James Donofrio has worked in a funeral home since age 12. He's now 57.
This article originally appeared on VICE US.
The basement of James Donofrio's funeral home in Coney Island contains a veritable cemetery of paperwork. There's a heft of permits and certificates that come with the process of mourning, and Donofrio has about 15 feet of filing cabinets dedicated to the bureaucracy of death. The lives of tens of thousands of people are tucked away in his collection of now-discolored folders—though the poetic significance is perhaps lessened by the closet next door, which contains boxes of ashes dating back to the 60s—decades before he came to own the place in 1988.
It's strange how the remains of loved ones come to be left behind; in a recent case, a brother thought his sister had the ashes, and the sister thought the same. Donofrio is legally obligated to store the remains for only 180 days—but he holds onto them anyway, diligently sending certified letters to every contact twice a year.
"I could bury them—I could do a lot of things with them," he says. "But I keep them in case someone calls me and says, 'Hey, where's my mother?'" He says this with a shrug, the physical manifestation of the response, "What can you do?" There's an obvious intensity that comes with being the sole chaperone of the last remaining physical evidence of a person's existence, but Donofrio has managed it every day of the week since he was a young man. He has to.
He believes there is some sort of afterlife or existence—that you ought to treat people well in life, because "you're going to see them all in death." For this and other professional reasons, Donofrio "[tries to] do right by everyone I work with. That's what I'd hope for myself, and what I want for my staff. I want everyone that I deal with to be treated as I would want to be treated."
At 57, Donofrio has an old-school-Italian way about him, in which he simultaneously is conversational and abrupt. He asks questions before cutting off the answer with another question; he calls people in his car and says, "Alright, goodbye" less than a minute later. He has a round face and a round belly, and when we meet at 7:30 in the morning on a sunny July day, he wears a loose white undershirt and a gold chain while finishing some permit work. Later, he'll change into a suit, and throughout the day—which includes two funerals before lunch—the suit comes to represent the many different types of jobs he takes on.
Many of his tasks are administrative, although a few weeks ago he had to help dig a grave; a few times a week, he retrieves and embalms bodies. "Mortician" is an outdated term—in part because "funeral director" has replaced it, a title that requires being intimately aware of the rules and regulations that dictate how the dead must be laid to rest.
Much of Donofrio's work includes doling out his encyclopedic knowledge of the process. Dying is the most obvious intersection of church and state, with a series of laws and beliefs jumbling together into an overwhelming venn diagram of to-do lists and requirements—like whether the details of a crime make the victim's family eligible for compensation, or how bodies are shipped to Mexico. If he's shipping overseas, as is often the case, things get more complicated; right now he's in the middle of dealing with the consulate of Khuzestan, who apparently has no idea how to handle foreign remains.
"That's Mrs. [Redacted]," he says, nodding to the gray coffin in the back of his Chrysler. "She's getting a gypsy funeral later." In Donofrio's early days in the industry, "gypsy funeral" meant there was music, catering, even sometimes a bar at the viewing and cemetery. Sometimes the family would roast an entire pig in the parking lot of the funeral home. There won't be much of that today, though. "These are some broke gypsies," he explains.
Before that, we're headed to Hebrew Free Burial, a nonprofit association that provides funerals for indigent Jewish people. Donofrio is the funeral director for the Staten Island wing, and he has to clean the tahara room at the cemetery, where he ritually prepared the body of the 88-year-old woman named Vivienne who is about to be buried.
"Listen, I'm a Catholic, but I deal with every religion," he says. "I deal with Jewish people, Muslims, and Buddhists, and I have to know more than basic information about all these religions."
Driving up to the cemetery, he's greeted by the staff rabbi, who's wearing a straw hat and looks more prepared for a day of gardening than a somber religious ceremony—though the emphatically "green" nature of Jewish funerals makes that oddly apt attire. (Jewish bodies are not embalmed; they're clothed in linen with caskets made of wood to facilitate a return to the Earth uninterrupted by chemicals.)
Before the funeral, Donofrio has to wash down the mikveh, a bath used for immersion in many Jewish rituals, and here for cleansing the dead. Splashing bleach on the rectangular, sort of coffin-shaped marble tub, he turns to me and grimaces, "You see why I'm not wearing a suit?"
When Donofrio changes later for the actual funeral, the rabbi sees him all dressed up and giggles. "Superman," the rabbi says to me, as if making an introduction. "Clark Kent!"
Vivienne appears to have no family, but a friend named Sonia is there to eulogize her. The two met in the 90s through Vivienne's work with rare birds—she was a wildlife rehab expert, who often kept ailing fowl in her Midtown apartment. Sonia is calm and well-spoken, only tearing up once the coffin is lowered into the ground. Besides Donofrio, the rabbi, and a friend Sonia has brought along for support, there are a group of older Jewish men who volunteer at Hebrew Free simply by being present at the service. Together they are known as a minyan, or a group of at least 10 Jewish men over the age of 13, whose presence is required for public worship.
"My mother is the only Spanish-speaking person in her area of Williamsburg," Sonia says to the makeshift congregation, toying with the Puerto Rican flag bracelet on her wrist. "She keeps busy helping orthodox Jews turn on lights or open doors [on the Sabbath] ... I want to thank your religion and your culture for everything.
"This is exactly what Vivienne would have wanted," she continues. "She cared so much about the birds, about nature." With that, a flurry of chirping sounds from a nearby tree. The rabbi points and smiles.
Dying is the most obvious intersection of church and state, with a series of laws and beliefs jumbling together into an overwhelming venn diagram of to-do lists
Donofrio has been working in funeral homes since he was 12 years old, when he was mostly helping clean up the Galgano Funeral Home near his parents' house in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. By 16, he was taking on more responsibilities; after he graduated from high school, it only made sense for him to go to Mcallister Institute of Funeral Services after two years studying liberal arts at Kingsborough Community College.
After graduating, Donofrio took the New York State test to be certified as a funeral director. He worked an internship after passing and was hired by Pyramid Trade Services, a company that removes and embalms bodies employed by funeral homes in need of extra help. Eventually, he co-bought the business he now independently owns, Blair-Mazzarella Funeral Home. He has a staff of three who help with the day-to-day tasks, as well as a series of per diem employees that includes a Russian interpreter, a Chinese interpreter, and a woman who does hair and makeup on the bodies. Still, there's a bulk of the business for which Donofrio can't quite delegate. After a lifetime in the industry, he has a level of expertise that just can't be taught.
On the way over to the second funeral of the morning, there are a lot more phone calls, including preparations for a woman living out her final days in hospice.
There's a level of desensitization you experience when you deal with death every day. Donofrio isn't callous, though—he's professional. Things can be hard, like the time he got a call from a family while their daughter's murder was airing on the nightly news, or a funeral from a few years ago when he had to hire security to keep out a woman's husband because he was suspected of killing her. He avoids the most painful elements of his day-to-day life by keeping busy; still, when speaking about death, there's an unmistakable sting in his voice that betrays a lack of numbness.
Ironically, Donofrio won't be having a funeral, and he doesn't think about it much. "I'd like to be cremated," he says without hesitation when asked. "But I haven't gotten around to buying one of the niches at Regina Pacis." That's a basilica with a columbarium in Bensonhurst, one that he is very proud to have helped plan, especially since he's been parishioner since he was a kid.
"I'm on the board there," he adds, his tone suddenly swatting away the severity again. "But I don't get a discount, you know. Not even one dollar."
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