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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.
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.
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.