History & Staff
We have years of experience caring for families, from all walks of life. Each family comes to us because they know we are leaders in our profession, dedicated to excellence in service, and have the highest integrity.
Thoma/Rich, Lemler Funeral Home has its roots in Wells County dating back to the early 1850s when Henry Thoma left his farm in Ebersdorf, Germany, at the age of 17 and sailed for America. He landed at Ellis Island in New York on June 7, 1849, and was processed through as an immigrant to the United States. He moved on to Findlay, Ohio, where he learned the cabinetmakers trade and served as an apprentice for three years. At the same time, he attended school at the Presbyterian Academy in Findlay. In October of 1852 he moved to Bluffton, Indiana.
As was the custom in Europe, furniture making and undertaking was a combination business. If you could make a cabinet, you could also make a coffin. In January of 1853 Henry Thoma and Jacob Tribolet embarked in the joint venture of furniture and undertaking business under the firm name of Tribolet & Company. When there was a death in the community, the family would come to Mr. Thoma, many times with a notched hickory stick indicating the height and width of the person who died, and he would make the coffin in his cabinet shop. It was also the service of the undertaker to deliver the coffin to the home, place the body in the coffin, and then assist the family in making the funeral arrangements. The funeral conveyances were exceedingly primitive, many times using a spring wagon instead of a hearse. In 1855 Mr. Thoma made with his own hands the first horse drawn hearse used in Wells County.
Thoma/Rich, Chaney & Lemler Funeral Home still has this hearse, along with other horse drawn vehicles used by the Thomas'. In 1861 Jacob Tribolet left Bluffton to join the Civil War and the business partnership was dissolved. Henry Thoma continued the business under his own name. There came a son, Herman W. Thoma, and then a grandson, William H. Thoma. Henry Thoma died in 1913. His son, Herman Thoma, born in 1872, succeeded his father in the business and was among the first of the Indiana undertakers to pass requirements of the state license law in 1898. He died in 1946.
William Thoma was born in 1901. A graduate of DePaul University in 1922, he was licensed the same year after study at the Worsham School of Embalming, Chicago, he then became an active partner in the firm. Howard Rich attended the Indiana College of Mortuary Science and became a member of the firm in 1956. In 1961 Mr. Rich became a partner, and the firm’s name was changed to Thoma/Rich Funeral Home. From 1853 until 1964 the establishment was located at 116 S. Main Street in Bluffton, Indiana. The building was a combination of three store fronts, housing the furniture business with the funeral operation tucked in the middle. By the 1960s it became evident that funeral customs were changing. The shift from the traditional church funerals was declining. Larger, more convenient facilities were required to serve the public needs at the time of death.
William Thoma and Howard Rich built an all-new 80 x 100 foot traditional colonial style building at 308 West Washington Street. The home was built to provide expanded facilities for funeral direction and greater comfort and convenience for those who call upon its services. William Thoma died in 1974. He was the last member of the Thoma family. Howard Rich purchased the remaining stock of the business from the Thoma family and continued to operate the firm under the Thoma/Rich name. Jefferson Hewitt received his training at the Simmons School of Mortuary Science in Syracuse, New York. He completed his apprenticeship with the Rogers & Myers Funeral Home in Lafayette, Indiana. Jeff became a member of the Thoma/Rich firm in 1974. He left the firm in 1981 to pursue other career interests. He re-joined the firm in 1989.
Michael Chaney received an Associate Science Degree in Funeral Service from Vincennes University. He completed a one-year apprenticeship at the Newkirk Funeral Home in Dugger, Indiana. Mike became a member of the Thoma/Rich Firm in 1986. In 1990 Jefferson Hewitt and Michael Chaney each purchased 20% of the business stock from Howard Rich and the name was changed to Thoma/Rich, Hewitt & Chaney Funeral Home. In January of 1991 the firm expanded its services to the community with the purchase of the Monument Center. This acquisition allowed the firm to better meet the community’s memorial needs. In late 1991 the firm launched a building project to house the Monument Center. This brand new facility with one of the largest granite displays in Northeast Indiana was completed in June of 1992 at 2980 East State Road 124, Bluffton.
In January 1992 Thoma/Rich, Hewitt & Chaney Funeral Home entered into a Partial Maintenance Agreement with Fairview and Elm Grove Cemeteries. This agreement called for the firm to be responsible for general cemetery operations, ground maintenance, grave opening/closing, and monument foundations. This proved to be a good arrangement for the cemeteries and the firm. In 1996 the firm entered into a Full Lease and Maintenance Agreement with Fairview and Elm Grove Cemeteries. This provided for a seventy-five year lease of the cemetery grounds to the funeral home and full operational responsibility for Thoma/Rich, Hewitt & Chaney. In 1997 Thoma/Rich, Hewitt & Chaney contracted with Granit-Bronze Company to construct Wells County’s Northridge Mausoleum at Fairview Cemetery. The 128 crypt community mausoleum and 56 niche columbarium shelter was competed in the spring of 1998. This facility provides the citizens of Wells County with a beautiful alternative to traditional ground burial. Jeffery D. Lemler received an Associate Science Degree in Funeral Service from Vincennes University. He completed a one-year apprenticeship with the Johnson-Danielson Funeral Home in Plymouth, Indiana. Jeff joined the firm in September 2000. In October of 2001 Mike Chaney and Jeff Lemler purchased all of the remaining company stock from Howard Rich and Jeff Hewitt. Today Jeff Lemler, and staff are serving today’s families with today’s innovations, but always with caring, personal service in the Thoma tradition.
Our Valued Staff
Jeff Lemler, Funeral Director/ Owner & Certified Funeral Celebrant
Jeff was raised in Wells County and a 1994 graduate of Norwell High School, he went on to study agriculture at Purdue University and worked with the Hippensteel Funeral Home in Lafayette. After graduating from Purdue, he went to Vincennes University and obtained his Funeral Directors License. Jeff returned to Bluffton and joined Thoma/Rich, Hewitt, and Chaney in September of 2000 and became a partner in the operation in the fall of 2001.
In July of 2004 he married Jamie Lyn (Kain) and they live in rural Bluffton. They have a son, Braden James Lemler and a daughter Macy Lyn Lemler.
In January of 2011, Jeff graduated from Insight Institute as a Life Tribute Professional and founded Northeast Indiana's first Funeral Celebrant Program. Under this program, Jeff has had the privilege of serving families that are looking for a truly personalized funeral option.
“Every person has a story. A story that is written every day of their lives. As a Celebrant, I have the honor to tell these remarkable stories, and pay tribute to a life well lived!"
Mike Chaney, Former Owner
After graduating from Vincennes University with an associate of science degree in funeral service education in 1984, Mike completed his funeral director’s apprenticeship at Newkirk Funeral Home in 1985. Mike later became employed at Thoma/Rich Funeral Home in September 1986. A year later, he married Jacqueline Stahl, and they joined the First Baptist Church during the summer of 1987. They lived above the funeral home for five years until they moved to their own home where they enjoy yard work and bird watching.
In 1990, Mike became an owner of the Thoma/Rich Funeral Home. In addition to his profession, Mike participates in many community organizations and activities, such as serving on First Baptist Church’s Board of Deacons (past chairman) and fulfilling the role of lay worship leader.
Mike also has served on several committees to promote Wells County job development and retention, including the Wells County Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors (past president), Wells County Economic Development Committee (past chairman), and Economic Development Commission for the City of Bluffton. Furthermore, Mike donates his time toward community organizations: Wells County Foundation Board of Directors, United Way of Wells County Board of Directors, Angel of Hope Memorial Park Board of Directors, and a past board member of the First Bank of Berne Advisory Board of Directors. In addition to his volunteerism and service, he enjoys bike riding, fishing, skeet shooting, and flower gardening
Kathy Christman, Director of Family Services
Kathy was born in Dayton, Ohio to Paul and Marilyn Harper. Kathy has 3 sisters Paula Noble and Lyn Owens of Springboro, Ohio and Lorrie Andrulis from Manassas, VA. She attended Centerville High School and graduated in 1976. Kathy studied business at OSU and later IPFW, she moved to Wells County in 1978 and married Steve Christman in 1979. They raised four boys Brian, Danny, Jeremy and Jason. She and her husband started Family PCs in Bluffton in 1995 until 2007. The name was later changed to FPC Technology Group. Kathy was a member and past president of the Montpelier Tri Kappa Sorority. She is currently a member of Southern Wells Community Church. She enjoys spending time with her family and reading. In May of 2009 she joined Thoma/Rich Funeral Home as Director of Family Service.
Brian Steffen, Monument Specialist
Brian is a graduate of Ivy Tech with an Associates Degree in Buisness Management and Buisness Marketing. Brian was hired by Thoma/Rich to maintain and manage the Momument Center/Bluffton Cemeteries, Inc. Brian enjoys leisure time activities like bike riding, basketball, jogging, walks with his wife, and is a member of the Apostolic Christian Chuch.
James E. (Jim) Phillabaum, Greeter
Jim Phillabaum has lived in Bluffton, Indiana since 1946. He was elected to the Bluffton City Council in 1976 and has continued to serve on the City Council since that time. He is currently serving as President of the City Council, and as a member of Bluffton’s
Board of Public Works & Safety. Jim has a degree in accounting from International Business College and holds the professional designation of Associate of Risk Management from the American Institute of Insurance. He is currently serving as the Chairperson of the First United Methodist Church of Bluffton’s Church Council.
Jim was employed by North American Van Lines Inc. at the corporate level from 1971 until his retirement in 2002. At the time of his retirement he held the position of Vice President of Insurance Subsidiaries and Manager of Corporate Insurance and Risk Management. He currently works part time as a Life and Health Insurance Agent as well as working at the funeral home.
Jim and his wife Joy have been married for 42 years. They have two daughters Jill and Jada and a son John. They also have two grandchildren Megan and Nathan.
Joe Smekens, Funeral Director Assistant
Joe Smekens is a lifelong resident of Bluffton, Indiana. He is a 1961 graduate of Bluffton High School. He attended Milo Bennett School of Linotype after high school and began his employment with the News-Banner in 1963. He was employed at the News-Banner in Bluffton for a period of 45 years, serving in many roles, including 22 years as managing editor and seven years as sports editor. He began employment with Thoma/Rich, Chaney & Lemler Funeral Home in October 2008. Joe and his wife, Barbara attend St. Joseph Catholic Church and First Baptist Church in Bluffton. They are the parents of five children, Denise (Tom) Oswalt, Julie Fetters, Diane (Chip) McArdle, Angie (Scott) Harris and Brady (Kristina) Smekens. They also have 13 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.