Noelle Miller (right) with her daughter Madison (left), has been providing personalized funeral services in Dolgeville since 2008.

Photos and Story by Carol Vogel

Noelle Miller of the Miller-Plonka Funeral Home in Dolgeville takes great pride in helping families at one of the most difficult times in their lives. Being a woman in a male-dominated and very demanding job, both emotionally and physically, takes strength, character, and the support of family, which Noelle has in abundance.

Finding Her Purpose

As a young girl, Noelle attended the funeral of a close family member. “When I got to see her, I knew she had been sick and had lost all her hair and everything, but she did not look like herself at all.” From this experience, she was concerned and asked her mother, “Who takes care of people after they pass away?” Her mother, Marcia, told her about Funeral Directors and what they do. At that moment, Noelle decided she would own a funeral home in Dolgeville so she could properly take care of those who passed away.

When it came time to think about college, Noelle applied to SUNY Canton’s Funeral Director program as well as four other schools. She was excited to be accepted into the Mortuary Science program at SUNY Canton, and while both her parents were supportive, her father, Nick Miller, was wary of her jumping into the program directly from High School at 17. She decided to attend Oneonta for Communications Studies, and after graduation, she headed to SUNY Canton for her Mortuary Science education.

At the top of her class, she was offered a few residency jobs. She took one at a funeral home based on her professor’s recommendation, where she would get the most experience. She was the main embalmer and learned from her mentor who she is still friends with. “I learned a lot.” She credits her high level of professionalism to the fact that she learned from one of the top funeral homes in the area.

At one point after her residency, Noelle was working for ten funeral homes in the area, as her skills and training were in high demand. She did this for about 13 years, she explains, “Mostly working funerals, filling in or covering when they were away because they had to have a licensed funeral director on site.“

Being a female Funeral Director is unique as it has typically been a male-dominated field. Only about 40% of employed Funeral Directors are currently female, but that’s changing. “It’s more acceptable than ever to be a female Funeral Director,” Noelle adds.

According to an article in the Economist from December 2022, over 70% of students who are currently enrolled in a Funeral Director program are female.

Reaching Her Goal

Her goal was always to buy the funeral home in Dolgeville, but since another home had already purchased it prior to her getting her license, Noelle had to pivot and figure out how to make her dream come true.

On a walk one day with her children, she came across the old Feed Store and Agway on Wolf Street. She made arrangements with the property’s realtor to take a look, and she was surprised at the amount of space the building offered. “This is perfect!” she thought. After some negotiating, Noelle purchased the building. She began renovation and, with the help of her family, opened the Miller-Plonka Funeral Home in November of 2008. She had reached her goal and has been supporting the community she loves ever since.

Personalized Tributes

Funeral Directors have a very important role in our society, arranging and conducting funerals, but it’s much more than that. They meet with families to plan details, prepare and care for the deceased with respect and dignity, coordinate with cemeteries, clergy, and churches, arrange transportation, direct services and offer support to the family, among many other functions.

“People sometimes don’t understand what our job is, the value of our job.” Through extensive training, licensing, and experience, Noelle and her staff help families say their final goodbyes to their loved ones in the best possible way. “I want the families to come in and spend time with their loved one. We want to give people the opportunity to say goodbye.”

A comforting and welcoming sitting room area greats you as you enter the Miller-Plonka Funeral home.

A comforting and welcoming sitting room area greats you as you enter the Miller-Plonka Funeral home.

Word of mouth has created the successful business she runs today. If you ask anyone in the area about Noelle Miller, words like compassionate, professional, organized, and consistent are what you will hear. Her family is there to take care of your family in your time of need, and she goes above and beyond every time. “I always want to make sure we do our best and that every single family is treated the same. A personalized funeral is what we really pride ourselves on.”

With a large facility, Noelle has the advantage of space for big families. The large double doors at the back of the expansive hall allow them to bring larger things in, like snowmobiles, as a tribute. “I love when people do funerals the way that they want. We’ve had some cool funerals, with gold-wing Honda motorcycles, four-wheelers, canoes, picnic tables inside here, fireman tributes, and fancy cars outside.” Allowing her clients to create a thoughtful and personalized experience is important. “Most people don’t see things like that at a funeral, but it’s their space and their time.”

The Chapel room with 18 foot cathedral ceilings at Miller-Plonka Funeral Home.

The Chapel room with 18 foot cathedral ceilings at Miller-Plonka Funeral Home.

A Family Serving Families

“I was lucky I have a big family,” she laughs. Noelle is a twin and has five brothers. Her parents, Marcia and Nick, through their unwavering and constant support, took care of her two small children and helped wherever it was needed. It’s been all hands on deck. Her brother Loring (Bear) “practically built this entire place for me! My other brothers put in the air conditioning and pitched in as well. It was a family effort,” Noelle remembers.

Noelle is so thankful for her family and their continued championing of her endeavors. “My Dad is 90 years old, and he’s still taking care of the kids, doing errands for me, and helping out!” With the contributions and aid of her family, she was able to reach her goal to create a funeral home run with care and respect for her community. She is also the owner of Roberts Funeral home in Dolgeville, which was her original dream.

Noelle and Madison pose with a gorgeous Meyda Tiffany Lamp in the entryway.

Noelle and Madison pose with a gorgeous Meyda Tiffany Lamp in the entryway.

Her 16-year-old daughter Madison has helped since she was 12 and has learned many aspects of the family business. “My Mom and my whole family have taught me how to be well-rounded and respectful.” A junior this year, Madison also babysits, works at local restaurants, and is active in Girl Scouts. She is interested in possibly following in her mother’s footsteps, and working in the family business has helped her get a good perspective on what the job entails and how demanding it is. “It’s really nice because it’s family and friends working together. I’ve learned a lot from a lot of people, especially my Mom,” Madison says.

Noelle’s husband, Rob Gridley, is an integral part of the business. “I don’t know if I could run this place without him!” Rob is always ready to help with whatever needs to be done. He performs all of the maintenance and snow removal and assists the Funeral Director with various tasks. Noelle’s son Ethan helps mow the lawns and pitches in with other jobs as needed. “It’s nice when everybody gets involved and helps out,” Madison comments.

As with any business, surrounding yourself with like-minded and caring people who you can count on is important. Noelle can’t say enough about her staff. Patricia Camardello assists with services, and Heather Rauch is her Licenses Manager, both instrumental in the success of the homes. Jeremiah Nash is her main funeral director. “Jere is a huge asset to the funeral home. He is an expert embalmer, and he’s the behind-the-scenes guy who does the work of two people.”

Being a Funeral Director is hard on your personal life, as you’re needed at unpredictable times. Calls come in at all hours, and if during family time, Noelle explains to her children, “Sometimes people need us more than what we have going on at the time.” It’s that sense of compassion and understanding that has shaped her business.

Noelle takes a great deal of pride in her job. To her, every family becomes a friend. “Building relationships with people in the community” is something she cherishes. “They see you as a friend who did one thing for them that no one else in the entire world did for them.” The 12-year-old girl who was concerned about the care of those who passed away is now comforting families and ensuring their loved ones receive the very best. A noble goal and life’s work realized.