New owner remodels, reopens venerable Donora funeral home

Rick Shrum

After five years in the funeral industry, Kate Cheman wanted to run her own establishment. Then one day last fall, while perusing a newsletter related to her trade, she spied an opportunity in Donora.

James A. Rabe Funeral Home, a borough staple for a century but mothballed for the past half-dozen years, was for sale, according to an ad.

“I Googled it and drove there,” Cheman said. “As soon as I pulled up, I knew it was my funeral home.”

It officially became hers in November, when Cheman closed the sale on the property. Then following a lengthy remodeling, she was in business for herself. Now Donora, once a town with numerous funeral homes that all eventually shuttered, has one that’s operating.

Rabe-Cheman Funeral Home & Cremations, as it has been rechristened, is up and running at 701 Thompson Ave. Cheman kept the venerable Rabe name after purchasing the property as a testament to the family from whom she bought it.

The new owner opened Sept. 1, but has had no clients yet. She is gung-ho and has scheduled an open house from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Nov. 10 during which the public can tour the grounds.

Cheman, whose funeral home now doubles as her residence, has been ingratiating herself to a valley community that is far from, but similar to, her valley community. She relocated here from the New Kensington area along the Allegheny River.

Updating and upgrading the house was a formidable task, and cost a formidable buck. Cheman said she took out a $50,000 loan, but spent more. Yet the blood, sweat, tears and money expended paid off in a bright, fashionable interior and a wide front porch that is neatly appointed.

“It took a year for my family and I to complete the remodeling,” she said. “I personally painted every inch. My dad did most of the work – he’s very handy. My mom ripped down wallpaper, and my sister and brother-in-law helped a lot.”

The property is loaded with history, including funeral records dating to 1909.

Cheman said she was amazed at the ethnic mix of residents from the Donora area, especially during the early 20th century. She also said she found “page after page” of local casualties from the 1918 flu epidemic, a global tragedy that hit the Mon Valley especially hard.

“There were a lot of young people,” she said.

There were, however, no records from 1948, the year of the Donora smog incident.

Cheman has enjoyed her brief time in the other valley, and said she appreciates the support residents have extended.

“Everybody here has been great,” said Cheman, a licensed funeral director since 2013. “People are happy to see the business reopening.”

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