PROVINCETOWN — When Carmen Thomas lost her best friend, 13-year-old Chelsea Earnest, in 1993, she and some 600 others crowded into McHoul’s Funeral Home to mourn.
“I’m a Provincetown native, so nearly every wake I’ve attended has been at the corner of Howland and Harry Kemp,” Thomas said. “The first was for the Dancin’ Cop’s mother, Ethel Thomas. The last was his.”
That final goodbye for her grandfather, Dancin’ Cop Donald Thomas in 2019, may have been the last time Carmen will enter a funeral home in Provincetown. After 37 years in business here, the Gately McHoul Funeral Home has closed. The property at 94 Harry Kemp Way was sold on July 13 for $1,887,500 to Seamen’s Bank, which has not announced plans for its use.
The nearest funeral establishment for those who live on the far Outer Cape is now in Wellfleet: Nickerson Funeral Home, owned by Service Corporation International, the largest funeral home and crematory business in the country.
This marks the end of a long tradition of a local funeral service caring for the local dead, a custom that motivated Bill Gately to take over the McHoul Funeral Home back in 2006 after its founder, David McHoul, died.
Chris Luciano, the director of three Nickerson funeral homes in Wellfleet, Orleans, and Chatham, said the company became part of the Dignity network in 2006. Luciano added that Nickerson’s “will be there for Provincetown and Truro” with longtime experienced staff.
Gately, 71, who now lives in Sharon but used to live in Provincetown, is a psychotherapist and grief counselor. He said the “death business” has given him a sense of purpose since he was 24, although he can see why the funeral home business overall has gone downhill.
“I think the funeral industry has missed people’s authentic humanity,” he said.
He says he never wanted cookie-cutter formality, with the receiving line, hushed whispers, and polite handshakes, to shape funerals in Provincetown, where he had known the Portuguese families to be so genuine and the washashores to be so eccentric.
“For me, being gay and having lived through the AIDS epidemic, I didn’t want to see unique people from Wellfleet down be diminished just because it was not what corporations were used to,” said Gately.
To Gately, a funeral was never about the sale of the casket but a way to convene a safe space to grieve and for survivors to support each other. Showing emotion, ugly crying, is not just OK, he told the Independent this week, “It’s the whole point.”
That said, his business was fueled by the income from full-fledged funerals, which are becoming rare. In their place are cremations, often without any ceremony. This does affect the bottom line of a funeral home. Funerals add, on average, $7,843 — a figure that includes services, viewing, and burial — to the cost of saying goodbye, according to the Choice Mutual Insurance Agency. Opting for cremation instead of burial can mean some savings, bringing the average total down to $6,970.
Increasingly, people take care of the body but dispense with the rituals, a decision Gately calls shortsighted.
Value in Grieving
“To me, there has been almost an emotional and intellectual metamorphosis where people have become better educated,” Gately said. “They chose to make decisions for themselves rather than follow authority. But, while that is a good direction, it is also good to be informed about the direction that you are taking. What I mean is, the funeral has a tremendous value in grieving.”
Gwynne Guzzeau, executive director of Helping Our Women, the Provincetown-based nonprofit that assists residents in times of financial and health hardships, expressed the same sentiment.
“A fundamental part of public health is convening space for the public, and a funeral home is a public space,” she said. “It is especially important when people no longer go to church as much. We are losing a space to hold for grief.”
While there is a growing awareness “that emotions are a part of the human body system,” the value of “having a space where people gather and where that emotional state is honored and respected should also be recognized,” Guzzeau added. “The idea is we are opening up a time to acknowledge and be with our feelings.”
While Gately has been the one keeping the funeral services alive and local in Provincetown, the face of those services has been Jim Keefe, the soft-spoken manager who worked for McHoul before Gately took over.
Keefe, a private man who did not want to comment for this article, was a first responder of sorts, while Gately took care of the funeral service arrangements. Keefe has been the recipient of who knows how many phone calls, which might come at any time, day or night, with the news of a person’s death. Keefe has demonstrated a tremendous commitment to “being there,” Gately said.
Galen Malicoat, whose family goes back generations in Provincetown, recalled how, when her aunt Martha Malicoat Dunigan died in 2002, the family sought to honor her wish to avoid both a hearse and a casket. Martha’s daughter Breon and brother Conrad Malicoat, both artists, made her a “boat” instead. The family then put it in the back of Conrad’s pickup truck for the journey to the crematorium.
When Conrad Malicoat died in 2014, Breon and Conrad’s three daughters, Galen, Robena, and Bronwyn Malicoat, made a burial vessel for him and created a colorful covering for it with their own drawings.
Breon built a third boat when Anne Lord Malicoat, Conrad’s wife, died in 2019. This one was drawn by a horse made of plywood, because Anne loved horses. Anne’s daughters positioned the horse in the back of the pickup truck so that it was visible to everyone as they rode to the Plymouth crematorium, according to Robena.
The family’s desire to handle and transport the body instead of handing the task over to a licensed funeral director required navigating through a labyrinth of paperwork overseen by bewildered officials.
Jim Keefe “held my hand” throughout, said Robena. “He was just so kind making these things happen for us.”
“Jim has quietly contributed more to Provincetown than anybody will ever know,” Gately said. “The funeral home has only been part of the contribution. He has always been available. He is very private, and what I know of Jim is probably not much more than you know. But I do know this: without Jim we would not have been able to stay in Provincetown as long as we did.”