Arnold T. Hiura
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
What residents of Hawai‘i Island take for granted is often a rarity when viewed on a broader scale. At least such is the case when it comes to funeral services, notes Mitchell Dodo, vice president and operations manager of Dodo Mortuary, Inc., in Hilo. Although local residents — regardless of their ethnic background or religious affiliation — have long been accustomed to attending funerals at Dodo Mortuary, Mitchell reports that the number of independently owned and operated mortuaries in the United States has declined dramatically — including those owned by Japanese American families.
“We are one of maybe four in the nation, along with Hosoi on O‘ahu and Kubota and Fukui mortuaries in Southern California,” he observes.
The reason for the demise is clear, Mitchell continues. “The next generation doesn’t want to get involved. It requires such hard work and long hours that, as a result, most mom-and-pop operations are being acquired by large corporations.”
Mitchell admits that even he was not eager to assume the responsibilities of running his family’s 117-year-old business. “My father and mother did not put pressure on me,” he says. “I never felt compelled to come back and work in the family business.”
Mitchell’s mother, Beverly, empathized with her two children as they grew up. “You can imagine growing up with a name like Dodo and having to get picked up from school in a station wagon that says ‘mortuary’ on the side,” she elaborates. As a result, Beverly made a point of bringing her kids to the place of business.
“I felt they should at least know what it involved, so I would bring them here. They swept, they mopped. Grandma and Grandpa were here. Dad was here. So we exposed them to all of it and then let them decide.”
As an underclassman at UH Hilo, Mitchell recalls wanting to hang out and have fun with his friends. “My father, Clifford, was very, very proud of this company. It was him who built it up into a corporation.” From a young age, Mitchell had witnessed the long hours his father put in every day. No sooner had Clifford returned home when the phone would ring and he would have to go right back out again. It was not an appealing lifestyle that a young person would want to emulate.
By his third year at UHH, Mitchell decided to major in business, still leaving his career options open. Only as graduation loomed did he finally make up his mind as to what he would do with his life. Mitchell graduated from UH Hilo in 1992 and enrolled at the San Francisco College of Mortuary Science. He returned home in 1994 to help with the business, only to have his father pass away suddenly in 1998.
“It’s different when your parents run things. You don’t really have to worry,” Mitchell reflects. “I still think about how I made that commitment to come back and then have my dad pass away so soon after that. . . . at least I was able to work with him and pick up some of his knowledge.”
Following Clifford’s death, his brother, Larry, officially assumed the title of president while Mitchell was named vice president and operations manager — ostensibly taking on the job of running the company at the tender age of 28. “I had to learn quickly,” he reflects. “Without my father there to answer all of my questions, it was what you’d call a crash course.”
Unbeknownst to many Big Island residents, Mitchell’s decision some 20 years ago assured that the continuity of care that they had grown accustomed to would extend for a fourth generation. It is a history that is proudly documented with framed photographs, news articles and diplomas that are displayed on the walls of the company’s administrative offices.
Dodo Mortuary was founded in 1898 when Mitsugoro Dodo, an immigrant from Hiroshima, fulfilled his three-year contract with the sugar plantation. As a carpenter, Mitsugoro capitalized on his reputation of building fine caskets. Then, with his eldest daughter helping him with his English, Mitsugoro successfully completed a correspondence course on embalming and even traveled by ship and by train to the U.S. continent in order to see for himself exactly how a mortician’s work was done.
Mitsugoro set up his first mortuary business near the current site of the Ben Franklin Crafts store on Kilauea Avenue in Hilo. The second location was at 92 Ponahawai St., where Mitsugoro built a three-story building. Funeral services were held on the first floor, the workshop where he built coffins occupied the second floor, and inventory and supplies were stored on the third floor. The family lived in the back.
Mitsugoro’s son, Richard, graduated from the University of Hawai‘i in 1934, and attended the Worsham College of Mortuary Science in Chicago. Richard is credited with modernizing the operations, but is probably best remembered for his outgoing manner. “He was a heavyset man, bald and had a very jolly personality,” Beverly explains, “. . . not your typical image of a funeral director.” One of his favorite gags was to pull out a tape measure and a notepad that he always kept in his pocket. He would tell people, “Come here and let me take your measurements . . .” It never failed to garner squeals of laughter.
Richard’s character undoubtedly helped him to grow the business. Following the 1960 tsunami that devastated Hilo — including the Ponahawai Street area — he is remembered for taking care of the funeral needs for the deceased and only charging people what they could afford, if they could afford to pay at all.
Next, Richard’s oldest son, Clifford, attained a business degree from UH and graduated from the San Francisco College of Mortuary Science in 1967. Clifford exhibited great foresight in running the family business. He oversaw the move to the company’s present three-acre site at 199 Wainaku St. In 1977, he implemented the preneed funeral company, Dodo Mortuary Life Plan, Inc. Clifford was also instrumental in planning and constructing the 13,000 sq. ft. air-conditioned chapel and expanded parking area at the Wainaku site. The chapel, which opened in 1992, can be set up to host Buddhist, Catholic or Protestant services. With the doors to the altar closed, a blank backdrop allows for non-sectarian services. The original chapel building was then converted into the company’s administrative offices. In 1997, Clifford also added an onsite crematory and, in 2005, a warehouse was completed at the mauka end of the property.
Dodo Mortuary wasn’t always positioned as the island’s preeminent provider of mortuary services. It was something that the family earned and grew into over time. Due to the extremely sensitive nature of their work, trust is something that is foremost in people’s minds. Beverly recalls, “When my husband passed away, so many people came up to me and asked, ‘Who is going to take of me?’ They were so distraught about that. . . . They had so much trust in the Dodo family.” She calmly told them, “My son will take care of things. He will run the business. Please don’t worry . . .”
Mitchell, now 45 years old, has run the business for some 17 years, overseeing the company’s 20 employees, its office in Kona and agents that fan out islandwide. It’s not the easiest of responsibilities to bear, but Mitchell has wisely accepted that being associated with the subject of death can make some people feel nervous or awkward when approaching him. “Perhaps I remind them of their mortality,” he says philosophically. Even while shopping for groceries, people will stop and ask him questions about funeral plans or for the details of the funeral service for someone who recently passed away. Others leave him with comments like, “No forget, now. You going take care me, eh?” Still others try to make light of things by joking, “Business always good, eh?”
No matter the motivation of others, Mitchell remains patient and gracious in his response. “People don’t call unless they need us. When someone passes away, they count on us. That’s been our role in the community for 100-plus years. We are like the rock in these situations.”
And, people remain grateful, Mitchell explains. “Families come in to say thank you. People often tell me: ‘Your father/grandfather took care of my father/grandfather. That is a very important aspect for us — one generation taking care of the other from generation to generation. It could go back years or even decades, but they will remember it as if it were yesterday,” he concludes.
It is such thinking that sets the Big Island apart from places where changes in ownership in turn trigger frequent changes in personnel, policies and management. Rather, thanks largely to its impressive continuum of service, Dodo Mortuary has become an important keystone of the community, taking care of people of all ethnic and religious backgrounds, and offering a guiding hand in orchestrating the universal symphony of life and death on the Big Island.
Arnold Hiura is the executive director of the Hawaii Japanese Center in Hilo and a former Hawai‘i Herald editor. Arnold and his wife Eloise also own and operate the editorial and communications company, MBFT Media.