Carrillo's Tucson Mortuary marks 100 years

2014-01-26T00:00:00Z Carrillo's Tucson Mortuary marks 100 yearsBy Angela Pittenger Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

In its fourth generation of family owners, Carrillo’s Tucson Mortuary is marking its 100th year tending to Tucson families in their times of grief.

After the Mexican Revolution broke out, Arturo Carrillo, a Tucson-born judge and furniture maker working in Cananea, Sonora, fled Mexico and its firing squads and came back to Tucson.

This is where he stayed and started his business, Tucson Undertaking Co., with his brother-in-law in 1914. The mortuary got its start on Congress Street near Fifth Avenue.

A few years later, Carrillo bought out his brother-in-law and relocated the business to the former home of a prominent early Tucson banker, John M. Ormbsy, at 204 S. Stone Ave. There it remains today, as Carrillo’s Tucson Mortuary.

Carrillo established relationships with the community and the families he worked with. He even accepted chickens and tamales as payment when a family couldn’t afford anything else.

“It’s the reputation that was established with Arturo, and then my grandfather, that we really got established with community trust and loyal clientele,” said Leo C. Carrillo, current funeral director of Carrillo’s. “It’s that goodwill that laid the foundation for the success we have today.”

Arturo died unexpectedly at 62 of a heart attack in 1937. His youngest son, Leopoldo R. Carrillo, would continue his father’s legacy by taking over the business.

After graduating from the California College of Mortuary Science in 1938, Leopoldo ran the business like his father had, helping people who couldn’t afford to pay. He expanded the business in the 1950s by acquiring the Knights of Columbus building next door, which currently houses two of its three chapels.

Several years later, Leopoldo became ill with heart problems. The family told his son, Leo A. Carrillo, they thought he should take over the business.

After some time in the Navy and at the University of Arizona, he decided that he would take the reins of the mortuary, starting in 1964. His father died in 1984.

Leo A. Carrillo carried on the tradition of helping families. Although they couldn’t accept payments of chickens and tamales any longer, he tried to grant all requests from families, no matter how strange they might be. And the payoff was feeling good about being able to help.

“In a lot of ways it was rewarding,” Leo A. said. “It’s hard to deal sometimes with people who have had a loss and are going through a painful time. But it was rewarding when you have people who feel you did a good job and helped them.”

Leo A. retired in 2004, leaving his son, Leo C. Carrillo, at the helm.

Leo C. originally had no intention of getting into the business.

When he was a child, the death business seemed second nature to him. “I didn’t feel any different than the kid whose dad was an accountant,” he said. “But, once I did figure out what it was, I knew that others might think it was strange. ... To avoid answering questions, I told everybody Dad was the UA football coach.”

That came to an end when a teacher asked his mom about it. “Mom had a conversation with me after that,” he recalled.

As a young adult, coaching volleyball at Canyon del Oro, Leo C. decided the only way to end up with a coaching career was to coach at a Division 1 level. But he didn’t foresee that happening. “Dad always said I had the option of getting into the family business,” he said. “So, I went to mortuary college.”

Leo graduated in 1992 and went to work. He was no stranger to working at the mortuary, though. As a teenager, he would take the bus there so he could work as a custodian for extra money. “I’ve done everything there,” he said.

Once he started working with families, the reason for staying in the business became evident.

“It’s rewarding,” he said. “That’s why you do it. You work for the thank you’s and gratitude. It’s what keeps you going.”

The company’s employees have shared the same dedication to helping families. Yolanda Jimenez Villelas said her husband, Richard E. Villelas, worked as the general manager of the mortuary for 12 years, until he died at age 51 on June 21, 2013.

“When I took him to the hospital, he got his book out and said he had a family at 3 o’clock, and I told him ‘are you serious? You’re going to the hospital. Put the book in the car,’” Jimenez Villelas recalled. “And that was it. That’s how devoted he was. He loved his job.”

Family members who worked with Villelas would approach the couple and thank him for being there during their time of grief, Jimenez Villelas said. “The Carrillos are very nice people. I’m thankful for them for being there for me,” she added.

Monsignor Thomas Cahalane, pastor of Our Mother of Sorrows Parish on South Kolb Road, recalled working with the mortuary frequently during the 1970s when he was stationed at St. Augustine Cathedral. “They always treated people well and related well to people in grief. ... And it was a family run business,” Cahalane said.

Carrillo’s Tucson Mortuary handles between 300 and 350 services each year. And the industry hasn’t changed a whole lot in the last hundred years, with the exception of an increased number of cremations, decorative keepsake casket corners and the way services are done, Leo C. said.

“It’s pretty traditional, as far as services,” he said. “The most technology we see is how paperwork is processed. There are now computerized death certificates. Before it was hand typed and hand delivered.”

Leo isn’t sure who his successor will be. He has two daughters, ages 7 and 11. He said he isn’t going to pressure them to take over, but they’ll always have the option if they want it.

“It’s the first time there are no boys to go into the business,” Leo C. said.

Through the Depression, family deaths and recession, the business has survived and continues to thrive.

“I think it’s a tribute to the service we give to families,” Leo A. said. “We’ve probably taken care of the same families for many, many years and those families keep coming back.”

Contact reporter Angela Pittenger at 573-4137 or apitteng@azstarnet.com.

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