The Man Keeping His Family's Century-Old Funeral Home Afloat
Tim Harrington is the third generation operating the family-owned Barr Funeral Home in Edgewater. But a changing Chicago and industry might soon force its closure.
Reporting and photos by MACKENZIE CROSSON
December 26, 2019
Ravenswood resident Jessi DiBartolomeo has long been fascinated with the death industry in America, including how its corporatization has impacted long-standing local businesses. But she’s noticed several family-named funeral homes sprinkled throughout Chicago’s North Side. Many of them look as though they have held their place on the block for decades, “seemingly … untouched by the mega corporations,” she says.
Questioner Jessi DiBartolomeo wondered about Chicago’s funeral industry after she noticed several places like Jaeger Funeral Home in the Kilbourn Park neighborhood.
Wanting to know more about the funeral industry’s history in Chicago, she asked Curious City:
Why are there so many historic family-owned funeral homes in Chicago, and how have they stayed open for so long?
While it’s true there are many funeral homes with deep roots in Chicago’s ethnic neighborhoods, the local industry has undergone dramatic changes in recent years — from shifting local demographics to evolving industry trends — and those changes have left far fewer family-owned funeral homes today than in the past.
Aldo Marin, co-director of Marin Funeral Home & Cremation Services, has witnessed multiple funeral homes close in the Gage Park neighborhood since he opened his business 20 years ago.
The funeral homes that Jessi noticed have managed to adapt and weather those changes, but as challenges persist, some are unsure how much longer their family businesses can survive.
Barr Funeral Home in Edgewater is one such business. After nearly 100 years of serving the same neighborhood, we visited Barr to see how the home has stayed afloat for so long and what challenges the family anticipates in the future.
Serving a changing neighborhood
Tim Harrington is the sole proprietor of Barr Funeral Home, which his grandfather opened in 1923 on North Broadway. In the early days, they offered traditional Irish Catholic services: lengthy visitations, religious blessings and a suit-and-tie dress code.
Over the years, the family developed a close relationship with the congregation at nearby St. Gertrude Catholic Church. Both of Harrington’s parents were baptized, went to school, got married and had their funeral masses at St. Gertrude.
“And so far, I’m on the same trajectory,” says Harrington. “Hopefully I’ll have my funeral mass there.”
Over the years, the Barr family has worked closely with St. Gertrude Catholic Church. Many traditional Irish Catholic funeral masses have been held at St. Gertrude.
It’s not unusual for funeral homes to be located near a church with an aligning cultural and religious affiliation. But as Chicago’s historic ethnic neighborhoods have undergone demographic changes in recent decades, there has become less of a demand for funeral homes serving one particular ethnic or religious group. Funeral directors that, for generations, were used to exclusively serving their own community have had to adapt to stay afloat.
“To be viable is really to be able to anticipate the needs of the families that you’re serving, and that family is constantly changing,” says Leili McMurrough, a director of McMurrough Funeral Chapel in Libertyville and program director of Worsham College of Mortuary Science.
Some funeral directors have been unwilling or unable to make the shift. But others, like Harrington, have welcomed the challenge. He says Edgewater started becoming more diverse when his father was still director of Barr Funeral Home, with an influx of Southeast Asian immigrants.
So Barr began to accommodate different mourning customs, like burning paper or incense inside the building. Today, Harrington says he serves families from a variety of cultural backgrounds, including African, Southeast Asian and the home’s traditional white European Catholic, among others.
Changes like this have allowed Harrington to maintain his viability in the face of the same industry shifts that have caused many other funeral homes’ profits to wane past the point of recovery.
“Funeral homes haven’t figured out how to make money. And I mean, you have to make money to stay in business,” he says. “You have to at least be able to pay the taxes and utilities and everything else.”
For many funeral homes in Chicago, those taxes have been rising. In addition to gentrification causing shifts in the makeup of the surrounding community, it is also raising the cost of doing business, especially when it comes to property taxes. McMurrough says this is why many homes have disappeared from the Loop.
“Sometimes it made more sense to sell the actual funeral home just for the property value,” McMurrough says.
Harrington says he gets a “tremendous property tax break” because he lives in the space right above his business. But even with this reduction in costs, he still pays $57,000 per year in property taxes alone.
“I couldn’t do it if we weren’t getting that break,” he says.
Harrington has lived above the funeral home since 1970. Although he says he gets a “tremendous property tax break” by living there, he still pays $57,000 per year in property taxes.
Still, one thing has stayed the same throughout Barr’s history: the family’s close relationship with the surrounding community. In fact, his father founded the Edgewater Chamber of Commerce.
“I don’t really feel I can move because this is [part] of the neighborhood,” he says.
Adapting to industry changes
Customs surrounding the process of death, grieving and funeral services have also drastically changed the industry in recent decades. The most impactful of these has been the rapid rise in the popularity of cremation, a service that many long-standing funeral homes were slow to adopt.
Many standalone cremation societies and discount cremation companies opened quickly to meet the demand for cremation services. McMurrough says these companies often operate out of industrial parks or strip mall storefronts. By avoiding the overhead cost of a funeral home, they’re able to charge $300 or $400 for cremation, compared to upward of $3,000 at Barr and other funeral homes.
Harrington says the shift came to the industry rapidly.
“Every funeral director knew it was coming,” he says. “Every bit of research showed that this was coming. It just happened in a couple year period instead of a couple decades.”
Barr Funeral Home began offering the service well before 1980, for as long as it’s been offered in Chicago, to accommodate the rising demand.
Barr Funeral Home began offering cremation services more than 50 years ago. Harrington says the service has become more popular during his time as funeral director.
But many other family-owned homes shuttered under the industry pressure. In the ’80s and ’90s, many small family-owned homes across the country began to sell off to corporations like Service Corporation International.
The shift from family to corporate control was more than just a transformation of the business model. “It really changed the identity of what [those homes] looked like,” McMurrough says.
It also changed the experience of mourners. While the families served by Barr Funeral Home are likely to have Harrington at their side from start to finish, corporate homes may have one person answer the phone, another make the arrangements and a third person lead the service.
The small staff at Barr Funeral Home consists of three additional employees, including Anne Kelly, an administrative assistant and Edgewater resident whose son, Anthony, often accompanies her on the job.
Family-owned homes, on the other hand, take pride in the personalized services they’re able to provide.
“What made those funeral homes great was because they understood the community that they were serving — they understood the families that they were serving,” McMurrough says.
A dying family tradition
Many Chicago-area funeral homes were built before World War I. Back then, the businesses’ future rested on the younger generation. Kids would assist with day-to-day work when they were young, study to obtain their license when they grew older and eventually take over the title of director. But, over the years, with greater access to higher education, McMurrough says the younger generation became more inclined to explore alternative career paths.
“You had a generation of children that were growing up with parents that were on call literally 24/7. They missed Christmas because people die at all hours every day,” McMurrough says. “And I think they thought ‘I don’t want that life,’ so they went and explored other opportunities in other fields.”
She says it’s grown more difficult over the years to pass down the family trade — but that doesn’t mean there is a shortage of funeral directors.
Worsham College of Mortuary Science, where McMurrough is a program director, is the fourth largest mortuary school in the country. It’s also where many of Chicago’s funeral directors — and their ancestors — have gotten their education. But today, McMurrough says only 10% of the student body has family ties to the industry.
“Most people think you have to know somebody in funeral service to get involved in this, or you are a son or daughter [of an owner], which was predominantly the case many, many years ago,” McMurrough says. “But that is no longer the case.”
Barr Funeral Home has been an exception, so far.
“Not a lot make it to the third generation. Next to none make it to the fourth,” Harrington says. “And I’m kind of in that boat, too.”
Harrington (second from right) learned the funeral home business from his father (far right). His two older sisters, however, went into different professions.
But he has three children in their twenties who have all entered different career paths: One is a manager for the Chicago Parks District, one is in the Air Force on the West Coast and one is an international male model in Los Angeles. None of them have shown interest in assuming the family business, nor have his first cousins or their children.
“It’s going to die with me, and I have to figure out how to do that,” he says.
Harrington’s father worked up until the moment of his death in 1991; he suffered a heart attack just after finishing a funeral service and just before heading to a community meeting.
Now, at 55, Harrington wonders if he’ll eventually leave his business the same way. Historically, funeral directors didn’t have to formulate a succession plan — their succession was in their blood.
“A succession plan was: My child comes in. That’s obvious,” McMurrough says.
None of Harrington’s three children have shown interest in assuming the family business, nor have his first cousins or their children.
But without a family member to take it over, Harrington has to start thinking outside of the family. He’s open to selling the business, but he’s not quite sure when he would sell or who he would sell it to. For now, his love for his work and commitment to the Edgewater community is keeping the doors open.
“I’m going to keep it going mainly because I need to for the neighborhood,” says Harrington, “for the people that live here that rely on it.”
More about our questioner
(Courtesy Jessi DiBartolomeo)
Jessi DiBartolomeo has always had an interest in historic cemeteries and the death industry. She describes it as a “morbid curiosity around death.”
“I try not to talk about it too much because people get weirded out,” she says.
Though she’s noticed a kind of “taboo” surrounding death in American culture, Jessi has long had a close relationship to the experience of death. She lost her adoptive father at a young age, and her biological father passed away last year.
Now that she’s in her 30s, she says that more of her friends are beginning to experience what it’s like to lose a loved one.
“They’re getting to see the funeral and death industry experience firsthand now, instead of it being this far away thing,” she says.
Jessi works in the coffee and hospitality industries, but she’s been thinking of going back to school to study mortuary science at Malcolm X College.
“I think there’s a big need for millennial-style funerals coming up soon,” she says.
When she’s not at the Metropolis Coffee roastery in Avondale or planning her mortuary studies, Jessi is a volunteer DJ and a volunteer coordinator for CHIRP Radio.
Mackenzie Crosson is a freelance reporter and former intern at Curious City. You can follow her work at https://www.mackenziecrosson.com/.