FALL RIVER — Families that postponed memorial services or life celebrations for loved ones who died during the darkest days of the coronavirus pandemic are now making up for lost time.
Local funeral directors, clergy and restaurant owners say they’ve been busy keeping pace with pent-up demand from families and friends — who forwent memorial services and celebrations of life, when COVID-19 state restrictions imposed strict limits on the number of people who could assemble indoors for social gatherings.
“We’re booked from August into October,” said Jeff Davis, general manager of the Cherry Place Waring-Sullivan Homes of Memorial Tribute on Winter Street.
Paul St. Louis, funeral director and operations manager for Silva-Faria Funeral Homes on Bedford Street, also said he’s been getting more calls lately requesting memorial services.
St. Louis said whatever revenue was lost from families canceling or postponing plans for memorial services is now being recovered.
“There are definitely more (memorial services) this year compared to when the churches closed and weren’t able to do a full Mass. I’d say we’re almost back to normal now,” he said.
Life celebrations are typically less religiously formal than memorial services and are often arranged without the involvement of a funeral home, especially when it comes to cremation.
Catered food and beverages a new feature
Davis said his Cherry Place funeral home recently began booking reservations for on-site memorial services and life celebrations that include catered food and non-alcoholic beverages.
Even before the coronavirus pandemic became a national emergency in March 2020, Davis says he knew there would be a market for food catering services at Waring-Sullivan.
“It was becoming so popular that we hired our own event planner in November 2019,” he said.
Davis said all six funeral homes within the Waring-Sullivan company now offer memorial service food catering.
Funeral Business Advisor reported in 2016 that the concept of catered food and drinks dates back to the early 2000s and has gained in popularity since 2011, when only 6% of funeral homes were outfitted for memorial service meals.
And although COVID-19 for more than a year prevented people from congregating in close quarters in a funeral home to mingle and eat, Davis says he was willing to wait it out until things got back to normal.
“We kept her on as a funeral director apprentice,” he said of his event planner.
Davis says the Cherry Place funeral home has averaged a couple bookings a month for on-premises memorial services with food and drinks since Gov. Baker lifted face mask and social distancing restrictions on May 29.
But he said the volume of calls requesting catering has noticeably picked up in recent weeks.
“The need for it was already there before the pandemic, and there’s even more of a demand now,” Davis, 48, said.
Massachusetts state law allows catered food on premises in a funeral home — provided that neither a funeral director, who by law is also an embalmer, nor any employee handles, provides or serves the food and beverages.
Somerset eatery owner busy again
Dimitrios Liakos says he’s been taking calls from families who want to book his restaurant room to hold memorial services and celebrations of life for the deceased.
“The phone hasn’t stopped ringing,” said the owner of Agoro’s Pizza Bar & Grill on County Street in Somerset.
The fact that so many people are booking memorial service events, Liakos said, is a welcome contrast to the first 15 months of the pandemic.
“We had no events for a year,” he said.
Liakos says the biggest problem now is finding enough people who want to work for him instead of continuing to collect unemployment benefits with an additional $300 from the federal government, which expires on Labor Day.
“We lack staff. We need cooks, line cooks, servers,” he said. “It’s been a struggle. Why go to work when you can get free money?”
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Carla Lewis, owner of Green Jar Catering on Locust Street in Fall River, said she’s done “quite a few” jobs since opening last February for grieving families who have hired her to cater a celebration of life or memorial service.
Lewis said she wasn’t aware that some funeral homes were also having catered food brought in for memorial services.
“I definitely would want to market myself to the funeral homes,” she said.
Grasping at straws
Paul St. Louis says he’s worked at Silva-Faria Funeral Homes for 36 years. He estimates 15% of funerals handled by Silva-Faria during the pandemic involved coronavirus-related deaths.
He said there was so much fear and anxiety among families during the pandemic that the bodies of people who died of COVID-19 were transported to Silva-Faria’s Somerset morgue.
“There was no embalming,” he said. “We were taking precautions, but the families understood.”
“We were grasping at straws back then,” St. Louis added. “Some of these people went straight to the grave for a direct burial.”
He says no one working at Silva-Faria has to date contracted COVID-19.
Davis says the pandemic accounted for a marked increase in funeral services at Waring-Sullivan.
“Ten percent of our business was COVID-related,” he said, adding that none of his staff have contracted COVID-19.
A church rector reflects on a tough year and a half
Reverend Thomas Washburn of the Fall River diocese is the rector for St. Mary’s Cathedral, St. Stanislaus and Good Shepherd Parish.
Thomas he’s been busy this past year officiating Mass of Christian burials and memorial services at the three churches.
“I’ve done dozens,” he said. “I’ve done 20 services the past two months.”
For private memorial services, he said the church usually asks for a donation of $100.
Washburn said from March of 2020 to July of that year there was “an absolute lockdown” at the churches.
“There was only graveside prayer and only 10 people were allowed, and they had to be spaced apart,” he said.
“The image I’ll never shake from my mind is seeing a solitary person standing by the grave weeping uncontrollably with no one there to console them,” Washburn said.
“You need to navigate your grief as part of the grieving process, and all we had was the grave,” he said.
Washburn said his concern now is that a COVID-19 variant will emerge in the region in the fall.
“I’m afraid there will be a second wave,” he said.
“Niche” funeral home nearly back to normal
William “Willy” Allen owns South Coast Funeral Home on Pleasant Street in Fall River and its affiliate Boyko Memorial Funeral Home on Broadway.
Allen, 56, says he’s been in the funeral business since 1984 and has owned and operated the Flint funeral home since 2003.
“We’re as close to back to normal as can be,” the New Jersey native said.
Allen said South Coast Funeral Home is unique in that 70%t of his clients qualify for “state assisted” payment assistance.
He says the program — which helps defray the cost of funeral and burial costs when there isn’t enough money available — pays up to $1,100 on a funeral home fee up to $3,500 with the family covering the balance of the payment.
“We have a niche,” Allen said, adding that most of his clients request cremation instead of burial because of its lower cost.
Unlike some other funeral homes, Allen said he doesn’t get too many calls for private memorial services or life celebrations.
Record number of families served
Charles Auclair, president of Auclair Funeral Home & Cremation Service at 690 S. Main St., said he’s grateful that his small full-time funeral director staff — which includes his son Adam, his wife Susan and Alyssa Croteau — were not infected with the coronavirus.
The senior Auclair, whose father Albert started the business in 1944, said that 2020 was a record year in terms of the number of families for whom he provided funeral services.
“We had 344 families. That’s a 10% increase from the previous year,” he said.
Auclair, 79, said 35 of the people who either were buried or cremated in 2020 died of coronavirus-related complications.
Adam Auclair said that being able to once again utilize all three chapels in the building is less burdensome both for the staff and the families who don’t have to wait as long as they did when capacity restrictions were still in place.
“It could be tough,” Adam, 49, said. “Sometimes we had to just tell them there was a limit to the number of people and show them the rules.”
His father says as far as he’s concerned the worst is over: “We’re back to normal a hundred percent,” he said.
Charles Winokoor may be reached at [email protected]. Support local journalism and subscribe to The Herald News today.