Image by Choi Haeryung
When other funeral parlors say “no”, Graham Putnam & Mahoney in Worcester, Massachusetts says “yes.”PLAYLIST
Peter Stefan – Funeral Director
Lonewolf Smith: One day, I was at a gas station near where I live and I looked across the street and there’s a funeral home there. And I asked the question I’ve always asked myself. What do you do in there?
It caught me that day. What do you do and how do you do it? Listen, I’ve always been interested in the Egyptians. Which, by the way, the Egyptian embalmers usually made one incision down the side. And if you were an embalmer and I’m your son, I’m an embalmer. My son becomes an embalmer and it gets passed down. But during the days of the Egyptians, if the embalmer made a mistake, do you know what the penalty was? Death. You made that incision wrong, you died.
So, always had a fascination with that.
I was in the embalming room the following week and I learned real quick what we do.
Adgardo Francheski: Just grab the sheets.
Stacy Hines: Grab this guy’s legs for me. Grab his legs. Come on. Give me that strength. There you go, baby. That’s what I’m talking about. That manly strength. All right.
Adgardo: Let’s hope that he’s not poopy.
Frankie Ulmo: Yeah, that time, right?
Stacy: Oh, my God. Oh, my, I’ll never forget that.
Adgardo: Are we talking about the lady?
Stacy: Bend her legs back, me and him just watched her shit like she was giving birth. No, her fucking asshole was like you could have put your fist in it.
Speaker 6: God, that’s not funny.
Stacy: God, forgive me.
Speaker 6: Respect the dead.
Stacy: Yes, I know, but these guys asked the questions … The truth.
Adgardo: This the time of death?
Stacy: It’s the truth.
Speaker 6: Wow.
Stacy: So, Steve, you might want to leave the room.
What is it? What is that?
Stacy: It’s called a scalpel.
Adgardo: Ready to …
Frankie: Cut them from the back.
Should I leave the room?
Peter Stephan: When I was in grammar school, probably 10 or 11 years old, friend of mine came and said, “Let’s go get an ice cream.” And I said, “Nah. I’m going to go visit my 10 year old girlfriend.” So he went his way. I went my way. But he cut through an alley, and part of a skylight slipped off a building, landed on him, and killed him. Two days later, they brought the whole school out to the sidewalk so we could watch the little white hearse go by with his casket in it. So we did that. The ironic part was the guy driving that hearse is the guy I worked with 10 years later, and the funeral home that handled that funeral is the one I eventually bought.
Graham Funeral Parlors. Yes, yes, it is.
But the reputation here has always been we don’t leave anybody. Don’t leave anybody. We’ve never turned anybody down. And I take a lot of pride in the statement because nobody else can make that statement, but I can make it with total credibility. Never turned anybody down, never.
Frankie: Peter’s a fun guy, dude.
Adgardo: Peter’s a fun guy. He cares. He cares.
Pat Kelly: He’s good to everybody. He’s good to the people. Knock on the door, need something, doesn’t care. Make sure they got it.
Adgardo: He likes to help out everybody. He’s not really thinking about himself.
Stacy: A family, you know, loses a child, and they don’t have much income, and he decides to pay for the whole service, whole service, just because. He doesn’t have to do that.
Frankie: Peter’s one of a kind. Peter’s one of a kind.
Pat: How can you not? How can you not like him?
Lonewolf Smith: That is crickets that you’re hearing. You will not hear a cricket in the city, but you will hear sirens constantly. Once in a while, gun shot.
This is the chapel. This is where we give comfort. This is where we give hope. This is where the casket is placed. This is the kneeler.
Stacy: Let me give you a visual.
Speaker 6: What’s the kneeler?
Stacy: It’s where the person goes, like this.
Lonewolf Smith: That’s the way it goes, and she would be in a casket. This is where spirituality is. That’s why we use the pink lights. When you put pink lights on a dead body, it gives the body warmth, like it’s warm. You want to create something that’s natural and at peace. You see, sometimes we become optical illusionists. We can help people not to see things that are right in front of them. We create optical illusions.
In this room, it’s not where I try to convince them death is a good thing. Here, in this room, we try to give them hope that there’s something beyond here, something better beyond here.
Peter: Here was all non denomination. We see everybody. The Asians mostly believe in cremation and they believe in putting the ashes into a temple. The Africans believe in sending the people back to Africa. You have the Muslims. They tend to bury people in a shroud with no casket. I deal with Caltholics. Everything’s sealed. Well what happened to ashes to ashes and dust to dust? But those are the different groups you see; different customs. The only thing we haven’t seen here is a martian. When a martian crashes [inaudible] they’ll call us in, too.
Pat: Probably will. And you’d take it, too.
Peter: The way I look at it is if I haven’t seen it, it hasn’t happened yet. That’s the way I sum it up. I had a funeral for nudists and they wanted to have the wake and they wanted to dress in their normal dress, which to me was nothing. I said, “Okay. You can do whatever you want. I’ll be upstairs.”
Was it an open casket?
Peter: Oh, yeah.
And so the body was nude as well?
Peter: Well, no, some partial clothing.
Peter: This is what they wanted so what the hell? I accommodate them. It’s no big deal. At 8 o’ clock I hear the horns blowing, the lights flashing. I look out the window and said “What’s all this?” So I walk downstairs, there’s two of them out in their birthday suits in the porch having a cigarette with the lights on. You wouldn’t believe half the stuff, and some of the stories … Well yeah, it was true. They were out there with their birthday suits and the neighborhood went crazy. What the hell is this, you know? But nothing surprises me anymore, some of the things I’ve seen.
Frankie: I mean, if you don’t have the stomach for it, if you don’t have the nose for it, I don’t think you should be doing it, you know.
What made you realize you have the stomach for it?
Frankie: There was this one person, the deceased, that we had to pick up at his house. Nobody knew that he was dead. He was dead for like, two or three days. He died on the toilet taking a crap, his face was up against the wall. We had to take him off, wrap him up in a sheet, put him on a portable stretcher. But that process, the body goes through a couple stages of decomposing, and since he’s been there for like two or three days, it was already almost gone. His body, he had blisters everywhere, he had skin slip. It was just disgusting. I know if I could see that, I could handle a lot, you know? I could deal with a lot, you know?
So you can tell me what we’re doing, Renner?
Adgardo: We’re actually going on a removal. Basically, somebody passed away at a home so we’re on our way to go pick up the deceased.
Is this the first removal for today?
Frankie: My first first pick up was a nine year old girl. She died from cancer. I have kids so to see that kind of broke my heart because she had come from Mexico to the United States to get better treatment for the cancer and she ended up passing away at nine years old. I still have her obituary and everything. That kind of just pushed me. This is what I’ve got to dedicate myself to. I want to help in any way possible, and I’ve always wanted to help people. I just never pictured myself helping them this way.
Adgardo: I’m sweating my balls off.
Frankie: Me, too.
So how did it go inside?
Adgardo: Pretty smooth.
Frankie: We let them say their last goodbyes. It’s tough sometimes. You just have to be patient. The family’s just lost somebody.
Adgardo: You can’t rush them.
Frankie: Especially when they’re choking up and they’re crying and they’re hugging the body. It’s just tough to see the body leave.
Adgardo: It hits you. When they’re speaking their love for the deceased, the way they speak about that love, you do feel it.
People say that job must be very sad, depressing. It can be, but I do like it here because it’s reputation. A lot of families are not financially capable of spending top dollar for a funeral. And we’re the most affordable in this area. The comfort that you bring to people at their lowest is what I like the most about this business.
Frankie: Got a toe tag on her. She goes toes, those little pretty toes.
Adgardo: Always want to tag them. Because one thing you don’t want to do is mix up the bodies. The amount of bodies that we go though in this building.
Peter: Yep. As Gladstone said, the former prime minister of England there, “Show me the manner in which your community buries its dead, and I’ll show you the character of the community.” Like anything, you do the job and you bury the dead, or you don’t. You pick and choose. I mean during the AIDS epidemic, nobody would take those people. It was horrendous. The people that had HIV were shunned, don’t go near them.
And so what was your role in this? Like I mean were there-
Peter: I took most of the people. Nobody would take them.
So most of the funeral parlors would refuse to?
Peter: Nobody would take them at all.
I remember going into a restaurant one time to order some takeout for the guys here, and the woman recognized me, what I do and where I came from. When I gave her the money, she took it with a napkin and she washed the money with hot water and soap after I gave it to her. That’s how bad it was. We found it was easier to handle it as long as you waited enough time, enough disinfectants, were safe.
Bob Miller: Disinfectant or just plain Clorox bleach.
Peter: So we took them.
Bob: The old timers, we never used gloves or anything else.
Peter: Didn’t have to.
Bob: No. And have a cigar while you’re at it, too, you know?
Peter: The old timers. It’s something else.
Stacy: This is the lift, so I’ll show you. You just put one on. No, my body’s right here.
Adgardo: Okay. Once she’s up, she’s been opened-
Bob: This is how we-
Stacy: Stand back.
Bob: This is how we bring them up.
There’s like a big trap door in the floor of this room.
Bob: Yep. You see. So the body comes up to us, we roll it in there, we close the door back down again. Will you put that down, sweetie?
Lonewolf Smith: We’re looking at a room that’s about 12 feet by 18 feet. It’s white. When you come in the door there are a series of shelves on the right that contain all of our personal protective equipment. Right now with the Coronavirus going, PPE is an absolute must.
Could you briefly describe the bodies that are in here, what stage in the process they are?
Lonewolf Smith: This one’s embalmed. That one is not, that one is. I can tell by the firmness of the body. A body that’s embalmed will become hardened. That’s how I can tell. And over here, you come into our instruments. These different things do different things. This is an aneurysm needle. They’re used to suture the mouth shut. The mouth is the first thing people look at. When they walk into a funeral home, if that mouth isn’t right, they’re going to pick up on it just like that.
This is the embalming machine. It sounds like this. We can adjust it to whatever flow we want. Now people think that we drain the blood. We do not drain blood. We displace the blood with fluid. The fluid gets put in through the arterial system, blood and formaldehyde will come out of the venous system. And then after that, we suture them up.
Peter: I got the call because I handle quite a few of the Muslim funerals in this state. They came to me and said, “Can you handle this?” The uncle came, and I said, “Yeah, we can do this.”
Do you have any qualms about saying yes?
Peter: Oh, no. I’d do it again if I had to because I bury the dead here, I don’t pick and choose.
George Stephanopulous: Good afternoon, I’m George Stephanopoulus in New York. We’re interrupting your program because there have been two explosions today at the Boston marathon. Two explosions near the finish line just a short walk away.[Boston police officials say they’ve killed one of the two suspects in the Boston marathon bombings. Following a car chase that began-] [A lot of anger in the city tonight after the funeral director at the home behind me decides to accept the body of the man police call bomber number one.]
Peter: I had protesters here all night and all day long. Seven days a week. This was the biggest story for the whole year.[The crowd chanted, “USA,” and sent him back, outraged after a Worcester funeral home accepted the body of Tamerlan Tsarnaev, transferred early Friday morning-]
All eyes were on this funeral home. Everybody was.[Worcester is pretty upset about this. I mean, Boston didn’t want him, why did he come here?]
Lonewolf Smith: A standard autopsy consists of number one, a toxicology test. The next thing they do is they slice the scull. They make an incision, they peel back the skin so it covers the face. It’s really an eerie looking thing. Then they take the saw and they’re able to remove the brain. They make an incision down here from the collarbone, left collarbone right, they cut through it. They meet here in the center of the chest, and then they go all the way down to the bellybutton, or sometimes down into the crotch area. They open the ribs up and they remove all the organs. And they look inside at the organs to see what might have gone wrong. That’s a standard posted case.
But on this guy, not only did they make those incisions. In the front, they cut him from the front of his legs, all the way down to his ankles. His arms, the front of his arms down to his wrists. And then they turned him over. They made the Y cut in the back and came right down the spine. They then went horizontal along the waistline and cut right through the buttocks, all the way down to the achilles tendon. That’s what I got. That’s how it came to me. I asked the uncle, I said, “Ruslan, you have every right to see your loved one. But let me warn you, what you’re going to see in there you’ve never seen anything like this. It’s up to you.” He said, “I have to.”
Now he grew up in Chechnya. And he has seen some severe violence done. He’s seen some bad stuff. Stepped into the prep room and then stepped back. And said, “How are you going to do this?” I said, “Well, with a little help from God, I’ll get it done.” Six hours later, I was on my knees in pain suturing him up. The final equation, 3,500 sutures to put him back together again. When the uncle came into the room afterwards, he said, “How did you do it?” I said, “That’s my job.” As a matter of fact, he could have an open casket. But now you can wash the body, because before it was you couldn’t. You just couldn’t. It was horrible.
Now in the Muslim religious tradition, the belief is the soul is trapped in the head, and it cannot leave unless all of the rituals have been done. You know, the washing of the body, this that, and the other thing. So I was in the room with the body by myself. And it’s before I did anything, I said, “Dude, what were you thinking? Did you really think that you could do that?” And I said, “So tell me something, if the belief is that your soul is in there, then you can hear me. Did you ever think that it would be a Christian that would be putting you back together again? Did you think that? Why did you do this? Now look at you. Are you a martyr? And if you’re a martyr, tell me about those virgins.”
Stacy: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Lonewolf Smith: Stacy.
Lonewolf Smith: Do you have a cigarette?
Stacy: Yes, I do.
Lonewolf Smith: I’m so tired. They got me running-
Stacy: This is the guy that has taught me everything.
Lonewolf Smith: [inaudible]
Stacy: Yes, Dr. Lonewolf Smith has taught me everything that I know. And he’s made me amazing in this field.
Lonewolf Smith: This lady, when she first came in, I could see the potential. She’s one of the best.
Stacy: He made it so easy for me to learn. Like I do have difficulty memorizing things and with him it was repetition, repetition. I mean every instrument. I mean down to a T, he taught me. And I remembered everything. I would go home, like I would even start suturing a banana. I would slice a banana in half and take a needle and I would suture it and do a baseball stitch through the banana. And he would tell me like, “Would you just stop. Just stop. You’ll be in tomorrow.” And I’m like, “No. But I have to master this.” So.
Lonewolf Smith: Could you play the soundtrack of when Paul was in the prep room and the body fell?
Stacy: Oh my god. Did I play that for you at home?
Speaker 6: No.
Lonewolf Smith: This is unbelievable.
Stacy: When he dropped the body? I think I played it for Melinda. He’s older, he was working here for 30 something years. He’s older now.
Lonewolf Smith: I think he can pick it up.
Stacy: He dropped the body. You found it?
Speaker 19: No, I need help.
Speaker 20: All right.
What do you love about it?
Stacy: I love every part of it. I love the people that I work with, I love the atmosphere. It’s more of like a family type of unit. Everybody gets along. Everybody respects each other. You know, and if I said to them, “If I die, do not let any other funeral home take me.” You know what I mean? “Please put a modesty cloth over me, okay?” But I know that if that ever happened for me, if anything happened to me, I know that I would be in the best care here. And even if I lost a family member, I mean I’m not from Worcester. And I would bring my family here. I totally would. I trust every single one of the people that I work with here, that if I lost a loved one, that they would do the right thing.
Peter: [inaudible] funeral parlor. Hello, how are you doing? Ah, everybody’s just facing the bigger problems that are coming up together, we just went though. These bodies are piling up between when I left and right. Me, I offered many times to solve their problem, and still have offered. But they still go back and forth blaming. I don’t care who you blame, blame me all you want, who cares.
What is the situation with the bodies in Massachusetts? Like how did that … Why is that a problem there?
Brad Petrician: Yeah, well, I think it’s a problem not only here, but I think in a lot of states. You know, obviously money is always tight in states, and there’s not always a ton of money afforded to bury the poor. So a lot of the time it falls on society to try to take care of burying those people.[Fire and EMS. Quality and a welfare check on the resident here and [inaudible] 603.]
Police are called and they come to a house and they find someone.[Paramedics reporting to 603.]
And there’s nobody immediately apparent that’s going to make arrangements for that person.[We have no known next of kin.] [So, call whatever local funeral company that you can get to come get this person.]
They call around to different funeral homes and the fact of the matter is, a lot of the times, they say no. They say we can’t accommodate that body.[Do you have a funeral home yet?] [Still trying.]
Brad: You know, there’s no law on the books that says if you’re a licensed funeral director, if called, has to come and pick someone up that’s passed away.[Called four so far and they all said no.]
So Peter has kind of taken it upon himself to be that person that kind of goes and takes people first and kind of ask questions later.
What happens in someone’s life when they get to the point where they die and no one gives a shit about their body anymore, you know?
Peter: It can be anything sometimes.
Peter: People become drinkers and lose everything. I’ve dealt with accountants, insurance people, bankers, in the shelter. The booze took over, the drugs took over them. Died penniless.
Not just penniless, but to not have any family members who have come-
Peter:Well, they have a lot of family, but they’re afraid to come. They don’t have the money to do anything.
Brad: Peter has argued that there is not enough money afforded to burying the poor here.
Peter: The public assistance in this state for funerals, $1,100, haven’t changed it for 36 and half years. That’s worse than insulting. They don’t seem to care about it.
Brad: The cost of burial is now more than that $1,100 that you’re going to get. You know, you’re not going to be making money, you’re probably going to be losing money if you’re going to bury somebody. So it’s a difficult thing for many funeral directors to take on. Who among us would want to provide a service and incur a cost if you’re not even sure if you’re going to get paid for it?
Peter: Most of the funeral homes don’t deal with this problem. They don’t deal with the services I deal with every day. But do they understand it? I’m sure they do. Do they get involved in it? No. I’m not going to leave the people. I wouldn’t do that.
Brad: I don’t know how much you’re focusing on the deteriorating bodies aspect?
I definitely want to touch on it.
Brad: Okay, all right. So I think that the problem is severe enough that there are hospitals that have bodies sitting in their morgues for over a year now. And you know they do have a refrigerator, but obviously over time bodies deteriorate even if they are refrigerated. So these are the kinds of cases he’s getting. He’s getting bodies that are already, unfortunately have deteriorated because no one else has been willing to bury them. So what he did, was he petitioned the legislature to say, “Can you let me cremate these people?” What happened is-
And his incentive for doing that is just cremation is just a lot cheaper.
Brad: Right, so what happened was, they approved this law and he brought that to the city board of health, they approved it. Okay. We’re going to start doing this. And you know, Peter was there, he said, great. He held up a little blue form he said, “Okay, here’s what we’re going to do. Here’s what I think we should do. This is the cremation form, maybe you could tweak it a little bit, but you can just kind of scratch this out and write this here, and you can start signing these things immediately.” And the city of Worcester, the board of health agent said, well, hang on a minute, we need to have our legal department create their own form, they want to take a look at this. So don’t do anything yet. She did say that to Peter. She said that to the hospital. You know, “Don’t do anything yet, we need to vet this and we’ll get back to you when everything is good to go.”
He anticipated a quick turnaround there and accepted some bodies that had been at a local morgue, at a local hospital for more than a year.
Peter: The bodies they had were dripping body fluids, that had been in three bags, triple bagged. To try and contain the problem. So assuming they were going to move quickly, we went and picked up a couple more.
Brad: Okay, how long could it really take for them to do this form, you know? The law’s there, it’s been passed, it’s approved. They’re going to do it soon. That is not what happened.
Peter: Couple of weeks went by.
Brad: Weeks passed and he didn’t hear anything.
Brad: As he tells it, he kept asking them.
Peter: Comes June.
Brad: Well, we’re having a legal look at it, we’re having a legal look at it.
Peter: Comes July.
Brad: And the time continued to pass, and obviously the situation deteriorated from there and it was found that he had, literally, deteriorated-
Peter: And still they dragged their toes.
Brad: He calls and self reports, apparently, that he’s got odors, and that he’s got bugs.
Peter: And of course, we had a bad problem. Contained it as best we could.
Brad: The fire department got a complaint that there was a smell coming from the home and apparently they went there and they were just floored by what they smelled, by what they saw. You know, they were … The bodies were in a … Several of them were in gelatinous states and there were flies and maggots, where they were kept was a room where I believe there was an air conditioner that had been set up in a small room, but when they tested it, they got a reading of, I believe it was like 60 degrees, or more than 60 degrees, and that’s when the regulatory process kind of started.[An investigation found the improper storage of decomposing bodies.] [Under investigation for the bodies it was keeping in the basement.] [This funeral director admits the situation did get away from him, but he says his heart was in the right place.]
I mean, could you smell the bodies when they were-
Peter: Oh, sure. It was bad.
Peter: Couldn’t help it.
Adgardo: This is the downstairs. So going downstairs to the basement.
Adgardo: Potato room?
Yeah. Why’s that? Why is it the potato room?
Adgardo: We called it the potato room because when we had those [inaudible] bodies, that’s where we had them. And that room stank. Think of a room full of rotten potatoes.
Gotcha. Okay, gross.
Adgardo: So we gave it the name potato room. Just the stench was … If you was to come down here for the first time, you’ll probably get the urge to throw up.
Adgardo: It was that bad.
Well, glad that’s over.
Peter: We’re still here because we didn’t do anything. Never received a penalty or a fine. Nothing.
Brad: You know, the fact that the states discipline ultimately ended up in him receiving his license without any restrictions on what he can do, other than he has to have a monitor, you know I think that right there kind of shows you, that if you had a thriving network of people that were doing this, I think that you would have, perhaps, a more heavy handed penalty if that person was not an important player when it came to helping take care of people that don’t have anywhere else to go.
There was nothing physically stopping you from burying the bodies.
Peter: No. Why-
What kept you from-
Peter: Why bother getting the bill passed and sitting around waiting each week when they said they were going to do it, they were going to do it, they were going to do it. What’s the point of passing these laws, the hell with it, no one’s going to follow them.
Was there an piece of you the felt like the deterioration of the bodies would shed light on the fact that they were, create this sort of scene?
Peter: No. They were deteriorating-
Ah, Christ. [inaudible] funeral embalmers. What do you need? Yes.
And what about you. I mean has this line of work made you think about how you want to be treated when you pass on?
Peter: I don’t know, I think I like to put you in a crypt or a tomb.
Peter: Pyramid. As I said, Bob wants a pyramid. [inaudible] we do this. What do you want, personally, who knows. Your family decides they want something else, go ahead and do it. Who cares?
Do you feel like you’re successful?
Peter: Financially, as a millionaire? No. Because I spent most on the kids and so whatever I had to do. As a person, I think I’ve done about as much as I could do. My only question would be that sometimes did I do enough? Well I keep trying, anyway. But at least I’m in there doing something. If we all did one good thing a day, what a great place it would be. Pretty simple. Take a breather. You guys want some Chinese food?
Peter: It’s just a horror film. [inaudible] is made up out of human ashes.
Peter: And he goes around, he’s about seven, eight feet tall, he goes around grabbing people and basically incinerating them. That’s what it’s all about. And the monster’s an original. Nobody else like him. The mummy goes around strangling people. All of these monsters running around murdering people, whatever they do. Eating people, cutting them up. What can you make up for a monster? What’s a better monster, made up of human ash, goes around burning people alive.
I took one of those protective plastic suits, personal protective equipment is what they call it, put an adhesive, and I sprayed cream of wheat on it to give it sort of a powder effect. On top of that more adhesive, and I put oatmeal on it so it looks like bone chips.
How did this come about?
Peter: I think I’ve been a movie freak for a long time. I’ve seen some horror movies which truly didn’t measure up. And I thought this would. Interesting movie, should do pretty well. I think anything you see that mentions anything about funerals, cemetery, the grave, crematory, it’s going to draw people in. There’s something sinister about this business, which it shouldn’t be, but people are basically afraid of it.
Bob: Anything you apply to this business, usually horror movie, documentary, it sells. Because of the curiosity factor.
Bob: And that’s it.
Nick van der Kolk, Host and Director
Steven Jackson, Producer