Funeral homes prepare for the worst as COVID-19 deaths surge

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As the second major surge in COVID-19 cases and deaths takes hold across the Chicago area, first responders and last responders alike are feeling the heat once again in a tumultuous year.

Nationwide, Black and Brown residents are 2.8 times more likely to die from COVID-19. Funeral homes in these communities were hit especially hard this spring, and are preparing for the worst again.

Leak and Sons Funeral Homes has been in business for 87 years, and nearly called it quits last spring as the virus spread. Nine months later, the business has all their employees on board working harder than ever to serve the hardest hit by COVID-19.

“Every time the Governor would come on with his daily press conference, we would wait for the number of deaths for the day,” Spencer Leak Jr. said.

The third-generation Leak runs his grandfather’s funeral home, and despite over 87 years of the business serving Black communities, this past spring felt entirely different.

“We’ve been in business 87 years. But it’s like we’ve been in business for two weeks,” Leak Jr. said.

He said calls started coming in more than usual again approximately two weeks ago, and feels like the funeral home is getting ready for combat.

“Our phones needed to be manned. Our funeral directors who make the removals need to be well rested because they were gonna have a busy day ahead of them,” Leak Jr. said.

Leak Jr. added that his business needed to buy new vehicles this year to accommodate the number of families Leak and Sons has served.

The home’s refrigeration unit also had its capacity tripled. Before the pandemic, it could hold 40 bodies at once. Now, the unit can hold up to 120 bodies at a time. Leak and Sons has also added security to help with crowd control, limiting capacity to 10 people or less.

Prior to the pandemic, funerals were generally reserved for Saturdays only. In 2020, Leak and Sons is holding an average of 16 funerals each Saturday, in addition to 12 services a day the rest of the week.

For Spencer Leak Jr., it has made every day feel like a Saturday.

“I go home, I can’t be near my wife, I can’t be near my children, we’re in the kitchen together. My wife is on one side, my daughters on another and my son is in the basement. This is the first time in 51 years that I haven’t spent Thanksgiving with my parents,” Leak Jr. said.

His 83-year-old father is his best friend. The two speak each morning before they start their day, with his dad reminding Leak Jr. of the family mission, encouraging him to press on in the most trying of times.

“We have to be ready to serve our families. God gave us this business and we have to be ready to serve his people,” Leak Jr. said.

For the Leak family, news of a vaccine on the way is keeping them going as they stay busy serving communities seeing the most loss.

Until then, they will continue to work at a pace they could have never imagined, far exceeding the 2,000 funerals they would host in a typical year.

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