What Living One Block Away From A Funeral Home Has Taught Me About Death

Photographed by Alexandra Gavillet.
I haven't attended a funeral since I was a teenager, but it feels like I've crashed a couple dozen in the last year.
I pass the Joseph G. Duffy funeral home in Brooklyn on my way to and from work every day. I've seen massive floral displays being wheeled into the building and ornate caskets being wheeled out into hearses idling at the curb. I've walked alongside whole families dressed in their dreariest best, and I've had to cut through crowds of police officers in formal attire, flanked by bagpipers. Sometimes I walk by and the place is quiet, but when there's clearly a memorial service underway, I keep my head down, walk briskly, and just focus on catching my morning train.
When I first moved to the neighborhood, the idea of living a block away from a funeral home felt novel in a spooky-scary kind of way, like how I felt when I'd hold my breath passing a graveyard as a kid. I'd thrill at the sight of the hearse and even try to peek inside. Then, one evening a month or two after I moved, the novelty suddenly dissipated.
I emerged from the subway to see a group of elderly people in blazers and dry-cleaned dresses huddled under the awning in front of Joseph G. Duffy. Some of them were smoking, others kept their hands in their pockets, glancing around the corner occasionally, as if they were waiting for more of their friends to arrive. As I got closer, one of the men in the group made a joke, and the rest of them cracked up. I could hear them chatting after I passed them and their laughter seemed to follow me over the sounds of the street.
As someone who's only been to a handful of funerals, I associate them with pomp and circumstance and little else. Watching that group of strangers — friends casually catching up before going inside to mourn the death of someone they knew in life — brought my assumptions down to Earth and buried them six feet underground. The funeral home wasn't a house of horrors or an above-ground crypt, I realized. It was a safe place where the living could come to terms with death, then step out onto the sidewalk, light a cigarette, and return to the regular rhythm of life.
Even before I moved near the funeral home, I spent a lot of time thinking about death — specifically, my own. Like most people, I'm simultaneously fascinated by and scared of death. When I let myself linger on the subject of dying for too long, I end up with a list of logistical questions that, hopefully, I won't have to worry about for at least a few more years: Should I opt for a burial or a cremation? Do we have a family plot? How will I shoulder the guilt of what my chemically embalmed body will do to the environment (or will I be over it because I'll be dead)? Do they measure you to make sure the coffin fits? How will I keep my friends from telling an embarrassing story at the memorial service?
It was only after I decided to let the funeral home become one more thing I walk by (and not a point-and-look kind of landmark) that these questions lost some some of their weight. I highly doubt those people I passed were in the midst of reckoning with their own mortality, but they helped me do that with my own. Death is a part of life, I thought, before remembering I said I'd be home in time to watch The Bachelorette, and hurried on down the block.

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