By Chinta Strausberg
With the deadly coronavirus and subsequent hospitalizations on the rise, Cage Memorial Chapel Funeral Home Director Roland J. Criswell said the virus has impacted his business, forcing him to reinvent how his “sterling” services are viewed, including now offering live streamed funerals via videoconferencing platforms Zoom and Facebook.
For the health and protection of his staff and clients, Criswell offers Zoom funerals where families can make arrangements via Zoom rather than coming to the funeral home at 7651 S. Jeffery Blvd.
“We can show them virtually the service and merchandise, like caskets and casket vaults,” he explained. “We can live stream our services via Zoom and Facebook. Zoom is a little bit more private and for those who want everyone to have access to their service, we can do it via Facebook.”
“We didn’t start doing Zoom and Facebook funerals until COVID-19 hit,” Criswell said, explaining that 8 out of 10 families opt for such services and 4 out of 5 families opt to do it live stream. It’s very popular now.” The cost to live stream a funeral is minimal.
When asked why he moved towards social media to offer funeral services, Criswell said Facebook and Zoom already have easy to use platforms. With Zoom funerals, Criswell sends the family one link and leaves it to them to notify people of the funeral services.
The COVID-19 restrictions have varied, going from socially distanced 50 people who could attend funerals, to only 10 as of last Monday, November 16.
With municipal COVID-19 restrictions in place, Criswell said, “You are seeing a resurgence to have something, especially because you can’t see a loved one in the hospital who has the virus. It is part of closure to see someone before they die.”
While fewer people can attend funeral services, Criswell said, “People see the value of it. People need to see the deceased for closure.”
Asked how the pandemic has impacted his business financially, Criswell said his overhead is higher because even with 10 people “You are still turning on the heat, turning on the lights. Some people think you can scale back the services and the overhead, but you still have to fire up the full facility even if it is for 10 people.
“You still have to have the first driver. You still have to schedule people to work the funeral. You still need people to bring the body from the hospital to the funeral home. If anything, it has caused prices to go up because of the difficulties of getting Personal Protection Equipment (PPE),” for staff he said.
Because of COVID-19, Criswell, who has been a licensed funeral director for the past 20 years and is a third generation mortician, said he practices “universal precautions because we don’t know exactly who all has the virus. They could be carriers who have never been tested.”
Following the Center for Disease Control’s guidelines, the pandemic has forced Criswell to limit all visitations, funeral services and receptions held at his funeral home to no more than 10 people. That is down by 40 since Mayor Lightfoot issued more coronavirus restrictions including a stay-at-home advisory.
In compliance with the governor and the mayor’s COVID-19 mandates, the pandemic has forced Criswell to discontinue limousine service because of the social distance six-feet protocol; and only three people from a family can attend the funeral arrangement conference.
The Cage Funeral Home offers a full funeral service including caskets and casket vaults. “When we are not in the pandemic, we do have a facility where we have receptions. We have receptions prior to the service. That enables families to have a pre-past reception prior to the funeral and open it up to the public, or after the funeral service, a repast that is a more private, traditional sit-down affair.”
Criswell and Michael J. Malloy, market sales manager, said they take pride in teaching their clients about COVID-19 and about other benefits such as informing families that veterans have a right to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
As a service to families Criswell also sells life insurance and offers pre-planned funerals. He also teaches seniors about other benefits they may have coming and educates them about going into nursing homes, and their legal rights.
All guidelines advised by the CDC are followed according to Criswell, who also makes sure his funeral home is sanitized and disinfected including door handles, light switches, microphones, telephones and other commonly touched surfaces. Each employee has his or her own PPE. Criswell ensures that the HVAC system filter is changed frequently and doors and windows opened when possible to increase fresh air circulation.
Just as his grandfather, Samuel E. Coston, and uncle, Bernard Coston, taught him how to run a funeral home, Criswell, who has been married to his wife, Bethany, for 16 years, is doing the same for their two sons, Brandon, 10, and Roland III, 13. Both of them work at the funeral home.
“They are being groomed like I was groomed by my grandfather, “Criswell said, emphasizing he does not require them to enter the mortuary profession. However, he made it clear that just as his grandfather paved the way for his ultimate career, the line of succession to his sons has also begun.
“We will continue to provide sterling service, and we will continue that and move forward what has been set by Mr. H. Augustus Cage, his godfather and the founder of Cage Funeral Chapel home in 1977,” Criswell said. It was Cage who hired him to manage the Cage Funeral Home.
His grandfather established the family’s funeral home in Pittsburgh, and when he died in 2004, Criswell said it was Cage who became his mentor and godfather.
The Rona Reports are stories of Black resilience in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. As one of Chicago’s Black newspapers with a citywide distribution our mission is to provide readers with factual news and in-depth coverage of its impact in the Black community. This Rona Report is funded by the Facebook Journalism Project Community Network grant.