KYW In Depth: The opioid epidemic through the eyes of a funeral director

KYW In Depth
February 14, 2020 - 4:00 am

PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — Years ago, Nick Renn, a funeral director in South Jersey, gave a funeral home tour to a high school class that was learning about grief.

The tour was such a good experience for the students that more than a decade later, Renn is still taking classes through funeral homes, giving students a chance to see what happens at the home and doing his best to demystify the profession. 

But what Renn didn't realize at the beginning was how much the opioid epidemic would have an impact on his industry. The people on his table started getting younger. He started seeing clusters of overdose deaths, something that used to be a sporadic occurrence. 

As a result, now he ends each student tour in the embalming room with a powerful message. 

"This a cold porcelain table," Renn said as he showed In-Depth host Carol MacKenzie the embalming table. "And if they are going to get involved in drugs, there's a great possibility that they're going to end up on it." 

Renn says the amount of overdose deaths has increased so much that it’s about 30% of the average business for many funeral homes in the area. 

"I think that we’ve had to adapt as funeral directors," Renn explained. "We're moving towards a new generation as well as taking care of families with situations that we didn’t deal with, such as a drug overdose, that weren’t common."

Renn started his career in the 80s when he was in high school himself. He looks at his profession as a calling, and so does a young apprentice he works with, Toni Maccariella. 

She says she knew she wanted to go to mortuary school after her uncle passed. 

"Nick actually knew my uncle very well and did his service," Maccariella said. "And that was a really hard time for me, but knowing the care that he was (in) — and not even knowing I’d end up (working) with Nick 15 years later — really made me know this is what I’m meant to do."

This week on KYW In Depth, MacKenzie and producer Charlotte Reese travel to Sweeney Funeral Home in Burlington County, New Jersey, to take one of Nick Renn's tours and see what the opioid epidemic looks like from the perspective of a funeral director.

Each week, KYW In Depth will take you inside a story that matters to the Philadelphia region. With original reporting and compelling interviews, the most experienced news team in Philadelphia radio goes beyond the headlines and into the captivating details surrounding a local story. Subscribe here, on the RADIO.COM app on your smartphone, or wherever you listen to podcasts.