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Funeral Family Feud 

After decades of war, the Duggan clan of morticians are still giving one another grief

Wednesday, Jul 26 2000
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Some squabbles, it seems, are harder to bury than others. Take, for example, the family feud between the Duggans -- one of the most prominent names in the Bay Area's funeral industry -- who have been officially at war with one another for 37 years. Their feuding, most recently over which of two family factions has rights to the famous Duggan name, has spanned two generations and is now pending before the California Supreme Court.

It's also the closest thing the Bay Area funeral industry has to folklore.

"Oh, it's right up there with the Hatfields and the McCoys," says Steve Taylor, one of the directors of the Valente, Marini, Perata & Co. mortuary in San Francisco. "But that's all I'm going to say about it."

The roots of the conflict, says another longtime director who has worked with the Duggans on occasion, can be traced to the family's patriarch, William, who founded its first franchise, Duggan's Funeral Service, on Valencia Street in 1929. Duggan, the director says, was a "typical Irishman" who reveled in provoking his four sons and "sitting back and chuckling" while they fought.

And they fought constantly.

According to the industry veteran, a friend of his once witnessed two of the Duggan sons, Bud and Leonard, warring before two grieving families after they had accidentally scheduled simultaneous funerals in the same chapel. Bud wanted his coffin in the room, Leonard didn't. A melee ensued.

"They were literally having a tug with the casket," the industry veteran says. "Right in front of the families."

The bickering boiled over in 1963, when Bud decided to ditch the family enterprise and open his own business, Duggan's Serra Mortuary, on a larger plot in Daly City, where he would compete with his fuming siblings and the father he left behind.

"Everybody laughed at him because of the location he picked," the industry veteran recalls, "but he laughed all the way to the bank."

Serra thrived in Daly City, where it was able to operate a facility far larger than the constraints of San Francisco allow. Today Serra is among the Bay Area's largest funeral businesses. Last year it opened a new branch -- on Valencia Street, just a few blocks from Duggan's Funeral Service.

Over the years, only the faces have changed in the Duggan family drama. All of the original participants in the spat -- William and his five children -- are long since dead, yet the feud seems as volatile as ever. The original Funeral Service in San Francisco is now run by the founder's son-in-law, Larry Welch. Bud Duggan's Serra Mortuary was left to his wife, Madeline, and three children, Dan, William, and Maureen, who all still run the business today.

The latest episode stems from a 1993 attempt by the Funeral Service to open a Colma branch. When Welch tried to move to Colma, however, the zoning board let him know that one mortuary named Duggan's was enough: If the Funeral Service was finally going to follow Serra to the south, it would have to do so without the family name.

That was more than Welch could take.

"It had been a long-standing problem anyhow," his trademark lawyer, John Sutton, says. "They were both advertising in the same church bulletins, in the Chronicle and Examiner. I mean, people are confused enough after a death. The last thing they want to do is try to figure out which Duggan's to use." So Welch applied to make "Duggan's" a federal trademark. After the rights were awarded, Welch promptly sued Serra, the 30-year-old business that was now suddenly using a trademarked name without a license.

Miffed by the lawsuit, Serra countersued, arguing that Funeral Service's application did not disclose that the Duggan name was also used by a major competitor. The trial court agreed with Serra and canceled the trademark in August 1998, saying that by waiting 30 years to make it an issue, Funeral Service implied permission to Serra.

Funeral Service appealed, but in April of this year the appeals court upheld the lower court's decision.

Now the case is pending before the California Supreme Court. Although the parties were allegedly exploring an out-of-court settlement last week (having at least agreed not to speak to SF Weekly), history suggests that letting a good grudge die may prove to be quite an undertaking.

About The Author

Jeremy Mullman

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