Funeral Home Brings Closure to International Communities

By Zoe Weiner

The front office of Daniel J. Schaefer’s funeral home in Sunset Park could very well be a reality show.

Phones ring nonstop and its staff rush in and out, shouting hospital names, flight times and causes of death while Chip, a 4-pound Yorkie and Schaefer’s “unofficial mascot,” yapped like a car alarm at passersby outside. In a word, it’s managed madness.

“You know how many people want to make a reality show out of this place?” asked Pat Marmo, president of the landmark funeral home on 4th Avenue. Just outside its plain brick façade a touch of the cinematic underscored a sense of the unreal as a film crew shot a scene for an upcoming Jennifer Lopez TV show.

But on the other side of Schaefer’s door, deeper inside where there is calm and quiet, serious matters were being attended to with great care. A Muslim family contemplated what to put in the casket of their 14-year-old son before it shipped his remains to Saudi Arabia for burial.

“Nothing electronic,” shouted Marmo in his hard, Brooklyn accent over the barking dog, “They won’t let him through security.”

Schaefer’s Funeral Home first opened its doors in Sunset Park in 1880, and for much of its existence served a Jewish clientele. But to stay alive in a rapidly diversifying neighborhood, the funeral home had to change. Marmo took over Schaefer’s in 2006, and transitioned its operation to serve growing Hispanic, Chinese and Arabic communities in Sunset Park.

Shortly after taking over, Marmo built an Islamic chapel in the building, and founded International Funeral Services and Islamic International Funeral Services, which he operates out of the Schaefer’s offices. It offers every religious and cultural service imaginable, and specialize in shipping and repatriating remains.

“For a funeral home to have longevity,” Marmo said, “they need to be able to change with the neighborhood.”

The neighborhood, which is primarily working class, relies on Schaefer’s wide range of affordable services. They offer low-cost options of cremation, and have economical options for shipping bodies overseas. The funeral home staff also helps families with alternative types of funerals as a means of further cutting costs, and tailor their services to accommodate people’s wants and budgets.

The average price of a funeral in New York City is $8,000, but Schaefer’s standard services cost less than half of that. Marmo said he prides himself on being able to provide any type of service on any budget. For $3,600, a family can have a standard, no frills, service for their loved one.

Multicultural funeral homes like Schaefer’s are going to become more common in metropolitan places, said Gary Laderman, author of Rest in Peace: A Cultural History of Death and the Funeral Home in Twentieth-Century America, “If you look at the history of the funeral industry, it knows how to adapt,” he said in a telephone interview.

He noted that it has always been the responsibility of a community to have the resources to bury its dead. The most astute funeral home operators learned to capitalize on their capacity to meet this vital need, even as those needs varied as neighborhoods changed. The result, he said, has been businesses that thrive rather than simply survive.

Shipping bodies to immigrants’ home countries for burial has become an important part of a modern funeral home, experts said. “There is a deep desire to make sure your loved ones are buried in sacred space,” said Laderman.

For many immigrant families, American soil simply isn’t sacred enough, he said. Repatriating remains requires considerable expertise, handling exacting paperwork, even a passport for the deceased.

Being especially flexible and resourceful is also the mark of a modern funeral home, experts noted.

On a recent afternoon, the Schaeffer’s staff picked up an elderly Catholic woman’s body from Mount Sinai Hospital’s morgue in Manhattan to ready it for embalming; delivered an Indian man’s remains to John F. Kennedy International Airport to be flown back to his native Chennai; went to a Chinese home in Sunset Park to dress a body for its casket; and, finally, delivered the ashes of an African-American veteran to the man’s mourning, elderly aunt.

The veteran’s aunt, accepted the granite urn bearing her nephew’s ashes with a tears glistening in her eyes.

“Thank you, thank you so much,” was all she said. Marmo squeezed the frail woman’s shoulder and helped her fold the American flag to be used at the memorial service.

In recent years, Schaefer’s business has grown far beyond the reach of Sunset Park. Marmo, who’s Italian, said he regularly receives customer referrals and has built strong relationships with hospitals from all over the region helping him serve practically every race, class, color and creed.