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Dying business: Nantucket’s only funeral home closes, prompting island scramble

  • nantucket.jpg

    The island town of Nantucket, Mass., had only one funeral home, and it closed its doors on Dec. 6. (Town of Nantucket)

  • Decker.jpg

    Richard Decker, 29, died during a trip to Hyannis, Mass. His sister said without a funeral home in Nantucket, dealing with the loss would be even more difficult.

When the family that ran the only funeral home on Nantucket decided to close their doors after 135 years last week, islanders had a deathly dilemma: There would be no one to collect, handle and bury the 70 or so people who die there every year.

For generations, the Lewis Funeral Home had gone about the somber business of conducting funerals for deceased residents of the idyllic Massachusetts island town of about 10,000. But Richard Lewis, who reluctantly took over the family business in 1959 and brought dignity and grace to countless bereaved Nantucket families over the next half-century, was retiring. No one in the family was willing to take over the island's solemn duty, and no outsiders were interested in buying it.

"It simply wasn't a great investment for a funeral home," Carmen Bennett, a descendant of the business' founder, told FoxNews.com, citing the increased popularity of less lucrative cremations.

"If a family lost a child, he'd refuse any payment at all. He figured they already lost so much already.“

- Carmen Bennett on how her father operated the funeral home

For Lewis, now 80, making money was never the main concern. He was a Marine, married with two children and living in Cherry Point, N.C., when both of his parents died within a short span. When his grandfather called him to say the family business needed him, Lewis deferred his dreams of independence like Jimmy Stewart's George Bailey in the classic "It's a Wonderful Life" and began serving the small community where he'd grown up.

"He would get everything organized even if he knew the person could never afford a funeral," Bennett said. "If a family lost a child, he'd refuse any payment at all. He figured they already lost so much already."

This time, there was no one to step in and keep the funeral home going on the small, crescent-shaped spit of sand about 35 miles off the coast of Massachusetts. Bennett's daughter showed interest, but she is caring for a baby who was a heart-transplant recipient and could not devote the time needed to attend embalming school. 

This fall, the family began preparing to close up shop on Dec. 6, and the town of Nantucket began exploring a wide array of contingency plans for dealing with its deaths. The patchwork solution they came up with won't replace Richard Lewis, but it will help bring peace to the departed.

The John Lawrence Funeral Home, on the mainland in Marston Mills, Mass., has agreed to station a fully equipped hearse on the island, The Inquirer and Mirror reported. The funeral home will train an island-based staff that can respond when needed. 

The Nantucket Cottage Hospital also installed a new refrigerated morgue to accommodate the community. 

Bonnie Kester, the chief nursing officer and vice president of patient care, said hospital officials worked with community leaders and the state Department of Public Health. The new procedures will apply to those seeking a mainland burial, cremation and families interested in a loved one being embalmed, she said. The island still maintains active cemeteries and residents are not required to utilize the services.

Since the Lewis Funeral Home closed its doors, the community had three deaths. Kester said the new procedures in place worked as planned. 

"Our main objective is to make sure the families and the deceased have dignity in the process," she said.

The kind of dignity Lewis brought to islander Richard Decker last year, when he died at the age of just 29, according to his sister, Sara Decker. The Nantucket Department of Public Works employee had sailed to Hyannis for last-minute Christmas shopping when he went to sleep in his hotel room and never woke up.

"It was heart failure," Sara Decker said, recalling how Lewis handled her brother's arrangements with sensitivity and sympathy. "I'm just grateful what happened, happened last year; I don't know what we would do now.

"There's something to be said for the community feel, especially when you need it….that's for sure," she added.

The Associated Press contributed to this report

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