By Matt Tota
In her 12 years as a funeral director, Barbara Kazmierczak cannot remember a colder, busier day at a cemetery than Jan. 6 at Paxton’s Worcester County Memorial Park.
Ms. Kazmierczak, co-director of Dirsa-Morin Funeral Home in Worcester, described the subzero temperature at the grounds as “brutal,” presenting safety concerns for the mourners attending the morning committal service.
But it was the number of services taking place that day that stood out: seven burials, which staff at Worcester County Memorial Park acknowledge as “out of the ordinary” for a weekend.
“It was high for them, especially on a Saturday, when they’re usually done and closed by noon,” Ms. Kazmierczak said. “It’s a short time frame. And, it’s subzero weather.”
Beginning in December 2017 and through the first week of 2018, Ms. Kazmierczak and other funeral directors in Worcester County have handled an increase in burials, an uptick that is consistent with an odd trend in the funeral industry: a busy season.
Much as it does to the retail industry, the holidays and winter months create more chaos for the funeral industry, according to the funeral directors. The colder weather and flu season hits the elderly hard, which affects the death rate, they say, while the holiday delays and closures push back burials, leading to backlogs.
But funeral directors stressed that, no matter the season, the money they make can still fluctuate from month to month. Funeral homes have high heating, insurance and maintenance costs that cut into their revenue. And the surge that they’ve seen this month could easily taper off the next.
“There’s no predictability in this business,” Ms. Kazmierczak said.
At Graham, Putnam & Mahoney Funeral Parlor in Worcester, funeral director Peter Stefan has learned from his 45 years in the industry not to expect a revenue boost in the winter. He said his funeral home makes about $1 million annually.
“I never look forward and say, ‘Winter’s coming; business will be better,’ ” Mr. Stefan said.
Yet, he does believe that stress, illness and depression all increase during the winter, so more people die in the colder months, especially during the holidays.
“Christmas is probably the busiest – the stress levels are sky high,” he said.
Indeed, an October 2010 study in the journal Social Sciences & Medicine found evidence of a spike in deaths during the two weeks around Christmas and New Year’s Day. Analyzing U.S. death certificates from 1979 to 2004, the study found there were more than 43,300 additional deaths from natural causes during that period beyond the normal winter increase.
Mr. Stefan’s own records, which he has kept since he took over the funeral parlor in 1973, indicate that for the last seven years, December, January and February have accounted for at least a quarter or more of his total burials for the year.
For example, last year Mr. Stefan logged 361 burials for the year, with 121, or about 34 percent, taking placing in December, January and February. In 2016, there were 378 burials, with 116, just over 30 percent, taking place in those winter months.
Kevin Mercadante, president of Mercadante Funeral Home & Chapel in Worcester, said he has already seen a large amount of burials this winter, including 59 last month, 19 more than the 40 he averages per month.
“The thinking is that in the winter, flu season and weakened immune systems don’t mix,” Mr. Mercadante said. “People can’t handle the shock of the cold.”
But more business also comes with more cost, he said, often making it difficult for him to turn a profit despite being the largest funeral home in the city, with 40 employees, 10 of whom are full-time.
“It’s a high cost per month,” he explained. “We’re using the building every day. We have a lot of hearses and limos. And the insurances and liability are both huge in the industry.”
For Mr. Mercadante and other funeral directors, the busy winter months can prove more hectic than profitable.
“This season was particularly busy, because both holidays were on a Monday, which meant cemeteries were closed,” said Richard Mansfield, director of Miles Funeral Home in Holden. “There was a lot of scrambling. With this influx of business, and the holidays landing on a weekday, I’m sure most of us were very tired after those few weeks.”
The wintry weather is a challenge for funeral directors, too, because it forces smaller town cemeteries to close, leaving only a handful of large cemeteries open for burials in the area.
“The problem we have in the towns, unlike in the cities, is we have a lot of our smaller cemeteries that actually close during the winter months,” Mr. Mansfield said. “That’s tough for us and for families because the actual burial or internment is postponed until the spring.”
While the weather may complicate arrangements for families, such as travel and scheduling services, funeral directors try not to let it slow them down. Francis O’Connor, director of O’Connor Brothers Funeral Home in Worcester, said undertakers, like first responders, usually ignore the weather.
“We have to be like firefighters sitting around waiting for the phone to ring,” Mr. O’Connor said.
During that dangerously cold day in Paxton, Ms. Kazmierczak made sure her drivers protected their head and hands. But, she said, for the family, the pain from the cold was far less than the pain caused by loss of their loved one.
“This time of year, death becomes much more present because of the holiday season,” she said. “It’s usually a cheerful season, and death this time of year becomes more evident because it runs in contrast with what the season is all about.”
The weight of helping someone cope through death during the holidays is another reason why the winter months feel busier and more stressful for funeral directors, Ms. Kazmierczak said.
“You feel it a lot more, mentally, because you’re sitting with families for a long time, hearing their stories,” she said. “But when you can help a family get through one of the worst times of their lives, it’s not a bad feeling.”
Telegram.com – Matt Tota, Correspondent