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Evolution or Erosion

Posted by Steven Palmer on January 1, 2014

Look now at the wondrous traditional story of how this island (Nantucket) was settled by the red-men. Thus goes the legend. In olden times an eagle swooped down upon the New England coast and carried off an infant Indian in his talons. With loud lament the parents saw their child borne out of sight over the wide waters. They resolved to follow in the same direction. Setting out in their canoes, after a perilous passage they discovered the island, and there they found an empty ivory casket - the poor little Indian’s skeleton.”

–Moby Dick by Herman Melville


  Nantucket, an island off the coast of Massachusetts, thirty miles from Cape Cod, is only accessible by ferry or air.  It is a tourist destination since the 1880s, expanding the almost 10,000 resident population to sometimes over 50,000 in the peak of the summer season. During its whaling days, Nantucket was the third largest city in Massachusetts, with a population of 10,000. Only Boston and Salem were larger. Only 14 miles long and 3.5 miles wide, it offers beautiful beaches and that great get a way experience. The full-time residents range from the wealthy (usually seasonal) to the struggling families trying to make a living on an island of rising costs and diminishing wages.

  The Lewis Funeral Home has long roots in Nantucket history. Established in 1878, Simon Lewis was the sexton of Nantucket’s cemeteries. Grandson Richard “Rick” Lewis, Marine veteran and Holy Cross College graduate, has been the current operator of the family business.

  Lewis Funeral Home provides services to 50 to 70 families a year. The increasing rate of lower cost cremation and many families’ inability to pay final disposition costs forced the Lewis family to make a very hard decision; they must close.

  Lewis had health problems and his daughter, Carmen Bennett, stepped into help. Attempts to sell the business failed due to the cost of operation versus the possible revenue. 

  The closure of Lewis Funeral Home is much more than the loss of a business; it is the important necessity of dealing with a deceased resident with nowhere else to turn. Ideas have been expressed to start a community funeral society with home funerals. Massachusetts regulations do not allow for such groups.

  The closing of these types of small funeral homes are becoming more common across the country. Small town funeral homes struggle to exist against the cost of operation, government regulation and the growing trend for simple cremation and body donation. As Celia M. Hastings wrote in her memoir, The Undertakers Wife: Wisdom & Musings: Life in a Small Town Funeral Home: “Small town funeral homes such as ours used to outnumber the larger ones and were an important part of community life. But in the past 50 years many funeral homes have combined or regionalized according to the bigger-is-better theory. It seemed small town funeral, like family farms and country schools were going the way of the dinosaur.”

  I look across the clippings of the demise of other funeral homes:

  Nelson Funeral Home of Andersonville, IL announced its closing after 84 years. “It feels awful. It’s time to close the business.” Cremation and simpler choices have presented insurmountable challenges.

  In Palo Alto, CA, the 114 year old Roller & Hapgood & Tinney closed its doors. The property values far exceeded the revenue the funeral could expect.

  The Elliott Sons Funeral Home in Augusta, GA has ceased operations. Established in 1896, General Manger Mark Jones stated that the closing was due to “a changing business climate.”

  The list goes on and on. The small town funeral home served the small town public. You knew them, they knew you. It was a great comfort to pick up the phone on the worst day of your life and give your troubles to your friend, the funeral director. He was a fellow church member, a fellow service club member, a non-profit group organizer that you worked with, your son played softball with his son, you just saw this person as someone you could call on when you needed him or her most. That is the life and the success of the small town funeral home. Now that same family is forced to call someone they don’t know in another town that certainly does not provide the same comfort.

  Jennifer Dewy Rorich in her October 2013 article “Reminders from a Small Town Funeral” realized the value of small town funeral service: “The service was beautiful and showed the support our small town gives when people are in need or hurting. The church was packed, the message was inspiring, and his daughter gave a gorgeous eulogy. It left me sitting in my seat with tears streaming down my face. Even though I didn’t personally know the father, the service was beautiful and showed the support our small town gives when people are in need or hurting. It was our grandfather, friend, and community member that we lost; the words spoken moved me. It got me thinking about my own family, my own father, and what it would be like to lose him. The hurt I could not even begin to imagine and in fact as I sit here and write this, all I can do is cry thinking about it.”

  As we lament the slow, gradual, yet inevitable passing of the small town funeral home, I remember a portion of column by Randolph, VT small town funeral director and chronicler Randy Garner, after he attended to a local death:

  “Once home I crawled back into bed, for perhaps another hour of sleep before the alarm would go off. Then it was back to town, to the Three Bean for a cup of coffee and conversation. One of the night shift nurses had stopped by the café on her way home, so the regulars already knew about Alice’s death.

  “News travels quickly around here, which is kind of nice, actually. It means that at the cafes and coffee shops, on street corners, and the various other places around town that I frequent, it’s not always me, who is the bearer of bad news.”


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