Amid a pandemic, Toledo's Joe Coyle marks 50 years as a funeral director

·5 min read

Aug. 25—Two rows of black-and-white portraits on a wall inside Coyle Funeral and Cremation Services tell the story of a Toledo business that has stood the test of time.

Eight photos, 133 years, five family generations. A bearded Catholic founder, James Coyle, who arrived in America as a teenager after fleeing the Irish potato famine with his family.

Among those faces is that of Joe Coyle, 77, who has helped shepherd this business on Reynolds Road near Glendale Avenue through the last five decades. His daughter, Megan Coyle, 50, is now in charge, but Mr. Coyle still plays an active role — often adding a personal touch at visitations and funerals.

"Just because I've been around, I know these families for sometimes a generation, or two, or three," Mr. Coyle said Tuesday.

On Wednesday, the Ohio Funeral Directors' Association is set to honor Mr. Coyle at its annual convention for holding his funeral director license for 50 years. The license was issued May 11, 1971, state records show.

Mr. Coyle, who jokes the recognition is a "natural eventuality of anybody who stays around," said he's not alone: A handful of funeral directors around the state are marking 50 years.

Mr. Coyle joined the family business full-time in 1970 after attending Xavier University, serving a two-year stint in the Army in Vietnam, and going to mortuary science school in Cincinnati.

"It became clear in college" that he'd join the family business, Mr. Coyle said, "after I had done a couple different summer jobs, as most guys do, and this one had lots of appeal to it, once you got into it."

He took charge in 1999 after his older brother retired, and ran it until his daughter bought the business in 2012. The funeral home has garnered a high-quality reputation in the Catholic community and beyond over the years, burying bishops, mayors and other well-known members of the region.

Mr. Coyle said is still around the business plenty today, though he slowed his in-person pace significantly during the height of the pandemic as a precaution.

The funeral and cremation business has changed plenty in 50 years, Mr. Coyle said. For one, there are a lot more cremations — close to half of the company's business these days.

In his early years, he said, "most of the services were very traditional — traditional being a visitation and viewing of the body, the body is embalmed, taken to a church or service in the mortuary, and a burial. But then steadily and slowly, cremation became a choice by families."

More recently, with the pandemic, the funeral business has been forced into a technological transformation, Ms. Coyle said — including livestreaming of funerals and visitations, and paperwork that needed to be signed online.

People are memorializing their loved ones in new ways that involve technology, too, she said. The funeral home sells a lot of Thumbies, for example, a piece of jewelry with the person's thumbprint on it, which utilizes a phone app for ordering.

"I think for all funeral homes across the country, most directors are a little bit older, so technology wasn't something they were embracing — but we had to," Ms. Coyle said.

Because people couldn't gather in large groups during much of the pandemic, the services Coyle Funeral Home could offer were scaled back, and it lost revenue, Mr. Coyle said.

"What we're doing now is lots of catch-up services," Ms. Coyle said. "People who died a year and a half ago, and they finally feel comfortable gathering, and doing something at a church, or something here at Coyle, or something at a Metropark."

It's been a stressful year and a half, she said.

"Just managing people's fears, and managing the enormous amount of questions we were getting asked every time someone died. And for our employees, to feel like we were doing our best, with the protective gear to not be infected. It was just a lot of stress, and a lot of fear, and a lot of worry and concern."

The work is worth it, though, both father and daughter said. There are the brutal moments, especially "young people's deaths," Mr. Coyle said, "particularly when the parents are divorced, and not at all happy with each other."

But at other times, he said, the deep connection he gains with families is fulfilling — getting to know someone whose grandfather the funeral home served decades ago. And he's also proud to have produced a new crop of funeral-home workers: Many young people who work at the home as a summer gig gravitate toward the business later in life, just as he did.

"It must have been something that they liked about this whole aspect and aura and mystery of death, and how you help people," Mr. Coyle said.

He also said he's proud of the newest owner and president of the company, the only woman on the wall of portraits: his daughter.

"She knows what's going on and does it well, and my wife and I are impressed, from the number of people who will say what a wonderful job Megan has done in caring for them, and how comfortable they feel about that," Mr. Coyle said. "And that of course feels pretty good, that you did some parenting that worked out well."

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