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From his perspective, 1968 was a very good year. According to the New York City Department of Health's Survey of Vital Statistics, 1968 saw 91,169 people check out, with a death rate of 11.6 per 100,000 people. Meanwhile, 2007 (the most recent year for which there are statistics) saw only 54,073 deaths, with nearly half the death rate (6.5 per 100,000).
The irony lost on Ralph is not completely lost on his son, Richard, who also works in the home. "A 'good year' or a 'bad year' in our business is not necessarily the same for everyone else," he says.
The death rate has been declining nationally for decades, but it's doing so even faster in New York. This is bad news for the city's funeral homes, and it doesn't mean people are all that healthier.
"New York is a young town," says Richard. "Only the young, who are working hard, can afford to be here. Once you stop working, you just can't keep up." The long-time residents of Ozone Park, who would be prime clients, are moving to places like Florida to die.
One way to connect with new clients is through their pets, so Richard has founded Pet Cremation New York as a companion business within the funeral home. "Our motto is 'Pets Are Family, Too,' " says Richard. But after picking up a pet, delivering it to a crematorium, and returning it, there isn't a lot of profit. Most jobs aren't worth more than a couple hundred dollars—a fraction of human funerals. Yet, he says, "if someone sees you do a good job in helping them mourn their pets . . . ," well, they might just throw themselves Francisco's way when they kick it.
John D'Arienzo of the D'Arienzo Funeral Home in Williamsburg sees the even bigger picture: "It's a great way to guarantee future business," he says. "It teaches the younger generation that when something that you care about dies, you go pay your respects, you go to a funeral home and talk to a funeral director. You don't just throw it away."
But D'Arienzo wasn't always comfortable with the idea of handling pets. "Look at my name—it's as ethnic as you can get," he says. When their home was founded in 1934, his family's practice wasn't just Italian, "it was Neapolitan. We only handled people from Naples. People from Sicily, someone else handled them."
Pets in a traditional funeral home? "Frankly," he says, "I wasn't sure how my Italian clientele would react." But like many others now in the pet-death business, he became a convert from a personal experience he had as a pet owner. His wife had stage-four breast cancer, and her dog sat by her side throughout chemo. When the dog died, his wife wanted to memorialize it with the same dignity afforded to humans.
Still, to D'Arienzo's surprise, his clients have taken to the idea quite warmly. He does three to six pet intakes a week. But, like Richard Francisco, who is quick to say, "We're not doing Fido next to Grandma," D'Arienzo worried about people perceiving the commingling of human and pet services. There is a separate side entrance to the D'Arienzo Funeral Home for pets.
Intake is one thing; actual services, or wakes, are another. "I won't ruin the sanctity of the funeral home by having a wake for an animal," D'Arienzo says. But he hints that it's coming and that soon all human funeral homes will offer such services for pets. "I've been wrong before, and someone will come across with a load of money who wants to do it, and I'll be between a rock and a hard place. It's not a matter of if, but when."
Yes, the funeral business is changing, but in Queens, nothing appears to have changed at the Francisco Funeral Home—at least on the surface. The exterior is straight out of the '60s, and a large smokers' lounge, where mourners would once gather to remember the deceased over a pack of Pall Malls, probably needs the haze of cigarette smoke to give it any sense of life.
Adjacent to the lounge, a large death-product showroom has also failed to evolve. Caskets that look like Cadillacs, and cost as much, went out of fashion long before Cadillac itself was only a bailout away from needing a wake. The embalming room, where Ralph still prepares bodies, is also painfully out of step with the finances of the times. Ralph admits he could save $500 to $600 per body by outsourcing this task, a common practice in the corporatized death-care industry, but he has a funeral director's pride in his own work, and though he has allowed a few changes in his home, this is not one of them.
Changes are more apparent on the first floor of the home, where Richard works. Richard is a young, beefy fellow, with a massive spiderweb tattoo running up the length of an arm. Instead of a dark suit, he is dressed in a polo shirt and is often accompanied by a large bulldog.
Richard's pet-cremation business does have a physical presence within the home. Off from the main lobby, there is a mourning room with a suspiciously small altar. In sharp contrast to the tomb-like casket display of the basement, there is also a modern, petite display of urns and headstones that Richard manages. But these urns are heartbreakingly little. Instead of being inscribed with names like "Angelo" and "Gabriella," they are stamped "Fido" and "Rover." The halo-wearing puppies and kittens adorning these boxes can't hide their somber purpose: to hold a loved one, forever.