When a person dies on Martha’s Vineyard, whether they are in a hospital bed, in their room at the Windemere nursing home, at the scene of an accident, outdoors or at home, whether it is 3:30 in the afternoon or 3:30 in the morning, whether the person is surrounded by family or alone, Leonard Verville will arrive to take them away, and he will be dressed in a suit and tie.

Mr. Verville, known to most as Lenny, is the funeral director at the Island’s only funeral home: Chapman, Cole, and Gleason. He often pauses before he speaks, softly and with a strong New Bedford accent. He draws out the first syllable of his frequent mhm’s and all right’s.

At the funeral home on Edgartown Vineyard Haven Road, Mr. Verville lives upstairs with his longtime partner Linda Hammond, hosts family meetings and visitations on the main floor with the help of his assistant, and does embalmings himself in the funeral home basement.

In nearly 20 years, he has felt a ghostly presence only once. “Lying in bed in probably a dreamy state, but I felt this presence on me, lying on top of me, like on my back. I’m going like, all right, what is that.”

As the Island's only funeral director, Mr. Verville is on call day and night. — Jeanna Shepard

Since his former colleague Michael Hoyt moved away last year, Mr. Verville is always on call. The Martha’s Vineyard Hospital does not have a morgue, so his errands are time sensitive. His schedule is such that he can’t have a pet, or even take care of a plant. And with an aging Island population, he is finding himself busier.

“This past year, 2018, was the busiest that we’ve been, over 170 cases this past year,” Mr. Verville said. Numbers previously hovered between 135 and 145.

There are few people with access to a truer cross-section of the Island community. No matter the circumstances, everyone will eventually die, and when they do, Mr. Verville will be there, quiet and unassuming.

“He’s just Lenny,” said Chantale Patterson, clinical director at Hospice of Martha’s Vineyard. “He has a very unique character, and most of the families we work with, they all kind of love him.”

“Listening mostly,” Mr. Verville said of his approach. “Putting in a couple of kind words and giving them some direction.”

After jobs in New Bedford and Fairhaven, Mr. Verville moved to the Vineyard where he knew no one. — Jeanna Shepard

Over the years he has learned about the mourning rituals of many religious faiths, arranged for the transfer of multiple people to funeral homes in Brazil, and coordinated countless cremations in Duxbury (there is no crematory on the Island). He said he usually doesn’t get emotional, but it can be difficult with the young.

“There are some tough times, you know. You’re there with the family and you’re crying with them. You try not to, but you do. You can’t help it,” he said.

Known for accommodating any need he can, he recalled a family who asked to stop at home on the way to the cemetery to take the spirit of their loved one out of the casket.

“The gentleman walked the spirit through the house, came back out and handed me the spirit, and I had to put him back in the hearse,” Mr. Verville said, an act performed with some bewilderment on his part, but solemnly done.

Mr. Verville grew up in the business. His grandfather owned a funeral home in New Bedford, and his father worked there too.

“So I was always mowing the lawn there at the funeral home,” he said.

The first time he went into the morgue, at 10 or 12 years old, he watched his grandfather embalm a body, slowly filling the veins with formaldehyde. “I can remember my grandfather embalming the guy and he was using an arm. And the arm was there and I’m looking at the guy going, that’s cool.”

After high school, he briefly explored other career paths (electrical engineering, carpeting, working in a deli), but when he didn’t feel committed to them, his father intervened.

“Finally my father says, ‘you know what, you need to go to school. Why don’t you go become an embalmer, funeral director... If you just do it, you don’t like it, you’ll always have it. You can always come back to it later on.’”

He initially gravitated to working with the dead rather than with the living. “When I first started I only enjoyed doing embalmings... just staying downstairs. I didn’t want to deal with anybody. No families. That was a lot easier,” he said.

He still likes setting the features, working from a photograph to make a person look as much like their old self as possible.

“It’s pretty good at the end when they say you know what? My dad’s never looked so good. Mom’s never looked so good. It gives you a great feeling,” he said.

After 10 years at his family’s funeral home and a brief stint in Fairhaven, he took the job on the Vineyard in 2000.

“I had never left New Bedford before, so this was like a whole new beginning. Scary too at the same time, leaving home,” he said.

He knew no one, but a friend in New Bedford gave him one name.

“So my friend Mike said you have to look up Arthur Pye. Go to the P.A. Club and find Arthur Pye.”

It was his first outing after moving to the Island. He found the Portuguese American club, walked up to the bar and asked the bartender tentatively if there was an Arthur Pye around.

“I go, is Arthur Pye here? She goes, no. Without even looking around,” he said. “I’m coming from New Bedford. You look around the bar making sure that nobody’s there.”

Puzzled by her curtness, he asked for a beer.

“She goes, are you a member? I go, no. She goes, I can’t serve you. I had to walk out with my tail between my legs, like, that was weird.”

Mr. Verville eventually did find Arthur Pye, and the two grew to be close friends over the next decade. In 2011, Mr. Pye died unexpectedly, and Mr. Verville was in charge of the funeral arrangements for his first Island friend.

“I look at it this way, if someone did die I’d be the one to do it. I’d rather be the one.”

Mr. Verville was raised Catholic, but said he is agnostic about the afterlife.

“I believe it’s whatever you believe. As for myself, I think it’s a cellular death, scientific. Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust. And I think that’s about it,” he said.

As to his own post-mortem plans:

“Cremation, for sure. I’m kind of claustrophobic. Don’t want to be in a casket, not for eternity.”

And after that?

“Take the ashes and scatter them, right now, right there in Vineyard Sound. That’s the best place right now. I kept thinking about Buzzards Bay, going back home to New Bedford too, but,” he said with certainty, “Vineyard Sound.”