NANTUCKET, Mass. — The hole at the cemetery was dug. The flowers had arrived, family and friends had gathered, food was ready for the reception. All that was missing was the deceased. Doris Davis could not make her own funeral.
Davis, 92, was born here, died here and wanted to be buried here. But the island’s only funeral home had closed in January. Since then, the bodies of the dead have had to be shipped by ferry, a 2 1/2-half hour ride across Nantucket Sound, to be embalmed at a funeral home on the Cape Cod mainland and then brought back by ferry for burial.
But on Feb. 14, the day of Davis’ funeral, New England was digging out from a huge snowstorm and bracing for the next. Foul weather forced the cancellation of the ferry that was to bring Davis home. Her body spent almost a month on the mainland at the funeral home, but suspended in what her daughter called a heartbreaking limbo.
The episode appalled and saddened people on the island, and inspired some to redouble their efforts to establish a nonprofit funeral service here.
But they are being opposed by powerful organizations representing Massachusetts’ cemeteries and funeral directors. Those groups say Nantucket’s efforts could open the door for other towns to set up their own funeral homes, which, they say, would undermine state regulations and even threaten public health. Local officials say those arguments are specious and that the organizations are simply worried about losing business.
Either way, Nantucket’s loss points up the perils of living on an island, even one as seemingly wealthy as this. That wealth is evident in the summer, when weathered mansions that are closed in the offseason spring to life and the population quadruples. But it is the permanent residents who tend to die here, and increasingly, they are immigrants, who now make up a quarter of the year-round population. Many cannot afford a funeral, especially at off-island prices.
The closing of the home here also gives a glimpse into the nation’s $20-billion-a-year funeral industry. That industry is in flux, due in part to a sharp increase in cremations, which cost about a third as much as funerals and give families more control. Today, 44 percent of all deaths nationally result in cremation, says the Cremation Association of North America, compared with 33 percent in 1996.
In addition, large corporations are buying up family-owned funeral homes, closing some and raising prices. In the last decade, says the National Directory of Morticians Red Book, 10 percent of the nation’s funeral homes have closed.
In January, Richard Lewis, 79, closed the gray-shingled funeral home here that his family had owned since 1878. None of his relatives were in a position to carry on the business. And it was losing money, not only because of more cremations but because many immigrant families, averse to cremation, could not afford burials. Lewis often absorbed those costs, local officials said, and over the past decade lost $200,000 doing indigent burials.
The Lewis family did not want to leave the island without someone to care for its dead. But funeral directors on the mainland were not interested in taking over. Nantucket’s relatively low volume of business — of 52 deaths last year, only 20 funerals were conducted, with the remaining bodies being cremated — could not justify the cost of real estate.
“We considered buying it, but it didn’t make sense financially,’’ said Bill Chapman, co-owner of the John-Lawrence Funeral Home in Marstons Mills, on Cape Cod.
With no one to continue the business, the Lewis family sold the home to a developer for $1.25 million.
Since then, the John-Lawrence Funeral Home has been providing funeral services on the island — from the mainland, which Chapman said added about $1,000 to the cost of burials.
“It can be challenging dealing with the boat schedule — it’s not just a few hours, it’s a full day,’’ Chapman said.
While people here say John-Lawrence has handled things well, they still want their own funeral home. The derailing of Davis’ funeral by bad weather highlighted the problem. Her daughter Catherine Wiands-Annett, 71, tried rescheduling the service for the next day, but ferocious seas again kept the ferries in port.
“Along with all the heartbreak and frustration and anxiety, it was very complicated and convoluted,’’ Wiands-Annett said. The service was postponed for three weeks, but several people, including her adult children, who live out west, were unable to come back.
That galvanized Catherine Flanagan Stover, the longtime town clerk who is also a funeral director. Knowing that Lewis would one day retire, she had been trying for years to establish a local funeral home.
“We need a service that will be there when you call — someone who knows you,’’ Stover said. “And you shouldn’t have to depend on the weather for immediate care.’’
Her plan is to petition the town to donate land for a funeral service building and then to form a nonprofit corporation to raise money to build it. A builder has pledged to construct it for $300,000 — a bargain on Nantucket, Stover said, where “a starter castle costs $500,000.’’
In April, residents at the annual town meeting approved a home rule petition asking the Legislature to exempt Nantucket from two regulations governing funeral homes: that funeral directors own at least 10 percent of the business, and that the funeral service building have a chapel. It is also seeking permission for a crematory, which would save families another off-island expense.
“We don’t want to go into the funeral business,’’ said state Rep. Timothy Madden, who represents Nantucket and sponsored the measure with state Sen. Daniel Wolfe. “But the private sector didn’t step up to the plate.’’
But at a hearing before the Legislature last month, the Massachusetts Funeral Directors Association and the Massachusetts Cemetery Association opposed Nantucket’s plans. The cemetery association said the exemptions would cause “irregularities in the application of the laws,’’ and more towns might want their own crematories. The funeral directors said the public health might be endangered, even though Nantucket is not seeking exemptions from any health-related regulations.
David Walkinshaw, a spokesman for the funeral directors, said in an interview that the association’s main concern was the exemption for a funeral director from having an ownership stake in the business. The point, he said, was to encourage a long-term commitment to a community. “Without that ownership, there is nothing to stop someone from going out there and working for six months and leaving,’’ he said.
Stover said the exemption would give a new funeral director flexibility to go off-island and allow a substitute to fill in. She views such regulations as an attempt to block competition. Since the Lewis home closed, the island has had 33 cremations and three burials, compared with 20 burials last year.
Stover attributed the drop to the expense and discomfort of sending a loved one off-island.
Wiands-Annett, who is still pained by her mother’s ordeal, said the island was diminished emotionally without its own funeral home. As good as the services on the mainland are, she said: “They can’t do what we need done here. They can’t fill that void.’’