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Death Knell Tolling Quite A Lot Lately Funeral Homes, Cemeteries Swamped

Fri., Jan. 5, 1996

With the holidays over, many Inland Northwest residents are saying goodbye for the last time.

More than 100 death certificates are projected this week, a record for the area, the Spokane County Health District reports.

One Spokane funeral home director says it’s the busiest time he’s seen in 10 years.

Kootenai County funeral directors also are swamped, handling that county’s 71 dead in December, the highest total for any month in 1995.

Nobody is certain why so many people are dying. These are the most common explanations:

Winter weather. Death rates tend to increase during cooler months.

Wicked flu and cold bugs. Influenza is noted as a contributing killer more often than usual these days.

The end of a two-year decline in deaths. Records show death totals dipped slightly since 1993.

Hospice workers and funeral directors point to something less scientific: people often muster the reserves to hang on for one last holiday, one last look at relatives.

“Usually right after Christmas” people start dying, said Bill Swank, manager of Spokane’s Heritage Funeral Home on Government Way. “They kind of wait until that holiday’s over … They say their goodbyes to the family over the last Christmas dinner.”

Christy Himmelright, a staff nurse at Hospice of Spokane, said such theories are irrefutable to people who work with the terminally ill.

She said hospice often adds staff during holidays, knowing that after family gatherings, people will die. “It’s been a very, very busy time.”

Himmelright said people set goals for themselves, whether it’s making it to their 85th birthday, seeing a new grandchild or visiting with a son from back East. “Once they are able to say goodbye to the complete family circle they are able to let go.”

She said one dying Spokane man recently assembled his family around him and practically asked their permission to die. “He turned to his daughter and said, ‘You have to let me go.’ And she did. And he died within a couple hours.”

In Coeur d’Alene, the English Funeral Chapel has never been busier.

Director Bruce English said his business’ cycles are impossible to predict. He said deaths are controlled by many factors, one of which is the will to stick around for occasions like Christmas.

“The will to live is pretty powerful. It can’t carry you forever, but it can prolong life for a while.”

Death is more common these days in outlying areas, too. A Colfax funeral director said he’s made four pick-ups in the past two days - as busy as he ever gets.

A review of death records over the past few years shows December and January tend to be the peak death seasons around here.

Twice the average number of obituaries have been reported to The Spokesman-Review lately, forcing the paper to drop wedding announcements in Thursday’s edition to make way for the death reports.

An official in the county registrar’s office could not recall a week with more than 98 death certificates filed. By Thursday night, 92 already had arrived at the office for this week.

Some funeral homes are so busy they didn’t have time to talk about it. A receptionist at Hennessey-Smith Funeral Home on Division Street said the director probably wouldn’t get back, because “we’re definitely swamped.”

The cemeteries are active, too.

“It’s the busiest it’s been in the last couple years,” said Duane Broyles, general manager of Fairmount Memorial Association, owner of four Spokane cemeteries.

Broyles said he was handling as many as 12 funeral services a day.

Swank, of Heritage Funeral Services, said it’s been 10 years since he’s seen funeral homes this busy in Spokane.

He knows there are many contributing factors, but subscribes to the theory that people will stay alive for one last reunion.

A story sticks with him.

Twenty years ago, a Coeur d’Alene woman died and the family gathered for her service on Nov. 22.

The husband insisted they have an early Thanksgiving dinner on the same day. After the dinner, Swank’s limousine picked the man up and drove him to the Forest Cemetery.

The old man leaned over his wife’s grave, placed a rose on her stone, had a heart attack and died. , DataTimes

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