By CORILYN SHROPSHIRE
The coronavirus pandemic is forcing Chicago-area companies and workers to face harsh realities about their paychecks and their place in the local economy. The Tribune is reaching out to hear, and share, their stories.
Leak & Sons Funeral Homes, started 87 years ago, has helped families bury police officers, homicide victims and singer Sam Cooke.
The coronavirus pandemic has forced the South Side institution to grapple with something altogether different.
“It seemed like after that first death … and Gov. (J.B.) Pritzker’s stay-at-home order, everything just changed,” Vice President Spencer Leak Jr. said.
The pace of retrieving bodies, preparing them and conducting services surged almost overnight. Refrigerator space had to be expanded at its location in the city’s Chatham neighborhood. Extra staff had to be hired to work behind the scenes and to assist families. Personal protective equipment had to be purchased and some employees transitioned to working from home.
A casket is moved through the building for a funeral at Leak & Sons Funeral Homes in Country Club Hills on May 6, 2020. (Zbigniew Bzdak / Chicago Tribune)
With so many calls coming in daily, some families became frustrated by delays, Leak said. “They may or may not understand that you had three calls before and now you’re late getting to their home," he said. “It’s understandable they are upset.”
Also changed are long-standing funeral traditions. At its Country Club Hills location, an area offered to families for gatherings after a service has been converted to a chapel for funerals that normally would be at a church. Gatherings are no longer an option, since only 10 people at a time are allowed at viewings and services, all while observing strict social distancing protocols, he said.
Spencer Leak Jr., left, vice president of Leak & Sons Funeral Homes, talks with Pastor LaRue Kidd before a funeral service.(Zbigniew Bzdak / Chicago Tribune)
To manage this, viewings and funerals are spaced out to prevent having too many people in the buildings at the same time, and Leak has hired security guards and another scheduler to plan for the flow of mourners.
“Everything that was done before is still done,” he said. “Our families are saying they won’t allow this pandemic to toss their loved one away. It makes them want to honor the dead more."
Leak, the third generation in the family-owned business, prides himself on the compassion he shows during the process, taking family members by the arm, perhaps telling them a joke as they walk through the door to make funeral arrangements, pulling out their chair as they sit down in his office. He can’t do that anymore since they have to remain 6 feet apart. He used to walk older mourners to their cars. Now he says goodbye at the door.
“I’m apologizing to them for having to put them through this and instead of shaking their hands, I’m wondering if I’m too close to them," he said. “It just doesn’t feel good."
Spencer Leak Jr. directs traffic after a funeral service at Leak & Sons Funeral Homes in Country Club Hills on May 6, 2020. (Zbigniew Bzdak / Chicago Tribune)
The virus’s impact is visible on the funeral homes’ woodwork and fixtures, which aren’t as elegant as they were earlier this year, he said, as they have to be constantly sanitized throughout the day. The pulpit and microphone have to be wiped and sprayed, as do the pews, chairs, tables, and door handles. When he gets home at night, Leak said his wife sprays him down with Lysol. He showers and is allowed to sit on one seat in the kitchen.
Meanwhile his staff, he said, hasn’t skipped a beat, even though employees had the option to step away from the business to ensure their personal safety. “I’m so proud of my employees for saying they wanted to continue to work,” he said. Leak said what Leak & Sons is experiencing isn’t unique — mortuaries throughout the city are going through the same thing.
“We’re no greater than the other funeral home down the street,” he said. “I’m sure all of us are swamped.”