On Staten Island, Funeral Directors have Front-Row Seats to a Show They Don't Want to Attend
Sitting in a dim, wood-paneled room at the Casey McCallum Rice South Shore Funeral Home, Tim Rice talks of 47 years as a funeral director.
"It's a tough business," says Rice, 69. "I actively discouraged my two sons from ever becoming a part of it."
But, as the opioid crisis continues to take its hold on Staten Island, Rice finds his job to be increasingly difficult.
"I don't know how to begin to convey my deep, deep sadness for the toll it's taking on our community."
Located in Great Kills on Staten Island's south shore - where about 26% of Staten Island's population resides - Rice's funeral home is in the heart of the epidemic. In 2016, 48.2% of all overdose deaths on Staten Island occurred on the Island's south shore. More than 50% of those occurred in the 122nd police precinct, which serves Great Kills, and is three miles from Rice's funeral home.
Rice recalls one funeral that hit too close to home.
"One of my son's classmates from grade school was out to lunch with his mother," Rice says. "A really good kid. Everybody loved him. And he just excused himself, went into the bathroom and essentially never came out. He just needed to get his fix."
The mother, Rice says, realized what was going on only when the EMS came into the restaurant and rushed toward the bathroom.
"I'm very close to his uncles," adds Rice. "And his mom, she was a single parent who did right by her two sons. They're just a great family. And it just shows you it has nothing to do with your background, really. It's just a terrible illness. That's all."
What makes it more difficult, adds Rice, is taking grieving parents through the process of burying their child.
"The parents are obviously rarely prepared" for funeral costs, says Rice. Even if families already own burial plots, sudden deaths are usually unaccounted for. "So, in addition to the emotional cost on the parents, we're tacking on a $10,000 to $15,000 bill to put their kid in the ground."
"It's really difficult for us too," adds Rice. "When it's a natural or expected death, it's hard. But when it's an overdose, and so unexpected, it's even harder for us to try and stay professional about this."
South Shore of Staten Island as defined by the New York State Department of Health. Map: Zein Jardaneh.
Six miles southwest of Great Kills lies the town of Tottenville, which has also seen many opioid deaths.
"I've been in the business for 35 years, and it's the first time I've seen so many," says Paul Pizzo, 55, an owner at Bedell-Pizzo Funeral Homes.
"I'm looking at a beautiful 25- or 30-year-old girl full of potential, laying on the embalming table. Or a handsome young kid. And it just kills you knowing how they died," Pizzo says. "And the pressure on the family… They've lost their child."
The close view of the toll of opioid overdoses has not been easy for Pizzo. "We really started feeling it about five years ago," he says. "But as time goes on, I can't say you get used to it, but you just learn how to deal with it."
For Rice, the impact on the community makes the situation more difficult. "We're a small, tight-knit community," he says. "We see these people we care about who have gone through the [rehab] programs, that seem to be doing very well and then fall off the wagon."
Pizzo is not as forgiving. "As time goes on you're just like, why did they do this? Why does this keep happening?"
One particular incident haunts Pizzo.
"One day we had a wake for a young fellow that died of an overdose. I walk out into our parking lot, and there's a bunch of kids hanging out there. And as I get closer, I realize there's a drug deal going on right there."
"I look at the kid who's selling and start yelling 'Are you kidding me?' and they all start to splinter off. I just started yelling at them, 'There's a kid inside laying in a casket that overdosed on this stuff, and now you're selling and buying it out here? … It made me so mad."
Funeral directors have noticed that families are more forthcoming about the cause of death, both within their funeral homes and in public.
Tim Rice, a funeral Director at the Casey McCallum Rice South Shore Funeral Home. Photo: Zein Jardaneh
"Overdoses in the past were kind of like a dark secret," says Rice. "Families wouldn't even share that with us, let alone in the obituaries, and we wouldn't know until we became aware of medical histories." Rice and Pizzo both compared the secrecy to the stigma associated with the AIDS epidemic in the 80's and 90's.
"But …people are now more forthcoming because they know that they really shouldn't be embarrassed about it," Pizzo says.
"They realize that when you say he or she died of an opioid overdose or succumbed to their addiction, it wakes people up."
Overdose deaths decreased 26% last year, according to the Staten Island District Attorney's Office. But funeral-home directors are skeptical.
"We don't keep track, but my instinct is no, the number hasn't gone down," says Rice.
"All I know is we did more [overdose] funerals last year than we've ever done before," adds Pizzo. "I don't know where they get their numbers."