Years ago, it was said that Toledo’s Irish population couldn't get to heaven without a stop at Coyle Funeral Home.
Founded in 1888 by James Coyle, an Irish immigrant who settled in Toledo shortly after the potato famine in his native country, Coyle Funeral and Cremation Services started by serving predominantly Irish Catholic families.
“That’s a lot of how funeral businesses developed in most cities and towns,” said Joseph Coyle, the founder’s great-grandson. "The funeral director had a network of friends in his church, and his group and society."
Mr. Coyle was previously president of the business and remains one of Coyle’s five funeral directors. Last summer, his daughter Megan Coyle Stamos, the fifth generation to work in the business, took over as president.
Plenty has changed for both Coyle and the industry in the 125 years since James Coyle opened that first funeral home on Broadway just south of downtown.
At one time, Coyle had three locations. That’s shrunk to one, on South Reynolds Road, which opened in 1972.
Mr. Coyle joined the business full-time in 1970 after attending Xavier University, serving a two-year stint in the Army, and going to mortuary science school in Cincinnati.
“Most things back at that time in the '60s and '70s were very traditional,” he said. “You did things the same as your ancestors did the generation before. That steadily changed as society changes. The customs of funerals have changed along with society.”
Funerals today are less often religious, and a growing number of people elect cremation over traditional burial. When Mr. Coyle started, only 2 or 3 percent of bodies were cremated. Now that number is approaching 30 percent.
In some ways, that’s shifted the role of funeral directors from embalmer to counselor.
“I think now more than ever our business is about taking care of all the people who are alive and left behind to deal with the death [rather] than the dead body itself,” Ms. Coyle Stamos said. “The body is still important to us, the care and the respect of that person that everyone loved, but I realize it’s as much about caring for all of us who are left here now, what are we going to do for ourselves?”
Beyond changing their roles, it's changed their business. With more cremations there are fewer people purchasing caskets and burial vaults, both of which are profitable for funeral homes. Funeral homes also are conducting fewer formal viewings as more people elect to have informal get-togethers elsewhere.
To remain viable, that forces funeral directors to rethink parts of their business, to adapt to societal changes, and to double down on emphasizing what a formal funeral offers.
Religious or not, a common fear among those approaching their final days is the prospect of being forgotten. Part of their job, funeral directors say, is to ensure being gone from this earth doesn't mean being erased from memory. Funerals also provide an important platform for the grieving to address their sorrow. That's something that cuts to most everyone, whether they are religious or not
“The underlying psychological parameters are the same — that there’s been a loss and you the survivor have to deal with it. If you don’t have that church affiliation or religious affiliation, it has to come from somewhere else," Mr. Coyle said. "We’re still here to provide that background, that set-up, that opportunity for a person to be remembered, to be cared for. It’s not in that same religious, church service that it was, but it’s still a powerful value of remembering.”
As a young woman, Ms. Coyle Stamos had no intention of becoming the fifth generation to work at the business. She went off to college at Indiana University to pursue a career in fashion, and after graduation landed a job with Parisian, an upscale department store chain.
“At that time they were building a whole bunch of new stores, so that was interesting to travel around and build the stores but I found working in that industry was not fulfilling at all,” she said. “It wasn’t challenging, it wasn’t emotionally rewarding. I wanted to do something that made a difference in people’s lives.”
She didn’t know what that might be, but she came back to Toledo on a day off and settled into an office at her family’s funeral home to update her resume.
A discussion with the person who was doing pre-arrangements for Coyle suggested she might like that line of work.
It turned out she did. After working for a few years in Detroit-area funeral homes, she returned to Toledo and joined Coyle.
Though the number of corporate-owned funeral homes has risen, the businesses are still predominantly owned and operated by families and individuals. Many progress from one generation to the next for decades.
Jack Mitchell, a spokesman for the National Funeral Directors Association, said the appeal of stability is one reason for that. Family names become recognized in communities, and there will always be deaths.
But people who grow up around it are also less likely to be off put by the idea of being near human remains and more likely to see the good that funeral directors can do.
“It’s a very difficult profession, but also a very rewarding one,” he said. “People who are outside of a funeral home-owning family, they probably see more of the difficult aspect of it."
And it can be a difficult vocation, particularly when funerals are for children or those who died an unnatural death.
One of the questions funeral directors are most often asked is how they deal with being constantly surrounded by grief. Their answers are essentially the same way anyone else would. Talk to your spouse, play with your kids, spend time outside, focus on the good.
“It is the most difficult part,” Ms. Coyle Stamos said. “There are definitely times where I choke up and cry. How can you not? But at the other extreme I look at what what do as event planners. Although you can get into the emotion, people are looking at you to direct them. You have to maintain a lot of composure.”
But funerals aren't always all about grief and sorrow. For someone who has been suffering, death can be a bring a sense of relief. There’s also time for celebrating life, and even humor.
“We find that a lot. Humor definitely lightens up the mood, can be a real healthy way to blow off a little steam or stress in a really sad time,” Ms. Coyle Stamos said.
She and her father say they frequently hear interesting stories told about those who have passed on. But what they cherish the most is knowing they've helped someone at what is often the most difficult time in their life. Mr. Coyle said receiving heart-felt thanks from family members is the most rewarding part of his job.
"I don’t hear that very often in any other professions or businesses," he said.
Often that results in families continuing to use the same funeral home when other family members pass. Building those kinds of relationships has contributed to the continuing success of the business, and the ease of succession from generation to generation.
To mark Coyle's 125th anniversary, the business is holding an open house from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. April 28. They plan a special service from the Lucas County Burial Corps to dedicate a new flag pole, and to release special biodegradable lanterns skyward in remembrance of those who have passed away.
They're also hosting a monthly contest in which they're asking people to share an essay about a humorous funeral experience. Each monthly winner gets a $25 gift card, while the grand prize winner will receive a $50 gift card for dinner and a movie, along with use of a chauffeured limousine for a night. They also will be offered up to $5,000 toward a funeral service at Coyle.
Submissions can be emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org or sent to 1770 South Renyolds Road, Toledo, OH 43614.
Contact Tyrel Linkhorn at: email@example.com or 419-724-6134.