By David Hurst
JOHNSTOWN, Pa. (AP) — Bill Harris was preparing the body of an 18-year-old high school student for an unimaginable moment last year when he noticed six words scribbled in ink on the palm of one hand.
BORN A KING
DIED A SLAVE
The moment was the young man’s funeral.
And the slavemaster – opioid addiction, the Richland Township funeral director said.
“I think he knew he was going to die in that moment,” Harris said, his voice suddenly trembling. “A slave to addiction.”
People dying young is part of a new, heart-wrenching norm for funeral directors such as Harris. Men and women who have spent much of their adult lives arranging funerals for the aging and retired suddenly have found themselves doing the same for a generation of young lives being stolen by powerful drugs such as heroin and Fentanyl.
Matt Decort understands better than most.
The Decort Funeral Home owner is 33 years old – just a few years shy of the age of the average Cambria County overdose victim last year.
Decort said he has watched onetime classmates, old friends and Portage neighbors struggle with addiction.
And sometimes they’ve ended up inside a coffin in his Main Street funeral parlor.
“When it’s people you grew up with … it hits close to home,” Decort said.
‘The wrong thing’
Decort said he tries to erase the stigmas that still follow overdose victims – that they all are impoverished, lonely and down on their luck.
“Every drug-related funeral I’ve had, they were people who came from great families,” Decort said. “It’s not as simple as people think.”
People from all walks of life struggle with addictions – whether it’s alcoholism, hoarding or heroin, he said.
It doesn’t mean those addicts were bad people.
“They just got caught up in the wrong thing,” Decort said.
And too often “the wrong thing” wins out, Hoffman Funeral Home co-owner Chris Hoffman said.
“A lot of times, it’s a young addict just out of rehab,” Hoffman said. “They think they are clean – and their family thinks they are clean – and all of a sudden they are back to using again.
“They think they can just go back to the dose they were using.”
But this time, their bodies cannot take it, Hoffman said.
Sometimes the young embrace the misguided notion that they are invincible, Hoffman said.
Drugs such as heroin and Fentanyl beg to differ – and they don’t discriminate, said William T. Hindman.
Many times, drugs are claiming people well into middle-age – “people you would never think have this kind of problem. But they do,” said Hindman, whose family operates funeral homes in Johnstown, Hastings and Hyndman, Bedford County.
“It’s tragic,” he said.
‘Slaves’ to addiction
Hoffman said his family’s Davidsville and Boswell locations handled funerals for five overdose victims last year.
In the past six weeks, he’s had three more.
Harris said his Johnstown and Conemaugh funeral homes handled a dozen last year.
Late last year, he laid four to rest in one month.
Hindman said there are times his funeral homes average one a week.
Figures vary from one funeral home location to another, but Hindman said the percentage is rising at both his Johnstown locations and pastoral spots such as Hyndman at similar rates.
But every lost life had a story – and a room full of grieving loved ones, many of them struggling to come to grips with their shock and sudden grief, funeral home operators said.
Hoffman recalled a young mother whose life was suddenly claimed by her addiction.
Harris reflected on the 18-year-old high school student who left the tragic note on his hand.
The boy’s grieving mother said she’d been fighting to rescue him from drug dependency since he was 14 years old, Harris said.
“He was from a good family and a nice part of town,” Harris said.
They’re not alone
Local funeral directors aren’t the only ones grieving – and struggling to adapt.
Pockets of North America are reeling in the wake of a sudden surge in fatal overdoses.
In British Columbia, Canada, a funeral association sent bulletins to its membership, urging funeral directors to begin carrying the overdose reversal drug naloxone.
The group cited fears that mourning addicts attending an overdose victim’s funeral might decide to numb their pain with deadly drugs.
In Dayton, Ohio, the Montgomery County Coroners office had to temporarily rent refrigerated trucks to store bodies last year.
But the count kept piling up in the 500,000-population county.
Earlier this month, after the overdose death count climbed to 163 cases in 33 days, Montgomery County Coroner Kenneth Betz turned to a Dayton-area funeral parlor to temporarily store four bodies, the New York Times reported.
“We now call funeral homes immediately” to ask if there’s space available, Betz told the newspaper.
In Wisconsin, a local funeral home posted billboards on the city of Fond du Lac’s main street after staff there became frustrated about burying “too many” young men and women due to drug overdoses.
That Wisconsin undertaker displayed a funeral hearse and a grim message: “Side effect of heroin: Your vehicle changes.”
There was advice, too: “Be aware. Speak up. We can wait,” the billboard showed.
Funeral home operators across the nation are taking notice, according to Robert Biggins, a spokesman for the National Funeral Directors Association.
“It’s probably topic No. 1 right now,” said Biggins, a 40-year veteran of the industry who operates a funeral home in Rockland, Massachusetts.
“We’re seeing cases where a funeral home might be seeing a family two or three times because there are siblings involved.”
And, somehow, it just keeps growing worse, he said.
“It’s a tragedy that’s taking away a good portion of a generation,” Biggins said.
‘A mother’s fear’
Harris and Decort said no words can console grieving parents dealing with the reality they’ve suddenly lost a son or daughter.
“I’ve seen parents torn apart by it,” Harris said.
Too often, Decort said, he’s sat down with parents who suffer silently or fight the fact that a drug like heroin was to blame.
“Let’s face it,” Decort said. “Drug addiction is a mother’s fear because once it grabs ahold of a child, they feel there’s nothing they can do.”
Harris said he’s witnessed similar reactions.
But as awareness about addiction and overdoses has become more public in recent years, Harris has seen a growing number of parents turn their anguish into action.
Many are using their children’s stories to reinforce the message that addition can claim anyone – that an overdose has consequences that consume families, friends and futures – not just addicts, he said.
“Suddenly, we’re seeing people turn this horrible loss around and trying to use it as a teaching tool,” Harris said. “That needs to happen more.”
Younger adults don’t always make advance arrangements for their funerals.
When death comes suddenly, families are left to pull together enough money to handle funeral arrangements, Harris said.
It has become more common for families to turn to cremation as a lower-cost alternative to traditional burial.
Visitations and funeral services are skipped, Harris said.
Sometimes, families struggle to afford anything.
“A lot of times, addiction has already had a financial impact on these families. They’ve had to put up with someone stealing and cheating to support their habit,” Biggins said. “Then, suddenly, they are gone – and there’s a funeral to pay for.
“That’s why you’re seeing an explosion of these GoFundMe (website) pages, people reaching out for help,” he said. “It’s not that they don’t want to help. They can’t.”
‘I’ve buried children’
Harris has been in the funeral service business for 40 years. Like many colleagues, he’s handled burial arrangements for thousands of people.
Death has become part of his daily life.
But Harris found himself heartsick and shaken in late December while preparing a five-month old child for its funeral – the result of her parents’ overdoses days earlier in Johnstown.
Their deaths left the infant alone in a cradle for days before she died, too, investigators said at the time.
“I’ve been in this business a long time,” Harris said. “I’ve buried children before. But I just couldn’t stop thinking about that baby’s final moments.”
He said he ended up turning to a pastor he knew for support. They sat inside his Cherry Lane funeral home and prayed, Harris said.
“He gave me the comfort and strength that I needed to cremate that child,” Harris said, adding that, in the end, he was able to get approval to cremate the child and her mother together.
To Harris, that was the right move.
“When something horrible happens … people are always looking for someone to blame,” he said. “And what happened that day was terrible.
“But there’s no doubt, that couple didn’t want to do that to their child.”
‘Find a way through’
Like the families they serve, funeral directors are searching for answers to difficult questions.
“The toughest part is that there’s no answer for this epidemic,” Decort said. “There’s no end in sight.”
In trying times, faith and family might be the last, best hope for someone struggling with addiction, Harris said.
“Stay as close as your kids as you can. Love them and keep them close,” he said. “And if they are struggling, work together to try to find a way through it.”
That doesn’t mean it will be easy. But it might just be enough to make a difference, he said.
“Frankly, we don’t want to handle these kinds of funerals,” Hoffman said. “We wish we didn’t have to.
“These are people who should have their whole lives ahead of them.”