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Chicago Funeral Home Closing, No One Is Dying

June 25, 2014
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Chicago Funeral Home Closing, No One Is Dying

Source: – Photo credit:  (Chris Sweda, Chicago Tribune)

Drop in senior population in some neighborhoods has hurt business, causing some homes to close, but others are finding ways to adapt.

Gentrification is good for almost any business. But for funeral homes, it can be a death knell.

Consider Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood, where the Herdegen-Brieske Funeral Home is closing Sept. 15, partly because older people have moved away.

In 1980, Lakeview had the highest concentration in the city of adults 65 or older, with 14,402 people, according to census data. By 2010, that number had slipped by more than half to 6,849.

Some of those older people, typically on fixed incomes, were forced out when housing prices and property taxes rose as more affluent young people moved in.

“The older people couldn’t afford their taxes on Social Security,” said owner Joe Herdegen, 56. “(The neighborhood) wasn’t being replaced by older people; it was all the yuppies, the (people with dual incomes and no kids). It took its toll on our numbers.

“I guess it’s a good thing they’re not dying,” he said. “But it’s not a good thing for us.”

The 1980s and the ’90s were boom years for the funeral home, in part regrettably because of the AIDS crisis, Herdegen said.

Herdegen-Brieske was one of the only homes in the city that would accept such cases.

“We were (handling) anywhere between 60 and 70 (AIDS) cases a year” out of a total of 250 funerals, said Herdegen, who joined his father at that time to run the business.

The funeral home now is handling only about 70 funerals a year altogether, he said.

The Nelson Funeral Home closed in the Uptown neighborhood early last year and in December sold its remaining Park Ridge location, the owner said. That home, too, had experienced a sharp decrease in business after the area lost about 3,100 seniors over the past three decades.

Michael Cooney, co-owner of the Cooney Funeral Home in Lakeview, said he increasingly relies on his Park Ridge location, because that’s where his older clients have been moving. About 18.4 percent of Park Ridge’s population was 65 and older in 2010, compared to 7.3 percent in Lakeview. He said he moved his second Lakeview location farther west in the neighborhood 10 years ago in search of better parking.

“It definitely is getting younger,” Cooney said of Lakeview, “so there’s less people to bury. It’s only common sense.”

Still, some funeral homes in Lakeview have weathered the changes.

The Lakeview Funeral Home merged in 1979 with a funeral home that catered to the Japanese-American population. Owner Ray Hallowell said Japanese-American families from other neighborhoods and suburbs seek him out because of his understanding of Japanese culture and because his building and decor reflects their needs and traditions.

The Marin Funeral Home in Chicago’s Gage Park neighborhood is in one of the most changed areas in terms of older people. While 4,381 seniors lived in the area in 1980, just 1,978 lived there in 2010. The number of seniors as a percentage of the total neighborhood population dropped to 5 percent, from 17.9 percent.

Alto Marin opened the funeral home in 2000 along with his sister when he was just 23. The funeral home serves a demographic younger than most, he said; sometimes they’re teen tragedies, but more often, the untimely deaths are middle-aged people.

Marin is able to stay busy with about 180 cases a year because almost all of the funeral homes near him have closed, he said. The storyline is almost always the same: The owners die and their heirs didn’t want to carry on the business.

“All the way from (the) Bridgeport (neighborhood) to Midway (Airport), there’s been dozens of places that have closed up over the last 10, 15 years,” Marin said. “I could easily say 15 or 20 have closed up.”

But other funeral homes have been fortunate to be near areas that have seen an increase in the number of seniors.

Delphine Michalik runs a funeral home in the West Town community area, not far from downtown at 1056 W. Chicago Ave. The funeral home has been in the family since 1929, and since she graduated from mortuary school and joined the business in 1980, she’s watched funeral home after funeral home close.

The number of seniors in her community since 1980 has dropped by almost 3,200 people to about 5,100, but she said she’s been fortunate to be close to the Loop, which has seen an influx of about 1,000 seniors as part of a boom that’s added 23,000 people over the past three decades.

Michalik said she has seen a change in preferences for funerals, with people wanting to personalize more. She said she has accommodated that by not being tied to her physical location and being willing to facilitate funerals in less typical places.

“A lot of people don’t even want to do a service at a funeral home, they want it on a boat or at the yacht club,” she said. “They bring the cremated remains. We do everything; most of the time we’re even at the service.”

Michalik said funeral homes have to innovate and adapt to changing preferences, just like any other business.

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