Curiosity led Zabka to 50 years of service


It was curiosity that led high school sophomore Greg Zabka to ask Fullerton’s funeral director about his job.

But it was a calling to serve others that drove his career as a funeral director.

On April 23, the Nebraska Funeral Directors Association recognized Zabka for 50 years of service to his profession.

“I still remember talking to my parents and telling my parents I was going to go to school and was going to be a funeral director. You should have seen the look on their faces,” Zabka said.

His curiosity grew into a plan to attend the University of Nebraska-Lincoln as a pre-mortuary science major for two years, then move to the University of Minnesota to complete his degree. He married his hometown girlfriend, Dixie, in 1971 before moving to Minnesota.

After college they chose to return to Lincoln rather than Greg taking a job at the large funeral home in Minnesota where he apprenticed.

Five years later Dixie had finished her elementary education degree and the Zabkas, now with three-year-old Melissa, moved to Seward where Greg joined Wood Brothers Funeral Home. Monica was born in Seward.

“This was a good place for us to raise a family,” Zabka said.

Dixie helped out as needed before leaving her long-time position in the Seward Public Schools superintendent’s office in 1998 to devote more time to the funeral home.

The Zabkas purchased the funeral home in 1998.

Greg was a licensed EMT from 1977 to 2000 and owned a non-emergency convalescent ambulance service, selling it to Memorial Health Care System as technical and regulatory requirements were changing.

In 2016, the Zabkas opened a receiving funeral home to provide visitation, funerals and space to meet with families in Dwight, after some residents sought those services.

While a second funeral director was usually on staff, Zabka also relied upon several part-time employees for visitations, office work, funeral set up and the like, noting especially several years working with Luther Klenke and Gary Fett.

Zabka never tired of serving families in need of funeral planning.

“I have always felt grateful when people were pleased to be able to say goodbye to their loved one in a dignified manner,” Zabka said.

He embraced changes in funeral trends helping families plan services that reflect their loved one, adding saddles, motorcycles or other unique items to photo and video displays.

He notes his mortuary science class was 98% male, while today women comprise about 70% of the classes. The field has also seen an increase in the acceptance of cremation with about 40% of funerals involving cremation in this area and 60 to 70% across the country.

He has heard all the funeral home jokes and told a few.

Dixie says her husband was called to serve others.

“I think Greg is a great listener. He listens and puts people’s wishes and desires into services,” she said.

While Zabka tends to those who have died with respect and care, he has grown his friendships with the living.

His work has filled his phone’s directory with families, pastors and priests, and the women who provide funeral meals, as well as business people, the people he’s met through his children’s and grandchildren’s activities, and service clubs. It became more and more common for him to know the people for whom funerals were being planned.

Sometimes the work was challenging. Helping families who lose a young child or a younger adult can be especially difficult.

The nature of this work is 24/7, and while a cell phone connects him wherever he is now, in the early years of his career, land lines were the only communication option.

When Zabka first came to Seward, the business phone line would ring to his home, as well as that of the owner, John Wood, and another employee. Dixie recalls having an outdoor phone ringer so Greg could mow the lawn and still respond to calls.

“Somebody always had to be around the phone,” he said.

Calls came in the middle of the night, or the middle of family gatherings.

Dixie, who had been warned by a sorority sister in college that marriage to a funeral director meant his work might encroach on family time, took it all in stride.

“I have never once heard Greg complain about going out on a death call in the middle of the night,” Dixie said.

When people needed him, he responded.

“The girls were always very understanding,” she said.

When the Zabkas met with Brad and Jill Perdue about coming to work at the funeral home and possibly buying it, the sale felt right. It was finalized in 2018.

“We always knew we wanted a couple to come in because Dixie and I had worked well together as a couple,” Zabka said.

The business is now marking a century-long tradition of being owned and operated by a local family.

Greg enjoys helping the Perdues and funeral homes in Lincoln and elsewhere when he is needed. 

“I knew at some time there would be a time when I wanted to step back from the day-to-day operation of the funeral home. It’s very demanding,” Greg said.

“It’s been a really rewarding career. I don’t think I am ever going to fully retire.”

But he also enjoys more uninterrupted time with his daughters and three grandchildren, Lawson, Layne and Layla.

He has made a part-time commitment driving the Seward County Public Transit Bus, a job that required an application and resume – something he’d never created in a career where he had only two jobs.

People are occasionally surprised when the person they go to for funeral plans shows up to drive them to doctor appointments or the hair salon. Zabka’s humor puts people at ease, as he occasionally jokes about taking someone to the funeral home instead of their appointment.

But they trust Zabka to get them where they need to go.