NY Times Drug Epidemic Article
Monday, October 10, 2016 to Sunday, October 01, 2017
They are not like other mourners. They are raw. “Hysterical crying,” said Jackie Berger, a florist.
Some arrive at the other extreme, showing quiet resignation, even relief.
“They knew this day was coming,” said Frank Lettera, a funeral director.
They are the parents and relatives of young men and women who died on Staten Island after overdosing on heroin. The grieving families are passing through the rituals of death in numbers never seen before: a record 72 suspected overdoses so far this year. That number far surpasses the previous record of 41, in 2014.
Florists and funeral homes on Staten Island have had an uncomfortably close view of the rising death toll. There are a limited number of these businesses on the island, and many of those who work in them said in interviews last week that they had helped lay overdose victims to rest. They described the broad range of emotions on display within this subsection of grief, from denial to blame — of others, of oneself — to disbelief.
“It’s insane,” said Ms. Berger, of Eltingville Florist. “It’s every week. Some weeks I feel like we have five kids. Once one comes in, we’ll have another one in a few days. I don’t know if they had the same batch or what.”
She dutifully takes the orders: carnations; roses; arrangements shaped like broken hearts, or bleeding ones with red streamers; arrangements with sports themes indicating a love of the Mets or the Yankees, the Giants or the Jets. Absent are the sorts of tributes that those who die later in life receive: loving parent, beloved husband or wife.
“The family’s been robbed of all these things that could happen,” said Kevin Moran, a funeral director at the John Vincent Scalia Home for Funerals.
Mr. Lettera, of Hanley Funeral Home, began his work in 1983. “If we had one overdose every two years, that was a big deal,” he said. There is no comparison to what has happened in recent months.
“At one point in the funeral home, we had three overdoses all laid out together,” he said. “All different ages, all different walks of life.”
The young people in the coffins — and the friends who come to say farewell — look different from those of past years. “You used to have an overdose from someone in the bad neighborhood; it was their lifestyle,” Mr. Lettera said. “The kids who hung out with him looked like trouble. Now, they’re gentlemen. They’re ladies.”
Mr. Moran estimated that he had arranged about 100 funeral services for people who died of overdoses in the past five years. He posts portraits beside the names of the dead on the announcement board in the lobby, which directs visitors to the proper rooms. The pictures of the overdose cases show young, unlined faces that are jarring beside the much older ones for other funerals.
He puts the overdose deaths in Chapel B because it is the largest. Wakes for young people bring crowds.
“Most young people have a big circle of friends,” Mr. Moran said. “They have a sibling or two, and you have all their friends,” along with parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles. “The only person who won’t show up at your wake is your dealer,” he added. “You’re no good to him.”
But what the dealers sell is close at hand. “You have a wake here, and you go outside and somebody’s snorting coke,” Mr. Moran said. “You hear in the lobby, ‘I need a pill.’ Are you kidding?”
He said he would gladly do without this busy source of work.
“I don’t want this business,” Mr. Moran said. “I don’t want to deal with it. People think that we don’t feel anything. We’re not robots.” He has two daughters in their 20s. “This tears you apart,” he said.
Ms. Berger said a mother and son entered her flower shop last month and saw a broken-heart arrangement that read “Beloved Son.” It was for the funeral of a young man who had died from an overdose.
The mother and son, it turned out, were there for the same reason. They ordered the same arrangement.
“I have kids,” Ms. Berger said, adding of the mother, “I don’t even know how she’s standing.” Her work, once so often joyful, has peeled away a veneer. “I don’t want to live here anymore,” she said.
Chad Cannizzaro, of Carroll’s Florist, said funerals for the elderly were different. “It was sad, but it was a life that was lived,” he said. “It doesn’t seem to be that way on Staten Island anymore.”
Funeral directors have seen their jobs change to include the role of counselor to parents.
“There’s a lot of guilt,” Mr. Moran said. “‘Did I do this right? Did I do this wrong?’ There is no right or wrong.”
They also hear denial.
“A lot of parents defend their children,” Mr. Lettera said. “‘It must have been his first time.’ You don’t have to defend them. It’s an epidemic. We tell them, ‘You’re not alone.’”
Eventually, the talking done, the arrangements complete, all eyes turn toward the body in the coffin.
“It’s so sad,” Mr. Lettera said, “to see a parent in front of a child, on their knees.”