Old Enough To Die In Brooklyn: The Mortician’s Lament

by

05/10/2012

Neighborhood: Cobble Hill

Old Enough To Die In Brooklyn: The Mortician’s Lament
Photo by Boston Public Library

When the previous resident of my apartment, who was still living in it when my girlfriend and I viewed it for the first time, told us that the funeral home downstairs hardly ever held services, the effect on me was less than palliative. Jenna nodded thoughtfully in the way real estate shoppers are prone, apparently already aware of the macabre activities below. But I was quite taken aback. I hadn’t bothered to read the cursive blue text that decorated the building’s white stone outer walls, vaguely assuming, perhaps, that we might live above a diner, or a Greek bakery. A quick glance out the living room window, however, to a sign suspended above the busy sidewalk below, confirmed that just beneath us stood the Dominic J. Cusimano Court Street Funeral Home. If we took the apartment, we would indeed be keeping company with the dead, even if they were few.

The tenant, a clammy, heavyset woman in her thirties, bustled through an obstacle course of whirring floor fans that seemed to do little to mitigate her harried, overheated condition. She pointed to light fixtures and patches of wall in need of minor repairs, and spoke highly of the time she and her husband had spent in the apartment. She emphasized that though they were breaking their lease, they were by no means fleeing. The couple had unexpectedly purchased a home elsewhere in Brooklyn and felt eager to occupy it. “I don’t think I’ve seen a single funeral the whole time we’ve been here,” she told us for the second or third time.

The apartment, I had to acknowledge, was well suited to us. It had a comfortable living room and a large bedroom with a nook that would make for me a practical workspace. It possessed certain old-world details: pressed-tin ceilings in the kitchen and living room, and crown molding throughout. Even the oddly tilted hardwood floors proffered a bit of charming whimsy. Rent was modest and the building much nearer the subway than any property we’d seen in the preceding weeks. Once I’d accepted that we would enjoy no convenient baklava, no spanakopita or stuffed grape leaves—that any fringe benefits we might incur as a result of our relationship with the landlord lay with any luck in the very distant future—the woman’s assurances about the business’s fallow state began to sound comforting. The facility below was no workshop of ghastly human taxidermy, merely a quiet office in a retired state of final dormancy. An ex-beast gone blind and toothless with age. After a brief caucus in the privacy of the bathroom, Jenna and I emerged resolved: We would take it.

Prior to attending college outside Boston, I had lived the whole of my life on one block of a tiny colonial town a few miles from Philadelphia. The summer before I entered kindergarten, my family moved from one side of the Hluchan’s immaculate redbrick home to the other, into an imposing stucco affair that proved, over the years, to require literally inexhaustible repairs. Floors were refinished and, some years later, replaced. Walls were painted and shingles flung from the rooftop. After years of carrying buckets of muddy water from the basement in the wake of thunderstorms, my father commissioned the installation of waterproof lining and a sump pump. Long before my parents became aware of the necessity for any of these projects, however, during their days of house hunting, my father felt drawn again and again to a particular sort of home.

Several were scattered about the area. Each built of clean, precise brick, with tasteful, white-pillared porticoes and mullioned windows. The owners seemed to share a landscaper; for each lawn presented martial trimness and their hedges appeared plastic in their perfectness. Lights rarely brightened these interiors, at least not in any way visible from the street, and an unnatural serenity seemed to pervade the properties. These were hushed and leafless grounds. To my father, for whom cleanliness and quietude know few superiors, they seemed ideal locales. “Here is nice house,” he would say driving through town, dropping the article in his characteristic eastern European fashion.

At some point early in my childhood, my father began to do the family’s grocery shopping, and he quickly acquired a reputation for not reading labels. As a result, our pantry often held jars of saltless peanut butter and tins of anchovies he had mistaken for sardines, and which, in due course, found their way to food drives. This ignorance of labels and signs assured his repeated disappointment in finding that each winsome home he identified from the car was, of course, a funeral parlor. Perhaps I inherited something of this trait, if such a thing is heritable, for I too neglected at first to notice the abundant signage that tags my building as a mortuary. It seems fitting, though, that some 20 years after my father coveted the funeral facilities in my hometown, I managed to locate a building in Brooklyn in which, despite its funereal purpose, I am welcome to stay.

Mr. Cusimano—that is, Dominic J., my landlord—has a son, Robert, a managing director at an investment bank, who describes his father as “the last of the Mohicans.” The lone remaining practitioner of a business that once sustained several branches of the family. Mr. Cusimano’s grandfather arrived in Brooklyn from Sicily in 1929 with his wife and a three-year-old boy who would grow to become Mr. Cusimano’s father. The couple established their first storefront mortuary on Kane Street, in modern day Cobble Hill. Sacred Hearts Catholic Church stood just across the street, and its congregants supplied a natural customer base until progress intruded some 12 years later in the form of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, whose advance saw the demolition of both buildings. The Cusimanos re-established themselves a few blocks away at the corner of Court and Baltic Streets, in a building that has served for subsequent generations as a place of both business and residence.

His grandparents, Mr. Cusimano tells me one morning in his funeral home’s front parlor—known formerly as the smoking room— ministered to a community of factory workers and longshoremen so overwhelmingly Italian that the couple’s deeply broken English represented no impediment to commerce. “We were part of the neighborhood,” he says. “We shopped in the stores. We treated people right and when they had a need they would call us.” During World War Two, his father’s bilingualism proved a boon to the neighborhood and served to further establish the business at the heart of the community. Italian immigrants, especially mothers desperate for contact with sons away at distant fronts, arrived in the foyer almost daily to enlist the teenager’s aid in translating and transcribing correspondence. “There were some Saving Private Ryan type situations,” Mr. Cusimano says with evident pride.

In those days, and during the years his father and two uncles ran things, several funerals a week represented the standard pace of business. “We used to get a couple hundred people in here,” he says, indicating the room’s cramped, dingy spread, and the small chapel toward the building’s rear, where bodies are laid for viewing. For decades, whole extended families and networks of friends and their children from the old country and new lived on the surrounding blocks. When a member of the community passed, they often turned up at the Cusimano home for 72-hour wakes that culminated in floral crescendos with a funeral on the fourth day. “It’d be standing room only,” Mr. Cusimano says wistfully.

Since taking the helm some three decades ago he has seen business slow nearly to standstill. Two satellite locations have shuttered and sold. The Dominic J. Cusimano Court Street Funeral Home hosts few services and almost no wakes. The funerals it does perform last only a day. On a good week, it will have one. Mr. Cusimano does not blame death industry conglomerates that have claimed a great portion of the market, or the increased preference of the public for cremation. He does not blame the five other local funeral directors, some of whom, he says, employ underhanded tactics to attract the patronage of the bereaved. “The neighborhood is just entirely different,” he says. “Go out on the street and you hardly see anyone over 50.”

It’s true. On the sidewalk beneath our living room windows, Bugaboos far outnumber Rascals. Where Sicilian stevedores and their families once shopped and gathered, young couples steer scooter-borne progeny around labradoodles and sidewalk antique galleries, fair-trade cappuccinos in hand. The odd pork store or bakery remains, but other storefronts—the cobblers, tailors, butchers and fishmongers that once catered to fervent old-world demand—have largely dissipated. It is not gentrification as such, however, that has sapped Mr. Cusimano’s business.

“Everybody’s all over the place,” he tells me, meaning families formerly resident to the neighborhood, many of which have relocated to the suburbs of Long Island and New Jersey, to Arizona and Florida. The corner of Court and Baltic no longer represents a nexus for newly immigrated Italians and their children; it has not for some time. Mr. Cusimano estimates the exodus began in earnest in the 1950s. Descendants of the family’s first customers have spread across the country and beyond, and increasingly few hearken to traditional loyalties when the time comes to make final arrangements. “The children don’t know who to call, so they use someone local,” Mr. Cusimano says. “Or they say, ‘Why should we call Cusimano?’” Still, he does not begrudge these flouting offspring, who are likely merely ignorant or practical, or simply see no reason to return to Brooklyn to bury their dead, to do as those that came before had done. Mr. Cusimano’s daughters, after all, are lawyers, and his son the aforementioned financier.

We did not observe a single funeral in our first months living above the Dominic J. Cusimano Court Street Funeral Home. I went frequently to the mortuary’s office to speak with John, the superintendent—an enormous, cloudy-eyed man who received packages for us in our absence—and could not imagine, based on the facility’s interior condition, that anyone would hire the venue. The parlor was a dim, musty room, outfitted with gray industrial carpeting and mismatched yard sale furniture. Crooked family pictures from a variety of eras hung from the walls, and odd luggage pieces and half-opened Fed Ex packages lay strewn haphazardly about. In one corner, a sprawling model trainscape presided with a somehow proprietary air. A yellowed and claustrophobic alcove, which passed for a front office, stood behind a sliding glass window with a metal shelf, as can often be seen at ticket counters. The overall effect was of a rail station in desuetude. In its apparent ineligibility to host funerals, this tableau provided some reassurance. John insisted, however, that Mr. Cusimano had an active business, and that things had merely gotten a little quiet for the moment.

Quiet, near silent, they remained for many weeks. Though returning at each day’s end to a mortuary proved at first an eerie experience, a memento mori in constant refrain, the structure’s disuse began to take on a semi-comic quality. Here was this big old creaking building dedicated to stuffing and painting corpses that seemed never to arrive, to be altogether in short supply. A hearse came and went but ferried only the living. The streets were full of the chatter of new parents, the squeak of stroller wheels. In Cobble Hill, it seemed, the mortician had with the VCR repairman joined the ranks of technicians whose services had lurched into irrelevancy. Death had become somehow rare, incongruous with the present community. Like an outbreak of bubonic plague in the American West, something very nearly amusing in its outrageous anachronism. A line from a Hemingway story looped in my head: “(Nick) felt quite sure he would never die.”

Downstairs, though, the local cessation of human demise itself represented a fatal portent. Sitting on a worn velvet sofa in the old smoking room in a preppy salmon-colored oxford shirt and olive cords that belie his gruff local accent, Mr. Cusimano, gray and in his sixties, expresses an irremediable sort of regret. He mourns the passage of time. His family, he estimates, has hosted more than 10,000 funerals since 1929. “We got to know thousands of people,” he says with a look that is at once warm and distant. “Wherever we go, anywhere in the world, we run into them.” It is their absence he laments, that they have passed on to whatever their futures held, and that they will not return to him. He misses the camaraderie of the old neighborhood, the community of immigrants and their children that greeted on another by name in the street.

I get the impression he misses the bustle and call of Italian women through the parlor—after his young father to translate their letters—long before he was ever born. Profits are way off, but they concern him little, and he makes limited efforts to attract new business. It would only be strangers, after all. The property is worth a small fortune and Mr. Cusimano receives offers almost every week. But great sentiment attaches to the dank old place, and he is reluctant to sell. He remembers when this part of Brooklyn had residents old enough to die. He remembers the children who grew up and fled to the suburbs, where they lay their dead in neat brick houses with white columns. Soon, he seems to think, he too will take his leave.

This funeral parlor, it appears to me after six months in residence, was never any ghastly workshop after all. Many have laid below at their final rest, it’s true. But funerals, as my mother told me many years ago, are for the survivors. The places where they take place must be too. And who are the survivors, but all of us? I cannot wish for people to die, but they are dying, of course. Somewhere, if not in Cobble Hill. Maybe it would be possible to route a few bodies to the Dominic J. Cusimano Court Street Funeral Home. Maybe a little upswing would inspire Mr. Cusimano to clear out the clutter and straighten family portraits. Maybe the business could regain its footing, though it wouldn’t be the same, I know. I almost wish I could see it working now, in the clamor of the old neighborhood. I wouldn’t even mind sharing real estate with the bodies. I just know it’d be something to see it humming along in the infancy of the Cusimanos’ faded and repurposed world. A crossroads and a meeting place, amidst all the living and the dead.

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§ 6 Responses to “Old Enough To Die In Brooklyn: The Mortician’s Lament”

  • I enjoyed this story a lot. It has a quiet dignity to it that I appreciate. And I found quite touching, the idea of the author and his girlfriend–at first, put off by the thought of bodies arriving at their house–winding up almost wishing for the funeral business there to pick up again, both for the sake of their funeral-parlor-owning landlord, but also to revive a former tradition in the neighborhood, which the author describes so well.

  • Auri says:

    I am 56, living in Miami since 1966. Between the ages of 5-8 I lived at 249 Baltic and I vividly remember the funeral home. So sorry it was sold…I had always hoped to revisit the area where I was such a happy little girl and the funeral home was a landmark.

  • Emory says:

    I lived in this apartment in 2012-2013. It was an excellent place that I enjoyed living! Was sad to see it converted.

  • Emory says:

    I’m assuming you lived on the third floor?

  • Matthew says:

    I have read this article several times. I always cry at the end. My career as a funeral director began in a Boston neighborhood. I return to that area from time to time and recognize nothing and no one. The neighborhood families are all gone, the parlor now shuttered. Churches have closed or merged and even the grit moved out. I pursued my own dreams and left, too. Following a future, however, does not mean something will be greater than your past. Age has taught me this. I miss my previous life and the way things used to be. I trust Mr. Cusimano would agree with me. I pray he can fill this void that I too struggle with. Peace.

  • Matthew says:

    I am a funeral director and trained in Boston. When I visit the old neighborhood I do not recognize anything or anyone. Even the grit moved out. The old parlor now shuttered. I have read this article more than once. I always cry at the end.

§ Leave a Reply

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