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Nantucket scrambles as funeral home closes

Officials look for solution as its only such facility shutters this week

“My father had been lenient with the people of Nantucket,” said Carmen Bennett, daughter of the Lewis Funeral Home owner, office manager.

Rob Benchley for The Globe

“My father had been lenient with the people of Nantucket,” said Carmen Bennett, daughter of the Lewis Funeral Home owner, office manager.

For the family of Richard E. Lewis Jr., the writing was on the wall.

He was pushing 80, his funeral business had been bleeding money, and he was dealing with more and more people who were selecting cremation for their deceased loved ones than a costly viewing and service.

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Lewis Funeral Home, the only such business on Nantucket, decided to close.

“My father had been lenient with the people of Nantucket and held the business together,’’ said daughter Carmen Bennett, the office manager. “But we were not making any money.”

Although Bennett and others had been sounding alarms about the funeral home’s dire financial struggles for some time, Nantucket was reeling after the Cape Cod News published a closing date of Dec. 6.

Nantucket leaders, who had balked at a town-operated funeral business, convened a group of hospital, nursing home, and fire and police officials to decide what to do with the island’s dead when Lewis funeral home is gone.

“There’s a good group of people that is working on this now because it affects the entire town,’’ said Rachel Chretien, the administrator of Our Island Home, the nursing care facility. “The town as a whole is looking at how we can work together to fill the gap.”

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Town Manager C. Elizabeth Gibson said that while funeral service is not a municipal function, town leaders have been reaching out to funeral homes on Cape Cod to determine what to do, for instance, when someone dies overnight and had no prior funeral plans.

“We want to make sure unintended deaths and that kind of thing are dealt with properly,’’ Gibson said. “We want to make sure the issues are addressed to the extent that they affect the town.”

Bill Chapman, owner of John-LawrenceFuneral Home in the village of Marston Mills, said he has heard from concerned town officials.

“They want to come up with a plan to handle calls when someone dies on the island,’’ said Chapman. “That is what we will be working on.”

The funeral home has been a fixture on Nantucket since 1878, when Simeon Lewis was sexton of the Cemeteries of Nantucket. The Lewis family continued the business for five generations, when Richard “Ricky” Lewis, out of Holy Cross College and the Marines, began working with his father and grandfather as a fellow funeral director in 1965.

A decade later he took ownership and expanded the business to establish a separate preparatory space and accommodate large viewing crowds. When he started, funeral service was a large chunk of his business, and he had a contract to up keep the cemeteries on the island, said his daughter.

But over time, as the cemeteries became their own entities, and as more people opted for cremation, Lewis was barely making it. Lewis, who could not be reached for comment, had hoped to turn over the business to his granddaughter, but she did not complete her training as a funeral director, Bennett said.

Still, townspeople said, Lewis continued to take care of the island’s dead. While many of Nantucket’s population of 10,000 can afford to pay off-island funeral homes the cost of transporting and burying their dead, many others can not. And Lewis had been subsidizing indigent residents too poor to pay funeral and cremation costs.

This year, Lewis Funeral Home handled just 30 funeral services. The rest were cremation, Bennett said.

Lewis became ill about five years ago, and Bennett said she and her husband began helping her father run the business. They have had to raise costs for services, but it was not enough. Without anyone in the family to take over the business, they decided to sell it to a developer, said Bennett, who would not disclose the developer’s name.

Bennett said she approached a handful of town officials to alert them to the funeral home’s struggles and to press the town to finance funeral services for the poor. But those discussions did not get anywhere. “Now they are scrambling,’’ Bennett said.

Town clerk Catherine Flanagan Stover, who is also a licensed funeral director, said she, too, had been sounding alarms in an attempt to get the town to consider what would happen when Lewis retired.

“It’s a public health situation,’’ she said.

She said that years ago, she suggested the town allow trained townspeople to retrieve bodies and store them in a specially designated place until an off-shore funeral director could retrieve them. But the idea was not accepted.

Meghan E. Irons can be reached at meghan.irons@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @meghanirons.

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