem business in 1970s, while the Bradford branch just closed at the end of last month.
In 1965, after Hetrick suffered a fatal heart attack, his son and daughter-in-law, Dean and Ann Hetrick, took over as sole operators. Following Dean’s death in 2020, the torch was passed to the couple’s son-in-law, Randy Dinger.
Over the years, Ann Hetrick pointed out, the company expanded to include the sale of septic tanks and watering troughs in addition to the vaults. The business also offered grave opening services and tent settings for grave-site services, which eventually grew to include picnics, reunions, weddings and other events.
“The tent service was elaborate [with] velvet lining in the tent, artificial grass and chairs with chair covers,” Fowkes said of the early grave-site services, adding that her father would often go and inspect the setup. “He had a movie made of two of the best men who would set the tent.”
Addressing the reason for the decision to close the business, Ann pointed to a gradual drop in business due to a move away from traditional funerals.
“Traditional funerals have been going down and people are starting to use cremation,” she said. “I think the younger generation is more inclined to cremation than to do what we call traditional services.”
“[The business] was flourishing during the 30s, 40s and 50s because cremation was almost unheard of,” she said. “A funeral director doesn’t call you when he has a cremation.”
Ann also noted that gas prices along with the need for company trucks to be on the road every day made it less profitable to send a truck out.
Regarding the future of burial services in the area, Ann Hetrick said that there are vault companies in Brookville, Knox, Blairsville and Freeport. She also pointed out that some of the funeral directors are buying their own vaults and selling them as part of the funeral service.
Ann said that while the funeral component of New Bethlehem Burial Service ended at the end of the business day on Aug. 31, she pointed out that the company is still selling tanks as long as the inventory lasts.