The ceramic angels that once lined the sanctuary's walls now reside in a cardboard box, replaced by modern lights. The smell of fresh paint fills the air. Two new, 70-inch flat-screen TVs provide mourners a high-definition review of the dearly departed.
Out front at the New Port Richey funeral home where Roger Michels and Andy Lundquist have skillfully served more than 9,000 families in 30 years, a shiny new white Cadillac hearse sits in the driveway. Last week, a leasing company delivered an equally impressive vehicle — a 2014 Mercedes van, where 12 family members can sit together on plush leather seats on their way to the cemetery.
The fresh face for the facility on Trouble Creek Road was long overdue, and Michels and Lundquist couldn't be happier with the improvements. Still, they enjoy cracking on the good-natured new general manager, John Butler, who is overseeing the Altmeyer family's first foray into Florida.
"Your taste is awful,'' Lundquist says in mock disgust as he rubs his shoe against the plush new carpeting. "What was wrong with the old stuff?''
He knows the answer, of course. Michels & Lundquist Funeral Home has been a mainstay in this community, but competition is tough and the place was getting a bit frayed around the edges.
"We didn't have the wherewithal to do all this,'' Lundquist said. "They do. It's exciting.''
The Altmeyers bought the place in November, adding to their string of two dozen homes in West Virginia, Virginia, Ohio and North Carolina. The first dates back to 1917 in Wheeling, W.Va.
When word got out about the sale, it included a rumor that Michels, 78, and Lundquist, 73, had retired. They haven't, although they have cut back. "No more nights or weekends,'' Michels said. "I've worked weekends for 30 years.''
The Altmeyers are keeping the name. "Michels and Lundquist means something,'' Butler said. "People know and respect them.''
The two men have known each other since 1964, when Michels moved up from Duval Funeral Home in Tampa to take over as general manager of the company's branch in New Port Richey where Lundquist had worked since 1959.
They later joined North Funeral Home, a training ground for many morticians who started their own local businesses.
Michels' career began at age 15 when he took a part-time job at a funeral home while attending high school in Michigan. He shoveled snow, set up chairs and washed cars and got paid $2 a funeral. He followed his parents to Tampa after school and got a job at another funeral home, this time for the princely sum of $35 a week. By 22, he had completed college and become a licensed funeral director.
Lundquist started much the same in his hometown near Milwaukee. His favorite uncle was an undertaker in Roundup, Mont., "and I just always admired the way he handled himself,'' he said. He moved with family to New Port Richey and got an apprenticeship at Duval.
In those days, funeral homes also provided free ambulance service. Today that may seem like a conflict of interest, but back then the homes had something nobody else had: vehicles large enough to transport a patient on a stretcher. At 19, Lundquist picked up a pregnant woman in New Port Richey and delivered her baby girl on a bridge to Tarpon Springs. "We couldn't make the hospital,'' he said.
In Tampa, Michels recalled, his company installed the first electric siren in its hearse/ambulance. "It was during the Cuban missile crisis,'' he said, "and it scared people. They'd be looking up in the air, worried.''
Michels and Lundquist, for all their years together, are much different personalities. Michels has been highly visible in community service. He was the youngest potentate of the Egypt Temple Shrine of Tampa (39) and helped start the West Pasco Sertoma Club, the Holiday Rotary and the Salvation Army thrift shop.
He got involved in politics 30 years ago, working for then-Sheriff John Short as an administrative assistant. He's in his 48th year as Chasco Fiesta parade chairman.
Lundquist prefers to work in the background. "I just take care of business,'' he said. "We complement each other.'' His service outside the funeral home is mostly to his church, Our Lady Queen of Peace, where he has been a charter minister of communion since the early 1970s.
Both men intend to continue presiding over funeral services for a while. They have an easy way with families, often allowing them to decorate the proceedings with the deceased's favorite sports jerseys or other memorabilia.
"We've had motorcycles in here,'' Lundquist said. One woman died a week after winning a jackpot at a casino and a slot machine stood next to her casket.
Butler, the new general manager and 35 years younger than Michels, watched him from a distance during a recent funeral.
"Everybody was crying,'' he said, "and then Roger talked to the family and they were laughing and crying at the same time. He had them crying tears of joy. That's a special touch.''