Do we know what are colleagues are up against

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Earlier this week I came across a couple of articles that tell the toll of funeral directors and funeral home operators who have operated in the COVID-19 environment.  After reading them I think it is very difficult for those of us, who have not been on the front lines of arrangements or financial management of funeral homes for some time, to realize the difficulties present day operators are struggling with.

In this pandemic time some operators are not only dealing with extremely busy times which can lead to emotional and stress  issues but they are balancing their business operations and management that now comes with some additional expenses for personal protection equipment and other cleaning expenses with the fact that many families are paying less for services because in most areas services are being withheld or delayed resulting in less revenue.

At the Leo F. Kearns Funeral Home in New York City 4th generation funeral director Patrick Kearns says he “has seen a lot in his 25 years working around death.  But nothing, he says, compares with the intensity of what he has experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic.”  You can read about some of his experiences here in this recent article (also available as a voice cast from this same source) from National Public Radio.

Kearns was busy. . . here’s what he told NPR:

At their funeral home in Queens, that wave first hit at the beginning of April. Patrick describes suddenly taking in 100 funerals during a stretch of time when 15 would have been normal, and it was months before that pace let up. The result was consecutive 14-hour workdays and sleepless nights.

The phone rang continuously . . .and despite their best efforts, it was impossible to return all the messages. But Patrick remembers the calls that were most jarring.

“The people that called saying, ‘Can you help me? I’ve called 30 funeral homes.’ And then I listened to the voices and could tell, this is a 25-year-old kid on the other end of the line. They have to make funeral arrangements for their parents because one is deceased and the other is on a respirator, and they’re lost,” says Patrick. “It weighs heavy on you.”

Kearns and his business partner and brother-in-law, Paul Kearns-Stanley, got through the difficult stretch, however, Paul told NPR that he worries that the intimacy of their work may be lost for good.  He told NPR:

“I’ve always said, if you really want to get to know a person, make a funeral arrangement with them. The amount of trust they put in you. They tell you about the workings of their family, the good sides, the bad sides. They tell you about the nuts and bolts of their family, how it works. I’ve missed that. “And I’m afraid that that is going to somehow not come back, to a degree anyway.”

And, in another article about our colleagues in Jamaica that you can read here they discuss the financial difficulties that they are having as families still want to have services but are delaying doing them until people can attend the services.  They are optimistic that the phased re-opening of economic activity will breath new life into their businesses.

One operator, Scott Roman of the 80-year old Romans’ Funeral Home, a family owned business. said this about the delayed service revenue that is occuring, “It definitely impacted our revenue stream because while we didn’t have any money to operate the business, we still have to keep the doors open, you still have to keep your A/C units on.  In other words, the bills keep coming, but the revenue isn’t coming along quite as quickly, so we definitely had to restrict business hours to reduce cost,” Roman said, citing the closing of offices on Sundays.

Another Jamaican funeral home owner, Leroy Braithwaite of Braithwaite Funeral Home, Ltd. reported the following about his business in the article,  “(his business has) suffered a $1.5-million decline in revenue over the months of March and April and that his recurrent expenditure was driving him further into debt.”

Funeral Director Daily take:  I had a discussion just Tuesday with an expert in the funeral business in the United States and he made this comment, “We are in a new frontier running businesses in the funeral space during a pandemic.”

I tend to agree with that statement as in my almost 40 years in the business plus another 15 or so watching my father I would say that the change occurring, both in the operational space and in the consumer choice space, is lightening fast.  Traditionally, funeral service has not been a business space that was fast changing.

And, what will fast changing mean to our industry?  There are about 19,000 funeral homes in the United States and about 15,000 of those are independent operators.  My point of view is that independent operators adapt to provide for the choices of their customers.  But we don’t know right now. . . will only the fast adapters survive. . . or will the fast adapters even adapt to the right model?  What do you adapt to?  What do the consumers really want?

Those are all questions that are looking for answers. . .and the answers will be different in different locales.  For the most part, it seems like the words “flexible” and “open-minded” come to mind as to how to operate a retail funeral establishment at this time.  We are only in the fourth or fifth month of a unique cycle of a generationally modeled business space.

Dealing with families in the COVID-19 world. . . .dealing with the new revenue models in this world. . . .  And, despite the questions everybody has on moving forward, I think we do know that despite the pressures that are evident, funeral professionals and their suppliers are showing up every day to take care of all the needs of America’s grieving families. . . And, for that they deserve our empathy, appreciation and support.

More from the world of Death Care:

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