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When Erhan Yildirim drives his 2006 Cadillac hearse up to the shipping dock at John F. Kennedy International Airport, the workers greet him by his first name. He's usually with his driver, Ahmet Tosum, and the two Turks cut a curious image as they unload a casket alongside a Whole Foods truck. The trusty Ahmet sports a permanent 5 o'clock shadow and half-tucked-in shirt. The chain-smoking, cologne-wearing Yildirim, on the other hand, dresses in designer suits from his native land and bursts with bonhomie. He shakes so many hands that, if this weren't the cargo dock and he wasn't about to ship a body to Bangladesh or Albania, you'd mistake him for a friendly European diplomat.
Yildirim just may be the most amiable death consultant on this side of the Atlantic.
When he isn't consoling grief-stricken families, the Bensonhurst resident spends his time in consulates and airlines, pushing through "burial transfer permits" and other official documents while deftly negotiating a jumble of international regulations. Like any good diplomat, he hobnobs with his associates: He hosted some airline reps and consular officials earlier this month at his 35th birthday party at a Russian restaurant in Brighton.
It all pays off: Yildirim says that more than half of his customers—Muslim immigrants from Egypt, Turkey, Pakistan, the Balkans, and Bangladesh—prefer that their loved ones be buried in their native land. When these people want to ship their dearly departed out on their last overseas trip—from Brooklyn, Jersey, or even Las Vegas—the gracious Yildirim is the person they call.
"Now why would I want to be buried in Turkey?" he asks, as he and Ahmet help a Turkish Airlines employee hoist a casket onto a giant scale. "In Turkey, someone will come and put a flower on my grave. Someone will watch over me and visit me and pray for my soul."
It's a hot, sticky Friday morning. The mahogany casket is encased in a pine box with the word "Head" scrawled in bold writing on one end. Lined with metal siding (to prevent embalming fluid from leaking out, according to international regulations), it weighs in at almost 450 pounds. Shipping it will cost the family around $2,500. (Even though that's almost double the airline's rate for other kinds of cargo, it's still somewhat cheaper to bury a family member in Turkey, where burial plots are free, than in one of the dozen or so special Muslim sections in Brooklyn's cemeteries.)
Inside the casket is a 57-year-old Turkish man who owned a diner in South Jersey for almost two decades. According to custom, an imam had washed his body with fragrant oils in a Trenton mosque on the previous day. The family had held a janazah—the universal Arabic word for "funeral." The body is bound for Istanbul, where it will be picked up and transported to the small interior city of Giresun, and then to another janazah to be attended by the man's huge extended family.
"I always handle the bodies with extra care," says Cetin Colak, who has worked as a cargo manager for Turkish Airlines for more than a decade. "I never take my eyes off of them." He says his concern is a matter of Turkish pride. However, accidents do happen, even to the dead: A few weeks ago, in a Lufthansa warehouse, a forklift sliced into a casket, and the body had to be sent back to the funeral home for repair. Colak used to work in cargo at the Istanbul airport, where each week more than 100 bodies of Turks who lived in Germany arrived for burial in their homeland.
Turkish Air ships only about two bodies a week from JFK, and the Jersey restaurateur was shipped out intact.
These days, a swath of funeral homes in New York and New Jersey has carved out a niche within what is already a niche market: helping disconsolate and often confused immigrant families make their way through the complex procedures that govern these shipments.
For Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, and Mexicans, the Bronx-based citywide chain known as Ortiz Funeral Homes dominates the market, airline reps say. For Orthodox Jews, there's Pincus Mandel Inc., near Ocean Parkway in Brooklyn. And for Muslims, who funeral directors say have a strong preference for native burials, there are Islamic funeral homes, including a big one in Queens and Yildirim's outfit in Brooklyn, Islamic Funeral Services. And there's Scott Nimmo's Bergen Funeral Service in north Jersey, a veritable clearinghouse for the shipping of bodies. Nimmo says he specializes in negotiating airline prices and documents for less-prepared funeral homes.
Just how many souls fly out of JFK each month? No one seems to know for sure—airlines cagily guard this information, and the International Air Transport Association doesn't keep tabs. The rough numbers appear to be growing in tandem with global migration and the arrival of new immigrant groups, but bigger and more established immigrant populations are the loss leaders. Mexican and Puerto Rican families, because of their homeland's proximity, have always provided a steady traffic in bodies, say airline reps, while the interest among immigrants from farther away waxes and wanes.