N.Y. funeral industry overwhelmed by task ahead

Los Angeles Times

HICKSVILLE, N.Y. — As dozens of mourning firefighters stop in front of the casket and sob over their lost friend, the phone in the offices of the Thomas Dalton funeral home quietly rings.

It’s another family, with another missing loved one, that wants to hold a memorial service. It’s the fifth call the staff has taken Wednesday.

"It’s incredibly busy for everyone right now," said funeral home official Beth Dalton-Costello. "And none of us know how to handle it."

From casket makers to funeral parlors, the grief industry is overwhelmed with business — and preparing for an unexpected financial boost — because of the World Trade Center tragedy.

It comes at a time of great change for the funeral industry. Many of the family-owned mortuaries that have served the New York area for decades have been acquired by big national chains in recent years, as part of an industry consolidation.

Never have these local businesses been asked to handle so many events; industry experts estimate there will be thousands of funerals and memorials in the Tri-State area alone in the next six weeks.

Some funeral directors are worried that they may not be up to the task. They have rallied staff from outside the area. Frank Campbell Mortuary in Manhattan has networked with scores of other companies, and jointly they are flying in 1,500 workers from other parts of the country to help ease the load.

"I’m trying to prepare myself," said Timothy Dalton, co-owner of Thomas Dalton Funeral Homes. "I’ve got to be on the top of my game."

Morticians also are worried about the strain on their employees, who will be dealing with the grief of families that, in many cases, will be overwhelming.

"This is all unchartered ground," said Phillip Gutterman, co-director of Gutterman’s. "There was TWA 800, but this is so much bigger."

The 1996 crash of the TWA flight near Long Island killed 230 people. It was the last massive loss of life confronted by New York medical examiners and funeral directors, and it was considered "a nightmare" at the time, several local morticians said.

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