Located at 500 Westlake Avenue in Daly City since April of 1963, the family owned and operated Duggan’s Serra Mortuary® can trace its history in the funeral service business back to the 1880s in San Francisco. Sitting down in 2012, with Dan Duggan, the Mortuary’s President and his brother Bill Duggan, Vice President and CFO, their memories go back easily to the man they both knew in their childhood, their grandfather William Duggan.
Born in 1879 in the town of Thurles, County Tipperary, Ireland, William arrived in the States alone at the age of 19, just in time to fight in the Spanish American War of 1898.
“This was paying work,” Dan said. “So our grandfather enlisted.”
William served in Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines and was honorably discharged in San Francisco. And San Francisco is where William met the man who would become the first member of the family in the funeral business, James Hagan.
Originally from Oldham, England, Hagan found a trade as a tinsmith when he arrived in Centerville, California. An epidemic brought Hagan into the funeral business. He was needed to build zinc caskets to bury the dead. In 1885, he and his wife Sarah moved to San Francisco where he could make a good trade as an undertaker. He is first found in the San Francisco Directory, as an undertaker, in 1889 – “Hagan & Schofield” 507 Valencia Street. In 1902, the business became “Hagan Brothers Undertakers” and it was located at 13th Street near Valencia.
Back then funerals were handled by horse and buggy and Hagan was looking for someone to help take care of his horses.
“Our grandfather William was just out of the Army and he had raised horses in Ireland,” Bill said. “He was hired by James to tend the horses. He also worked as a grave digger, a hack driver, a casket maker and a general handyman.”
Among those whom Hagan served were the paupers of San Francisco. The deceased were brought to the Sunset View Cemetery in Colma, the “potter’s field” for the City’s indigents. (Sunset View closed in 1951. The site is now covered by the Cypress Golf Course.)
In 1903, William Duggan married Hagan’s youngest daughter Henrietta at Mission Dolores. Henrietta had just received her medical degree at UC Medical School. After having five children she would eventually go on to work as an anesthesiologist at Children’s Hospital in San Francisco (now CPMC Sutter Health).
In 1916, William Duggan was issued a license as an embalmer.
“Back then so many of San Francisco’s funeral homes were located on Valencia Street, near Mission Street, because the 40-line ran out Mission Street and south all the way to San Mateo,” Dan said. “The funeral directors could take the casket on the streetcar down to Colma.” (That line ran from 1902 until 1949.)
In 1929 “Duggan’s Funeral Service” was located at 3434-17th Street, San Francisco. By then, Dan and Bill’s dad, 19-year-old Edwin J. “Bud” Duggan had been assisting with the family business for six years.
“Back in those days, the Duggan’s were competing with the Driscoll’s and the O’Hara’s and the O’Reilly’s for the Irish customers, Godeau Funeral Home took care of the French and Valente, Marini, Perata & Company handled the Italians,” Bill said.
“The big thing that put our grandfather’s business on the map was the longshoremen strike of 1934,” Dan said.
In 1934, violence erupted in San Francisco when the “Industrial Association,” consisting of business interests and employers, began moving goods from the piers to warehouses in an effort to break a strike begun by longshoremen in every West Coast port on May 9, 1934. On Thursday, July 5, 1934 (later known as “Bloody Thursday”), police attacked striking longshoremen and killed two men.
“The City was shut down with an overall strike,” Dan said. “Our grandfather took care of the two longshoremen gratis.”
The slain workers were Howard Sperry and Nick Bordoise. Their coffins were borne on William Duggan’s flat bed trucks, while a crowd, estimated to be anywhere from 15,000 to 50,000, watched from Market Street. A photo of the funeral march ran on the cover of the San Francisco Chronicle.
In June of 1935, William’s son Bud received his Doctor of Mortuary Science degree from the San Francisco College of Embalming.
Francisco College of Embalming.historic-article-sm.jpg
“Our dad absolutely loved this business,” Bill said. “When he left the San Francisco family location in 1963, he was President there. But he wanted a place more convenient to the cemeteries, a place where there was parking and a place where there was space. We opened here officially on April 21, 1963 – my 19th birthday.”
Back then, other than the residential homes which are still behind the Duggan’s Serra building, the area was fairly undeveloped.
“You could see the Olympic Club from here,” Bill recalled. “And the Golden Gate Kennel Club Dog Show which now runs at the Cow Palace, used to run right next door to us at Marchbank Park.”
The building sits back where the Daly City swimming hole once was.
“That was created when they took out the wood trestle here and filled this canyon in with dirt,” Bill said. “It became a dam and our mortuary is located on what was the other side of the dam. There are pictures of the ‘old timers’ swimming in this hole.”
Eventually the hole went to ruin and became a dumping ground. By the time the mortuary was set for construction, the ground had been filled in. Still, because of the weight of the building coming in, workers drilled way down and retrieved numerous items including mattresses, tires, apothecary bottles and bedsprings.
In 1963, the cost of the building was $160,000 and the property was somewhere between $40 and $60,000. These were tight times for Bud, his wife Madeline and their children Bill, Maureen, Patty and Dan (Dan was all of nine.) The family did all the work at first and did not bring on any employees.
“Our mom Madeline was a graduate of St. Joseph’s School of Nursing,” Dan said. “When us ‘kids’ came along she stopped working. When they were considering this location, she went back to work, initially in convalescent hospitals and ultimately ended up at Laguna Hospital. But she worked here as well as the ‘compassionate heart proprietor’ for many years.”
“She was extremely outgoing and gregarious,” Dan continued. “Put her in a room of strangers and she would meet everyone.”
The Duggan’s had a great many families who followed them to their Daly City location and over the years, many of their competitors who had run family-owned funeral homes in San Francisco, sold off their business for the real estate value.
“When we first came here and were conserving money, our mom would drive the flower van when my dad and I went out to a funeral,” Bill recalled with a laugh. “In fact, she liked it so much that even when we had employees to do that job, she still wanted to do it. She was very hands on.”
The two brothers, who lost their father Bud and their sisters, Patty and Maureen, a number of years ago, lost their mom Madeline in January of 2011. She was 90. But the generations continue to remain with the family business. Three of Bill’s children have worked at Duggan’s over the years and Dan’s son Matt works there now.
Duggan’s Serrra Mortuary® employs 35 full-time employees and 15 part-time employees. They have 7 chapels and 2 reception rooms. They have grown to become the largest family owned firm in Northern California and they are the recipients of numerous “small business of the year” awards through the Daly City-Colma Chamber of Commerce. They have also earned the prestigious Diamond Certified Award.
They offer many services which include Saturday or Sunday mass or memorial services, public or private visitations, transfer of remains to the Funeral Home, hearse and limousine service, floral delivery, casket and cremation urn selections, embalming, immediate burials, reception facilities – they offer what is needed to help say goodbye to those loved and lost.
“What we do is really considered a ministry,” Dan said. “Our parents brought us up to understand that we are only successful if a family leaves here feeling really helped through one of the hardest times in their lives.”
Over the years the family has taken care of the funerals of many of the former mayors, firemen and policemen of Daly City. They have also taken care of the “lion’s share” of San Francisco police and fire personnel, including handling the arrangements for the two San Francisco firemen who lost their lives this past summer in the line of duty.
“It is a very rewarding business,” Bill said. “It feels good to sincerely help someone get through a difficult time.”
“To give of yourself, you heart and your compassion, you get it back 10-fold,” Dan said.
Like their father, their mother and their grandparents before them, Dan and Bill are very community oriented.
Their “Kindness Award” is given to a graduating local 8th grader at each of the following schools – Our Lady of Mercy (Daly City), St. Veronica Catholic School (South San Francisco), Holy Angels School (Colma), Our Lady of Perpetual Help School (Daly City), Good Shepherd (Pacifica), Thomas R. Pollicita (Daly City).
They offer several scholarships to students of Jefferson High School as well as scholarships to Archbishop Riordan High School and scholarships through the Irish Cultural Center.
They keep up with their Mom’s tradition of cooking a turkey and sending it back to a family’s home after a service. They also sponsor an “Annual Service of Remembrance” for all the families they have served during that year.
Every day, seven days a week, Duggan’s Serra Mortuary sees at least 400 visitors. They estimate over the years they have served 50,000 families.
Bill said, "I think our grandfather would be pleased with how things are going here."
Duggan's Serra Mortuary®
Phone: (650) 756-4500
500 Westlake Avenue, Daly City, CA 94014
CA FD# 1098