Martha’s Vineyard’s only funeral home fills many roles

Michael Hoyt, one of two licensed funeral directors at the Island's only funeral home. — Photo courtesy of Michael Hoyt

The J. B. Cole & Son Funeral Home was likely a welcome addition to the burgeoning South Boston Irish immigrant community in 1862 when Mr. Cole established his business at the corner of Silver Street and Dorchester Avenue.

The 150-year old business, now known as Chapman, Cole and Gleason, is still family-owned and managed. It has grown to a network of nine funeral homes with the acquisition of the John-Lawrence Funeral Home in Marston Mills.

Chapman, Cole & Gleason operates Martha’s Vineyard’s only funeral home. In 1983, the company purchased the Sylvia Funeral Home in Vineyard Haven. William Chapman Sr. and David Chapman Sr. built the distinctive white Cape-style building on Edgartown-Vineyard Haven Road in 1988.

The manner of providing service to families dealing with loss has changed substantially since the 19th century, but the mission is unchanged and the range of services has grown, according to Michael Hoyt, one of two licensed funeral directors at the Island funeral home. Leonard Verville co-manages the business.

The role of the funeral director has changed dramatically as our culture has changed over the generations and the needs of families have also changed, Mr. Hoyt explained last week in an interview with The Times.

“Funeral directors today have a variety of roles — planner, pre-planner, grief counselor, providing guidance and finding help for legal and medical affairs from professionals in those fields,” he said. “With families spread out as they are today, and for people who are grieving, particularly for elderly people who may not have many family members left, these are important services.” Funeral directors are required to have grief counseling and psychology training as a condition for licensing in the state of Massachusetts.

An Oak Bluffs resident, Mr. Hoyt and his wife, Carla, have a son, Noah, in seventh grade and a daughter, Chloe, in fourth grade in the Oak Bluffs school. He is president of the board of the Martha’s Vineyard Chamber of Commerce and past president of the Island’s Rotary Club.

“I grew up in a small town north of Boston and worked in funeral service in small towns and in Boston before coming to the Island 15 years ago,” Mr. Hoyt said. “I enjoy working in small communities where I know the people and understand their specific needs — people you see in the supermarket and at school functions.

“One of the interesting parts of the Vineyard is the diversity we have here. Our service has helped plan services with Native and African-Americans and clients with many other religious traditions and cultures.”

Chapman, Cole & Gleason plans about 150 services a year on the Island, a number which has not varied much over time, Mr. Hoyt said. While national census data show Americans are 10 percent more likely to die in the December to March period than in, say, June to September, that’s not the case in his experience.

“I don’t doubt the data, but it’s not been my experience,” Mr. Hoyt said. “We don’t experience surges like that. Maybe we’re a hardier breed around here.”

But whenever a loved one dies, the decisions for family members can be overwhelming. “I always tell clients that there is no ‘wrong’ service, that the service they select should be one that fits their needs at the time,” he said. “We work with families to meet their expectations and needs. 
For example, we schedule weekend services to facilitate travel and time needs. Getting family time from work is different than in the past when people worked at smaller, more local companies. We don’t live locally any more.”

That is one reason Mr. Hoyt recommends pre-planning. “Often when I sit down with families before the need, it isn’t easy for them but they respond with gratitude after the fact. It is less stressful to plan in advance,” he said. “I think the choices are easier to make. Some people who come to pre-plan are mandated by their living arrangements and sometimes just to have their wishes expressed in a service they choose or to make it easier for their loved ones and give some guidelines for the service they’d prefer.”

Chapman, Cole & Gleason employs six funeral assistants and provides two hearses and a variety of caskets ranging from about $1,000 to more than $10,000. The average funeral service including burial is about $8,000 and a funeral service with cremation averages about $5,000, Mr. Hoyt said. Coordination is an important part of services provided, given the Island’s locus. Mr. Hoyt said his affiliated companies provide transport and other services off Island.

Burial ritual has been important to the living for millenia and Chapman, Cole & Gleason has a framed message about funerals outside a visitation room that reads, in part: “For thousands of years, funerals have been a means of expressing our beliefs, thoughts and feelings about the death of someone we love.”

The message also affirms that the funeral ceremony helps us acknowledge that someone we love has died, allows us to say goodbye, provides a social support system for us and other friends and family members, allows us to search for the meaning of life and death and offers continuity and hope for the living.