Funeral industry struggles to cope in dire conditions

Hurricane Sandy funerals
Star-Ledger file photo

Hurricane Sandy brought unchecked misery to the living in New Jersey. Now, in its aftermath, Sandy is posing difficulties for the dead.

Funeral homes were damaged or destroyed by the storm. Others remain without power. Cemeteries also are in the dark, hampering coordination for burials and interments. Hearses are running low on gas.

And most, if not all, of New Jersey’s 20 crematories are out of commission until the lights come back on, industry officials say.

“It’s an extremely difficult situation,” said Judith Welshons, executive director of the New Jersey Cemetery Association, a trade group representing cemeteries and crematories “Things are in such a state that it’s very hard to even find out who is operating or not.”

Carmen Spezzi owns three funeral homes in Middlesex County. Power remains out in two of them in Sayreville, forcing him to reschedule most wakes for his third facility, Maliszewski Memorial Home, in South River.

“We’re at least a week behind,” Spezzi said. “You can’t get graves open. Landlines in many areas are down, and you can’t even contact the people at the cemeteries to deal with them. There is not a single functional crematory we can use.”

One family, he said, had planned to bury a loved one in a cemetery on Staten Island, but because the cemetery was flooded, they were faced with postponing the funeral indefinitely or finding a plot in New Jersey. They opted to buy at a cemetery in East Brunswick..

“My heart goes out to the families,” Spezzi said. “It’s very difficult to make it right for a family who has had that loss to wait five, six, seven days before a viewing. That’s a very emotional thing for a family.”

The storm has forced funeral directors into a logistical juggling act.

In funeral homes without power, staff members must swiftly find other facilities with the willingness and space to accept bodies that have not been embalmed. In some cases, funeral directors have allowed competitors to use their embalming facilities.

The hunt for gasoline to power hearses and limousines has become more of a problem each day, funeral directors said. Some have had to assign employees specifically to gas detail given the hours-long lines seen in central and northern New Jersey.

Spotty internet service also has been a problem. Funeral directors obtain death certificates and burial permits through the state’s Electronic Death Registration System, an online service. While the website remained active throughout the storm, many had trouble accessing it.

“If funeral directors don’t have accessibility, what do you do?” asked Wilson Beebe, executive director of the New Jersey State Funeral Directors Association. “It’s been a stressful week for everybody.”

Read the story at (Nov. 3, 2012)

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