What’s the oldest business in Oswego?

photos provided Dain-Cullinan Funeral Home

Benjamin Franklin wrote in 1780 that “The only two certainties in life are death and taxes,” a principle that one business in Oswego has relied on for more than a century.

The Dain-Cullinan Funeral Home is a combination of two families that have served the Oswego community since 1865 and 1882 respectively. After 100 years of friendly competition, the two businesses combined and eventually consolidated into their current location on East Second Street.

The Dain-Cullinan Funeral Home is one of the few businesses that has existed since the 1800s and never left the family. After John F. Dain founded the Dain Funeral Home in 1865, the business has passed from father to son for four generations, and the Cullinan side will be welcoming their fifth generation when Eric Cullinan assumes his father’s business in the coming years.

Chris Dain and Michael Cullinan, the current owners of the business, emphasized the importance of providing a personal and unique experience to their customers.

“I think when a family is experiencing a loss it’s a very important thing that the person they are dealing with is someone that is known to them personally, or at least has a reputation that they’re aware of in the community,” Dain said. “I think families look for that, and they prefer that.”

A furniture-maker’s second job

The job of a funeral home was quite different in the 19th century than it is today.

“Most calling hours would take place in the family home,” Cullinan said. “People typically died in their homes, or in the hospital, and were brought here for preparation.”

Funeral homes provided an important service for families that did not have the means or facilities to host a wake. In fact most funeral homes in New York at the time were residential homes that had been converted into funeral homes. The Dain Funeral Home was the first in the state to be built for the sole purpose of being a funeral home.

Not much is known about John F. Dain’s partner, a man named Benz, but the city directory from the 1870s and advertisements from that decade describe them as furniture makers who were also undertakers. Funeral directors, or undertakers as they were known in the 19th century, were often furniture makers by trade. The need to build coffins created a natural niche market that one Benz and Dain used to their benefit. “Back in the 19th century, there were fewer regulations in professional licenses,” Dain said. “If you wanted to become an undertaker, you could.”

Cullinan said that funeral homes also provided delivery services, using horse-drawn hearses called hacks until they were replaced by automobiles. As time went on, cremation began to increase in popularity and the Dain and Cullinan Funeral Homes expanded their operations to offer it.

The Spanish Influenza

After World War I ended, the funeral business was still in for a fair share of surprises. In 1918, the Spanish Flu swept the world, infecting 27 percent of the population and killing at least 3 percent. Oswego in particular was hit hard by the flu pandemic, and funeral homes in Oswego were overrun with more business than they could handle.

“If you look back into the old books, there are records of a very high number of deaths in that period of time,” Dain said. According to Dain oral history, the Dain Funeral Home actually entered into a contract with Fort Ontario to handle the corpses from the fort.

Changing Communities

Although much of the ethnic divisions in Oswego have dissolved in recent decades, for most of Oswego’s history it was far from a united community. With each new wave of immigrants, a new neighborhood in Oswego became home to the incoming ethnic group. And since each crowd tended to have their own religious preferences, funeral homes would specialize to serve the communities they found themselves in.

The Cullinan’s funeral home would serve the Irish-Catholic population, while the Dain’s served the German population. As time wore on, though, ethnic divisions lessened and many of the smaller funeral homes in Oswego that focused in only one community went out of business.

“McDonald’s would’ve gone out of business a long time ago if they were still trying to sell just hamburgers and French fries. Everything changes,” Cullinan said.

The Dains and Cullinans were able to successfully change with the times though, and their continued presence in the same building (although renovated many times) for over a century speaks for itself.

“Be prepared to work hard, to be involved with your community, to build relationships, and do the best you can to serve the families that call you. Whether you’re a funeral home or a dry cleaner’s or a bakery… the fundamentals haven’t changed in the last 140-plus years,” Dain said. But some things do change, he pointed out, and if you don’t change with them, you’ll soon be out of business.

“There are certain fundamental things that don’t change. But any business needs to adapt to changing customs, needs, and desires of a community,” Dain said.