At JFK, Erhan Yildirim Clears Corpses For Takeoff

A wing and a prayer

American Airlines, which runs a heady business in the Caribbean and Latin America, flies several thousand a year, according to a nervous-sounding rep unwilling to get specific. The Turkish consulate says it certifies the shipping of two to three bodies each week, as does the Bangladeshi consulate. Austrian Airlines, which dominates the market to the former Yugoslavia, estimates that it ships between five and 10 people a week. (An Albanian funeral director in Brooklyn says that more than 80 percent of the immigrants from his region prefer to be buried in their homeland.) JetBlue flies about 25 bodies to Puerto Rico, and El Al says it ships between 40 and 50—mostly American-born Hasidic Jews from Brooklyn—to Israel for burial. Because Jewish law prohibits "maligning" the body, Israel is the only country that doesn't require embalming for the 12-hour flight. (Islamic law also prohibits disturbing the physical corpse, but so far those countries have made an exception for embalming.)

Shipping human remains is as old as migration itself. However, unlike the Bundren family in Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, who endure an exhausting nine-day journey across Mississippi to transport their mother's remains by wagon to her hometown, today's inanimate globetrotters benefit not only from the obvious improvements, such as air travel, but also from such little-known conveniences as the Jim Wilson Tray, a lightweight casket (named for the American Airlines engineer who invented it) specially designed to fit into airplanes.

Almost nobody paid attention to the shipping of bodies in airplane cargo holds until U.S. soldiers began to fall in Iraq and Afghanistan, and grieving families protested the practice of shipping their bodies back as freight, stuffed in the cargo bellies of commercial flights and denied traditional ceremonies. (The Pentagon put an end to this practice last year.) It's certainly a lucrative industry these days for the airlines, who can charge up to 10 times as much to ship a body as they do for regular cargo.

Yildirim's business predates the wars. In 1998, he was washing Muslim corpses in an Italian funeral home when he met Richard Costa, a funeral director since the early '80s. Costa had noticed a growing Muslim population with particular funeral customs that weren't being met: They not only wanted to ship the bodies home for burial, but also to have a family member or religious figure conduct such observances as the ritual washing and anointing with oils beforehand.

There was no funeral home to serve them back then, so Yildirim and Costa opened Islamic Funeral Services in the Piro Funeral Home, a historic storefront on DeKalb Avenue that had fallen into disuse. Piro's seems like the perfect spot for their business: It was where the bodies of Italian immigrants who worked in the nearby Navy Yards were prepared before they were shipped to Italy by boat.

In this business, there isn't time to waste: Because of Islamic law, the bodies must be washed, prayed over, and shipped within three days of death. Depending on the consulate and a country's regulations, the bodies can be shipped the same day. But the process can also be subject to frustrating delays.

The day before the body of the South Jersey diner owner is shipped, Yildirim is driving around his usual stomping grounds, Embassy Row in midtown, juggling his BlackBerry, cell phone, and cigarettes. As always, he's well-dressed. An NYPD badge glistens on his belt, a perk of his part-time job as a liaison between the cops and the Muslim community. The first stop on the day's agenda is the Turkish consulate, where Yildirim will sort out the paperwork for the Jersey restaurateur. After that, he'll go to the Bangladeshi consulate to make arrangements for a woman who passed away in Brooklyn that morning. The woman's son doesn't have the money to finance her last trip, but Sandwip, a Bangladeshi community organization, is slated to take care of the funeral costs and the flight on Emirates Airlines. (As a matter of policy, both the Pakistani and Bangladeshi airlines ship the bodies of citizens free of charge; Biman, the Bangladeshi carrier, used to fly out of JFK until last year, when the U.S. government discontinued flights because of fears that the airline's planes weren't safe for its live passengers.)

The final stop will be the Montenegrin consulate, where Yildirim is to arrange for a disinterment: The family of a man who was buried in upstate New York seven years ago has recently had second thoughts and now wants to ship him back home.

Yildirim parks his Audi Q7 near the U.N. and walks down Second Avenue, toward a small man in a white skullcap. The death consultant corners the man. "You're Bangladeshi, right?" he says, then asks directions to the consulate. The surprised man doesn't say a word; he just points in the direction of Yitzhak Rabin Way.

At the Bangladeshi consulate, a bare-bones fifth-floor office, Consul General Md. Shamsul Haque says he's upset that people go through all this trouble to bury family members back in the homeland. Bangladeshis, he contends, are less settled in American life than other immigrant groups. "My diplomacy is: Once you become a citizen, you should be buried here," Haque says. "I will tell the people: Get your body buried here and become an American. The next time they come, I will tell them." He glances at a pile of Bangladeshi newspapers and indicates that he hopes his comments will inspire an article on the topic.

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