PROVINCETOWN — Funeral home directors are the last responders on the frontline of the pandemic. And the national news has brought troubling images of overburdened funeral homes in the hardest-hit parts of the country. While we have not had to confront that particular part of the Covid-19 tragedy on the Outer Cape, funerals — and the work of funeral homes — have changed during this time.
There have been fewer funerals, not more. That’s because families and friends of the deceased long for the opportunity to gather in one shared space, said Bill Gately, who owns Gately Funeral Services in Provincetown. “Most frequently, we’ve been helping families postpone services to a later date,” he said.
Vine Hills Crematory in Plymouth, which Gately relies on, has been busier than usual, he said. He attributes that not to the almost 17,000 Covid-19 deaths in the state but to the fact that, because of the need to delay funerals, more families are opting for cremation.
Chris Luciano, funeral director at Nickerson Funeral Home, whose outermost location is in Wellfleet, says that the pandemic has meant that a lot of his time and energy has been dedicated to providing online memorial services for families. He and his staff live-stream these services from Facebook and from their website.
Luciano’s job spans all eight of the funeral home locations on the Cape owned by Dignity Memorial, a subsidiary of Services Corporation International, the nation’s largest provider of “deathcare” products. According to a press release issued by the company in February, fourth-quarter 2020 revenue grew by $120 million, or 14 percent, over the prior year’s fourth quarter, to $970 million.
Luciano said there is no central home base for the company here, but that he goes “where the demand goes,” including to the Wellfleet location on Main Street. Despite the time online, “I’m a funeral director first,” Luciano said. “I still see families.”
Another part of the shift for Luciano has been towards organizing and running what he calls online “educational seminars” in which he informs potential customers about the packages that Dignity provides. Most of these have to do with planning ahead. “You can pre-arrange your funeral with us,” Luciano said. When “you pay for everything and you put everything in writing,” he said, “it gives your family peace of mind.”
Gately, who has, since 1990, practiced as a licensed therapist specializing in grief, is concerned about how the pandemic has interrupted the way funeral homes help people with the process. Funeral homes are one of the few public places where it is permissible to display sadness, Gately said. He worries about “what’s missing when we have to postpone things for so far down the road,” he said.
Gately believes the displacement of funerals is particularly hard on friends of the deceased, rather than families, because more often families at least do have some opportunities to get together, “a place to gather and share their common grief.”
Gately said that, like so much else, the pandemic has limited what we are able to do to celebrate the lives of loved ones. People are coping, he said, “but it’s not really a choice.”