When Joe C. Kernke, Sr. and Ralph H. Smith established Smith and Kernke Funeral Directors in 1939, they pledged to provide the finest care with the widest range of options available. At that time funeral homes operated the ambulance services, both men would take the calls.
For more than 70 years, that dedication to the community has been reflected through service to business, civic, and church activities. Smith & Kernke is Oklahoma City’s oldest family operated funeral home, and that record of successful service says a great deal about the philosophy and character of an organization. Joe Kernke Jr., son of the co-founder, joined the operation in the 1960s and took over management in the 1970s. Joe Kernke now runs the business with his son Todd. Smith & Kernke is a business where “family owned” has special significance.
The original Mission/Spanish Colonial Revial building at 1401 NW 23 was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1999, and is near two of the city’s best known landmarks – the Milk Bottle Building and the the old Citizens Bank geodesic dome created by Buckminster Fuller. The funeral home was designed by Harold Gimeno, who has three other buildings on the National Register. The only added structure is a garage built in 1950.
The Kernke collection provides a rare glimpse of a time where funeral homes served the dual purpose of not just remembering those lost, but also saving lives. One photo shows all the funeral home’s hearses, family cars, ambulance, while others show the family rooms, casket room, and some of the inner workings of the mortuary.
The photos are from the personal collection of the Kernke family and were used to celebrate their 50th Anniversary. Thanks goes to Retro Metro OKC founding member Norman Thompson for making this collection available for public display.