What started as a “temporary” job for Suzanne Simas at her family’s funeral home has since turned into a permanent — and leading -– role.
Simas is now the third generation to work at the longtime Napa business Claffey and Rota Funeral Home – now run by Simas and an almost all female staff.
“I feel really proud to come in and continue on this business that my grandfather started 63 years ago and be a part of a community I grew up in,” Simas said.
“Suzanne has brought fresh air to the whole operation,” said her mother, Leslie Rota. “It’s just wonderful.”
“It’s really exciting to have another generation stepping in and bringing new life” to the business, “if you can say that about a funeral home,” said Rota.
Simas, 34, is the granddaughter of Claffey and Rota founder Ernie Rota and Eloise, his wife. Ernie and Eloise have two children: Bob Rota and Leslie Rota. Leslie is Suzanne’s mother. Claffey and Rota, located at 1975 Main St., was founded in 1956.
Simas did not originally plan on working at Claffey and Rota. After graduating from Vintage High School in 2003, she left Napa, earned a degree in psychology from UC Berkeley and moved to the Oakland area. For a time, she worked with children with autism. Later she got into restaurant management.
After working for 15 years in the food service industry, “I couldn’t see a future for myself managing restaurants” forever, Simas admitted. She was a bit stuck, career wise.
In April 2016 Simas and her family got some bad news.
In the span of just 48 hours, both matriarch Eloise Rota and her son Bob Rota had been hospitalized for separate illnesses. That same day, Ernie Rota had an auto accident while driving the funeral home hearse.
Rota asked her daughter to help out temporarily.
“There was no indication this would be permanent,” said Simas.
However, after Bob Rota passed away in June 2016 and Eloise Rota in October 2017, the future of the business changed.
By then, Simas had been working in the business for a little over a year. She realized she could make a bigger and more lasting contribution.
Simas said she found that the thing she liked about restaurants and teaching was taking care of people. That interest transferred naturally to the funeral home business, she said.
Working at a funeral home “is hospitality in a totally different way,” said Simas. “You’re bringing people into your home — your funeral home — and trying to make them feel comfortable and taken care of.”
Simas has since earned her associate degree in funeral services from American River College in Sacramento. Next she received her California funeral director’s license. She is also a licensed apprentice embalmer.
Simas said what made her appreciate that it had been the right decision to join the business was when she realized being a funeral director was something she was good at.
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“All my life experience had brought me to this point to help me feel I was making a difference,” she said. “Knowing that you’ve made a difference in how someone dealt with a loss — it can be really rewarding and fulfilling.”
That’s not to say it’s been all easy.
In fact, after one of the first funeral arrangements she managed, the customer told Simas she did a terrible job.
“It probably was because I was nervous,” said Simas. That feedback hurt. “It was really hard,” said Simas. “I didn’t meet with families for months after that.”
Eventually, her coworkers and grandfather convinced her to give it another try. Both told her not to take it personally. “Try and extract anything valid I could and learn from that and move forward,” was the advice she was given. Simas began meeting with families again.
Funeral home work can be emotionally heavy, said Simas. “You do sometimes feel like you are carrying a lot inside.” It’s not the kind of work you can talk about to just anyone, she said. “It’s not lively conversation” over dinner, she admitted.
Having a good support system is important. “The people who work here are very supportive,” said Simas.
In her line of work, “It’s important to take care of yourself so you can take care of other people.”
When she became a funeral director, Simas said when someone asked about her job, she used to joke about her work. Now, “I feel like I own it more than I used to.”
Today, when people ask about working at a funeral home, “I say, ‘it’s a really great business to be in. It allows me the opportunity to meet a lot of different people and to help people in a time where they feel lost. And then, of course, everyone has all the weird questions they don’t get to ask about death.” She’s happy to answer, said Simas.
While she doesn’t plan on changing the tradition of service Claffey and Rota is known for, in the coming years Simas would like to implement a few changes such as more green burial options, cosmetic updates and adding more space for a reception and gathering area.
The mother-daughter team may be leading the business, but that doesn’t mean Ernie Rota isn’t still involved. Rota, now 95, is retired but remains a regular presence in the office, said Leslie Rota.
Rota said her father is quite proud of Simas and how she’s embraced the business.
“He talks to me all the time how smart Suzanne is and how good she is with people,” said Rota. “I think he’s so pleased the business will continue and go beyond him.
“I definitely have an enormous amount of respect what my grandfather has built,” said Simas. “I am proud to be his grandkid. I look up to him in so many ways.”
These are big shoes to fill, said Simas. “He’s been helping families for a long time.”
However, “His legacy will continue on through the work we are able to do and our commitment to serving the community the way he did,” she said.