When I rented a bedroom in a Morningside Heights apartment a few years ago, I didn’t even notice the funeral home next door. The cremation and funeral services business looked like any other neighborhood building. (In case you’re wondering, it didn't smell any differently either.)
Maybe I didn't notice it because there wasn’t a funeral that day. But I certainly had many reminders of mortality throughout the year that I lived there. Imagine strolling hand in hand with your boyfriend one weekend afternoon and passing a huge crowd of mourners paying respect to a loved one. It definitely adds some sobriety to an otherwise carefree day. And it it drove home the fact that no matter what kind of day I was having, at least I was having a day.
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Living near a funeral home really wasn’t such a big deal to me or anyone else I knew in New York. We all live so close together, anyway, and make certain sacrifices to get the best deal we can. Sure, I lived next door to a building where bodies were being embalmed and cremated. But I also had the largest, quietest bedroom in a spacious apartment. Priorities.
Parking was never an issue for me, since I don’t drive, but my automobile endowed neighbors were no doubt annoyed by the hearses frequently parked on the street. These hearses often traveled down my block a bit to a church halfway down my block. They weren’t loud, just large and ostentatiously morbid--a contrast to the limos there at other times waiting for bridal parties. My street was a place where residents were constantly confronted with other people’s milestones. Mourners tended to be older locals who’d been in the neighborhood since it was still “up and coming.” Wedding parties were comprised of younger, more diverse groups from all over the city.
The death that hit closest to home – literally – was that of a famous New York rapper’s bodyguard, shot and killed on the set of a music video shoot. The tragedy made newspaper headlines for a week or so. Turns out, the bodyguard grew up in my building. For years, his dad had been the super. Where better for his body to be cared for than the funeral home next door?
Coming home that day, I found that my apartment lobby was the site of an unofficial wake. Tall candles were lit on the streets, the stoop, and the floor inside. Pictures were taped on the inside and outside walls. Flowers sagged from the lips of liquor bottles. People passed booze around and smoked joints, quietly sharing their memories of the deceased. Feeling a bit like a party crasher, I made my way through the crowd and walked up the three flights up to my apartment.
Less than a year later, I moved away from the funeral-home-next-door to my own apartment on Central Park West--trading my reminder to live it up while I still can for a NYC landmark bursting with life. And the funeral home has since closed--proving, I suppose, that death can be as fleeting as life.
Living Next to a.... is a new series dedicated to exploring the good, the bad, and the memorable of living near someplace others would rather not.