Coronavirus pandemic leads to drive-thru wakes; ‘You have to have an opportunity to say goodbye’
‘In a bad situation, it’s the best thing,’ said a mourner who was among the parade of vehicles pulling up to pay their respects at a funeral in Wheeling for Rosemarie Santilli, 91.
America’s love affair with the automobile has produced drive-thru restaurants, dry-cleaners, coffee shops, prayer services, weddings — and now, thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, drive-thru wakes like the one held for Rosemarie Santilli.
On Wednesday, cars turned off of Milwaukee Avenue into the parking lot at Kolssak Funeral Home in Wheeling. They threaded through orange cones and lane-dividers to approach two of the funeral home’s rear windows.
Behind the first window was the viewing parlor. Inside were chairs for Mrs. Santilli’s family and a microphone so they could communicate with the motorist-mourners. Another mic was set up outside the window for drivers to have two-way communication with her relatives.
Then, visitors pulled up to a second window to view Mrs. Santilli, who died Sunday at 91. She was dressed in pink shades, matching the spray of flowers on her casket with a ribbon emblazoned: “Loving Mom, Grandma.”
Some of her face-masked relatives ventured outside, standing a safe distance away while greeting those who drove up to pay respects.
The funeral home — open for nearly 90 years but doing drive-thru visitations only in the past month because of COVID-19 — set up a canopy to protect them from the lightly falling rain.
About 35 mourners in 15 vehicles came through the parking lot.
“It’s a great idea,” said Kathleen Kondiles, Mrs. Santilli’s daughter. “For people who didn’t want to roll down their window, they’re talking to us on their cellphones.”
“You can still get closure and reconnect with people, and it’s pretty impressive by the funeral home to kind of MacGyver it,” said Mrs. Santilli’s grandson Nickolas Kondiles, 29, a resident at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland.
“I know my mom would appreciate it,” said Mrs. Santilli’s son Gene.
Jill Campbell drove up in her Nissan XTerra to express condolences.
“You get a chance to say goodbye,” said Campbell, a grand-niece of Mrs. Santilli from Clearing, their old neighborhood near Midway Airport.
“To not have the ability to show the love and support during these times, it’s horrible,” said Eric Noonan of Palatine, whose Ford Explorer also was part of the motorcade of mourners. “In a bad situation, it’s the best thing.”
“We found it unusual but very comforting,” said Russ Catt of Bull Valley in McHenry County, sitting beside his wife Georgia in their Toyota 4Runner.
Mrs. Santilli was born in 1928, went to Lucy Flower High School and worked as a bookkeeper. Her memorial prayer card bore the logos of her favorite teams — the Cubs and Blackhawks.
She was renowned for her cooking. She’d process lots of tomatoes every year and store the jars of sauce in “the tomato closet.”
Her husband Gino died in 2008. Mrs. Santilli is also survived by five grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
Drive-thru visitations like hers are one way for funeral homes to ride out a pandemic that has led to bans on big gatherings.
“Creativity is the key to survival,” said Jon Kolssak, a third-generation funeral director. “Every person is a celebrity to their family. You have to have an opportunity to say goodbye.’’
Kolssak said that, before offering drive-thru wakes, he attended one at Justen Funeral Home & Crematory in McHenry to observe.
Justen’s had arranged the drive-thru viewing for Mark Justen, 66, who was the fourth generation to operate the family funeral businesses and was McHenry County’s presumptive future coroner: He’d recently won the Republican primary for the post and had no Democratic opponent.
Mr. Justen’s casket was placed between inner and outer doors of the funeral home vestibule with black draping behind him. Visitors drove up under the carport to pay their respects.
“The people that knew my father said he was always doing something different,” his son Rob Justen said. “They said he was thinking outside the box one more time.”
In the late 1980s, Lafayette Gatling started offering drive-thru visitations via TV screen at Gatling’s Chapels in Chicago and South Holland. He thought it would allow mourners with disabilities to get to wakes and also benefit people working in the building trades who didn’t have time to clean up before entering a funeral parlor. Gatling’s lets people in Chicago drive up to a canopy and “attend” viewings in South Holland and vice-versa.
With the pandemic, there’s been renewed interest in the drive-thru visitations, Gatling said, because people “don’t have to be six feet apart.”
Drive-thru wakes and similar innovations are expected to increase, according to John Wenig of the National Funeral Directors Association in Brookfield, Wisconsin. “This is a way to give people the opportunity to say their visual goodbyes,” Wenig.
Mrs. Santilli’s visitation was Kolssak’s second drive-thru wake. The first, on April 17, was for William Hein, a former Wheeling village president who died of the coronavirus on April 10 at 80. About 60 vehicles took part, according to his son William.
A celebration of Mr. Hein’s life will be held once the pandemic eases, his son said. But in the meantime, he said, “It gave the family closure, and it gave his friends closure.”