Nantucket’s Funeral Home Closes as Wealthy Pick Cremation

Residents of Nantucket, the wind-swept Massachusetts island where billionaires Eric Schmidt and Abigail Johnson own vacation homes, can get just about anything -- except a proper death.

The sole funeral home shut down last month after 137 years, meaning corpses now must take a round-trip ferry ride to a Cape Cod embalmer before they can rest in peace in one of the island’s cemeteries.

“A lot of things 30 miles out to sea are a little different, and now that includes dying,” said Pat Newton, 76, one of Nantucket’s 10,000 year-round residents.

The Lewis Funeral Home, in the same family for five generations, fell victim to two forces affecting the industry: The children weren’t interested in taking over the business and revenue declined as residents increasingly chose lower-cost cremations, said Sylvia Lewis, the last owner’s wife.

“It wasn’t the business that we had before,” Lewis in a phone interview. Instead, the family took advantage of a different trend -- rising real estate prices -- and sold its gray-shingled building in Nantucket’s main village to a developer for $1.25 million, according to state land records.

The number of funeral homes in the Bay State and the rest of the U.S. has declined in the past decade. In Massachusetts, almost one in five has closed since 2003, according to the National Directory of Morticians Red Book. Nationally, about 10 percent shut in the same period.

No Coffin

Cremations, which typically don’t require a coffin or a public viewing, accounted for 42 percent of Massachusetts burials in 2012, up from 34 percent in 2008, according to the Cremation Association of North America. The median cost is $2,245, the group says. By contrast, a full-service funeral runs about $7,000, according to the National Funeral Directors Association in Brookfield, Wisconsin.

The Massachusetts figures track national trends. Forty-four percent of Americans who died in 2012 were cremated, according to the Wheeling, Illinois-based cremation association. In Nevada, Washington and Oregon, more than 70 percent picked cremation.

Anecdotally, wealthy families -- like those who move to Nantucket, where the median home price is almost $1 million -- spend less money on funeral services and are more likely to chose cremation, said Josh Slocum, executive director of the Funeral Consumers Alliance, a nonprofit in South Burlington, Vermont.

“We have a saying here: ‘The poor pay more,’” Slocum said.

Private Memorials

Instead, rich families will put money into a memorial service, which can be lavish affairs celebrating the life of the deceased at private homes, he said.

In addition to Schmidt, chairman of Google Inc., and Johnson, president of Fidelity Investments, Nantucket is home for part of the year to former General Electric Co. Chairman Jack Welch and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.

Those opting for a full-service funeral on the island will pay about $1,000 extra to have the body ferried off the island and back, said Catherine Flanagan Stover, the Nantucket town clerk, who also has a funeral director’s license. The island typically has 60 to 70 deaths a year, she said.

“If the body is going to be embalmed or prepared, right now the only choice is to go off island,” said Bill Chapman, a co-owner of Chapman Cole & Gleason Funeral Homes and Cremation Services, a Cape Cod-based chain. “That’s just a harsh reality of the closing.”

Black Dodge

The chain, in business since 1862, positioned a black Dodge van on Nantucket to transport corpses. It sits in an auxiliary parking lot adjacent to the island’s police station. When a resident dies, the funeral home flies a staff member to the island to remove the body, though the company is training a handful of Nantucket natives to perform the task, Chapman said.

The van then brings the body to the Steamship Authority ferry -- known on island as the slow boat -- where it’s loaded onto a modified luggage cart and stowed aboard for the approximately two-hour sail to Hyannis on the mainland.

The embalmed body can then return on the boat in a hearse for the service.

When boats are canceled, which occurs in storms or high winds, unembalmed bodies marooned on Nantucket can now be stored at the island’s sole hospital, which recently purchased a freezer.

The process has longtime Nantucketers expressing a certain loss of independence.

“It’s not about the people who live here anymore,” said Donna Douglas, while taking a late lunch at Pudley’s Pub on a recent afternoon. “Everything has to be done on the mainland.”

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.