At JFK, Erhan Yildirim Clears Corpses For Takeoff

A wing and a prayer

After Yildirim's consulate rounds, he drives back to Piro's, where he finds the Bangladeshi woman's son—a former television actor with a master's in philosophy—sitting disconsolately in the dim lobby. His mother had had a deteriorating liver condition, and he hasn't worked for months. Ironically, the two were supposed to travel to Bangladesh that very week.

"We had arranged a trip, but we did not think it would be like this," he says quietly. "Now she will sleep in her land."

Trying to cheer him up, Yildirim asks about his acting career and reminds him to take comfort in the fact that he is fulfilling his mother's final wishes. The small man manages a smile.

Later, Yildirim says that it gives him particular pleasure to see families coming into the funeral home "crying, and going out laughing." He seems to love his work, and he appears proud to have accomplished so much in New York—he came here in 1994 and collected soda cans for recycling to help pay his way through classes at Hunter College.

But since his father passed away in 2006, his job has inspired mixed feelings. He no longer washes bodies in the morgue, instead doling out that responsibility to others: "I am reminded constantly," he explains.

From his desk computer, Yildirim calls up a home video taken during his father's funeral service, a two-day ritual that began shortly after his death in Germany and ended in his small hometown in Turkey. (Yildirim coordinated all the last-minute details from the States.) The scene is a sunlit village full of olive trees: A couple of hundred men trail a coffin along wide dirt roads; crowds of women sit on carpets and stare at the camera, passing the hours in silence.

"In Turkey, life stops for a funeral," Yildirim says. "When you drive by a graveyard, you turn off the music and you get out and pray. Here, we are so rushed."

Then he turns to attend to his BlackBerry, which has been ringing the entire time.

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