A funeral every 11 minutes at this River Park installation

Beside the long blue hearse on the corner of East Grand and North Wabash avenues, the little yellow signs read “No Parking — Funeral.”

Dozens of funerals were underway at the offices of Havas Chicago — one every 11 minutes. The River North ad agency transformed its lobby into a funeral space Thursday, the pop-up installation dubbed the “11 Minutes Funeral Home.”

It held symbolic services in honor of everyone who has died by suicide in America this year.

According to Centers for Disease Control, about 132 people die by suicide in the United States every day, or one every 11 minutes.

Havas hopes to catch the attention of everyday people whose loved ones could be at risk. Discussions about mental health can be difficult, exhibit signage says, but they’re easier than grieving and simpler than planning a funeral.

“We’re trying to destigmatize it, very overtly,” said Myra Nussbaum, chief creative officer and president. “Suicide shouldn’t be a dirty little secret or a word that people are afraid to say.”

Will Russell, a senior strategist at Havas, was the creative force behind the project. The 10-hour run of the “11 Minutes Funeral Home” marks one year since Russell’s best friend died by suicide, he said.

“The most challenging part of this is that it’s deeply personal to me,” Russell said. “Addressing this head-on has been really important to me.”

The project was staffed on a volunteer basis for about a month. The group also consulted with suicide prevention organizations around Chicago, Nussbaum said.

Many Havas employees who joined the project — which took shape on weekends and nights — slowly shared their own stories of grief, she said. The experience was liberating for some and educational for others, Russell said.

Nussbaum, too, continues to mourn a close friend who died by suicide in his 40s.

“We wish he would have felt comfortable talking to us about it. But we also never asked,” Nussbaum said. “We never asked, and the person that’s suffering feels so much guilt and shame.”

Recent studies suggest that 135 people are affected by every suicide, with 15 to 30 deeply bereaved, according to the Centre for Suicide Prevention.

“Sometimes in the workplace, talking about this can make you feel like your job is in jeopardy and people are judging you,” Russell said. “But it was a relief to be able to be this candid.”

Russell said he was inspired by suicide awareness campaigns in the United Kingdom, and by gun violence awareness campaigns Havas had produced for the city.

With trigger warnings at the front door, the exhibit centered around a gleaming casket filled with symbolic “In Memoriam” notes — one for every suicide since the beginning of this year. Dressed casually in funeral black, staff added a new sheet to the coffin every 11 minutes.

Across the lobby, 16 gray plastic chairs faced the coffin in empty rows, as a wall-size timer counted down over and over from 11 minutes.

Each element of the exhibit included a note reminding viewers how much planning can be associated with grief, from selecting flowers to notifying other loved ones. The exhibit also directs viewers repeatedly to 988, the suicide and crisis phone hotline.

As of 2021, suicide is the second leading cause of death among those 10-14 and 20-34 years old, the CDC found.

Young LGBTQ+ people and veterans are also at particular risk, as well as Indigenous and Native Alaskan men and those who have previously attempted suicide.

“Deciding who to invite to a funeral service can be more overwhelming than you think,” the notes taped to the chairs read. “Decide to talk about suicide with your loved ones instead.”

The one-two punch of casket and hearse was meant to draw the attention of River North commuters and downtown tourists alike, Chief Strategy Officer Lance Koenig said. Both were lent to the installation by McInerney Central Chapel on the South Side, one of Chicago’s oldest funeral homes.

“It was a way to make it personal,” Koenig said. “It becomes a really powerful opportunity for us to make a statement with thousands of people walking by us every day.”

Elena Escobar, 23, stopped in at the “11 Minutes Funeral Home” after glimpsing the casket on her morning commute.

“The choice of words was very direct,” Escobar said. “I wasn’t expecting to see something about suicide right out on a public post.”

The South Side resident said the serious atmosphere made her think about the role of death and funeral rites in her own life.

“They did a great job by stating explicitly that talking about funeral arrangements is just a difficult thing,” Escobar said. “I’m a young person. I don’t know how to do that yet. It’s just a huge mystery.”

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