When Maureen and Kevin Harnett started dating several years ago, their courtship, like most others, had to survive the demands of their careers and life’s other responsibilities. But unlike most budding romances, death was a somewhat common intrusion. Kevin Harnett, after all, was an aspiring funeral home director.
“Sometimes we would be out on a date and he would have to leave to pick up a body,” Maureen said.
Kevin and Maureen are happily married now with two young children, a house and a business of their own. Two years ago this month, the couple took ownership of a funeral home on Madison Street and while he handles many of the day-to-day operations, Maureen manages the business’ finances. Prior to getting into the funeral business, Maureen Harnett worked the floor at the Chicago Board of Trade for Merril Lynch, a financial management and investment banking firm.
“It’s definitely different than what I was doing,” Maureen Harnett said.
For Kevin, working as a funeral director became a real possibility during his teenage years, which he spent working part-time for a funeral home in Oak Park. The attraction, he said, is not fueled by a morbid obsession. Rather, it’s just the opposite. For each family forced to confront the reality of their loved one’s mortality, Kevin Harnett said it’s something of a privilege to be allowed into their circle while they search for something meaningful to hold on to.
“You’re giving people peace,” Kevin said.
Rev. Patrick Tucker at St. Bernardine’s Church in Forest Park-where Kevin and Maureen handle one out of every three or four funerals-said often times families are angry and hurt when a loved one dies. Being a funeral director requires much more than helping someone pick out a casket, Tucker said, because the job puts them on the front lines with those emotions.
“They’re doing what has to be done, but they’re helping the family that’s grieving,” Tucker said.
The demands of the job are vastly different from the impersonal stresses of the trading floor, Maureen said, and at times can be so much more draining. During the first funeral service she helped organize with her husband, Maureen was overcome by the emotions of the family and she cried along with them. Some of that emotion has to be put aside, the couple said, but it’s that type of connection that makes the job fulfilling.
“I prefer doing this,” Maureen Harnett said.
Like birth, death may come at any moment and part of the funeral director’s job is to be available at all times. Most bodies are picked up within an hour of the phone call. The deceased are stored in a morgue at the funeral home where Kevin Harnett embalms the body and his staff begins preparing for the services. In addition to Kevin and his wife, Zimmerman-Harnett Funeral Home has three other employees.
Kevin Harnett also owns a transport service that serves surrounding parlors. So whether the phone rings at 2 p.m. or 2 a.m., Kevin has no choice but to drop what he’s doing and take the call. Not only does this schedule interfere with romance, the couple said, but weekend plans, a full night’s sleep and family obligations all fall by the wayside. Toss a 5-year-old daughter and an 18-month-old son into the mix and schedules get pretty hectic.
“There was a period of about a year or so where (home) was like a firehouse,” Kevin Harnett said.
Mike Leavy is a boyhood friend of Kevin Harnett’s and he too, is a funeral director with offices in Melrose Park.
“You can’t say you’ll be there at 7 o’clock,” Leavy said of the often demanding schedule. “You’ve got to be there within the hour.”
When called to pick up a body, accidental deaths and the passing of a child can be particularly jarring, if not gruesome, but Kevin said he’s always disappointed whenever he’s asked to remove a body from the workplace. The “injustice” of dying at work, he said, has given him a deeper appreciation for life outside of the office.
“I tell my friends, when your day comes they’re not going to say, ‘He had a big house and two of the fanciest cars you’ve ever seen,'” Kevin said.
Naturally, the Harnetts have considered their own mortality and admit that it takes a sense of humor to be confronted so often with a subject many of us tend to avoid. The job actually has its funny moments, according to Kevin and his friend, Leavy, but out of respect for the families they work with, neither would get into specifics.
In a job where death and questions about eternity are stored in steel cabinets, Kevin Harnett said the truth is his work brings him closer to understanding what it means to live a rich life much more than any other field he can imagine.
“You want to live life to the fullest, which in a lot of ways means moderation,” Kevin Harnett said. “But to the fullest, you want to spread yourself around.”