To my father, who has just started washing dishes at a Chinese restaurant in North Carolina.
I wasn’t expecting the line to be so long. Beyond the point of Celia Pinzi’s outstretched finger, the line snakes backward from the hallway into the parking lot. It hugs the white wooden fences. Somewhere down the block, its end disappears. Police are parked outside the building, directing traffic. This, Celia explains to me, is one of the largest post-lockdown crowds she’s hosted as the owner and chief funeral director of West Haven Funeral Home. It is around five p.m., and the wait time for those at the end of the line is estimated at five hours.
We walk through the back door, brushing past the lightly chattering, sometimes weeping, extremely well-dressed, and orderly crowd of people that takes up half of the hallway. Celia briskly strides forward, occasionally stopping to greet familiar faces, or to clear empty tissue boxes out of the way. She is dressed in all black, her medium-length blond hair tossed behind her back, and she wears a stern, concentrated expression. Worry not, it says. Everything here is under my control.
We walk on. An ornamental jumble covers the walls—there are clocks, mirrors, old maps of West Haven, pictures of sunsets, gold-sprinkled flower paintings, sketches of Italian towns, wreaths of dried flowers, decorative fragments of old ceilings. When we pass some old-fashioned, candle-like standing lamps, Celia turns to me.
“Now you’re in the heart of a traditional American wake,” she says.
When there is no wake, the entire funeral home smells of WoodWick’s signature Redwood reed diffuser; but as we walk into the parlor, the aroma of flowers permeates the air. Trails of flowers, purple and white and yellow, follow the trickling line of people to a single point in the center of the room.
Against the soft white fabric inside the gleaming steel casket, the body of a 36-year-old woman lies with her hands peaceably folded in front of her chest. Under the soft glow of overhead incandescent lights, her long red hair shines like rivulets of water and cascades down the sides of her face, mingling with the flowers underneath. Visitors sob in front of her. Some may have touched her hair. With the line between me and her, I cannot tell. I cannot look at her for more than two seconds without feeling a need to avert my gaze––because I didn’t know her, because Celia has turned her body into something too delicate and private to be beheld by an outsider. In fact, Celia has turned death itself into something too delicate and private to be beheld by an outsider.
The only dead body I have seen up to this point in my life was that of my paternal grandfather, who was cremated in rural China when I was 12. I caught no more than a glimpse of him, stored in a wooden coffin filled with ice to keep his body from decaying in the summer heat. He hadn’t been embalmed; there were few embalmers in China, since so many people preferred cremation. His body looked blackened. Blackened by the ice, or old age, or both. There was little glamor in the ceremony. Family circled the coffin before it was taken off to the crematory. There, death was presented as a fact, a blackened fact.
At Celia’s place, things are different. In the “prep room”—a metallic, clinical space where bodies are received, washed, embalmed, and adorned—Celia shows me the box of cosmetics she and her fellow embalmer, Mike Dion, used on the deceased woman with the red hair. With tiny tweezers, she picks up a pair of artificial eyelashes from the stainless-steel table. “Would you believe that? People now have those magnetic eyelashes that they attach to the magnetic eyeliner they put on,” Celia says, pinching her eyelids and imitating the movement of applying eyeliner. “She used to use these all the time, so we just had to do the same.” Before the wake, she tells me, Mike had to make an extra run to grab a fresh pair from CVS.
One of Celia’s many jobs is to make death, however sudden and repellant, look presentable, even dignified. The woman with the red hair died of an overdose at a friend’s house. Her body, prior to entering the funeral home, underwent an autopsy that carved a wide triangle in her chest and sliced open her head. Celia has made sure the body looks intact. Lacerations closed, eyes closed, mouth closed, hair done, nails done, magnetic eyelashes done. Though only the upper half of the casket was open for the wake, she put high heels on the woman’s feet. Underwear, too, is a must for every body that passes through her hands. A body must always be in good order, clean and preferably beautiful, but not only for the purpose of presentation. What people cannot see is as important to Celia as what people can see.
Dead bodies are among some of Celia’s most familiar things. She has been in the funeral industry for over forty years, and has handled thousands of cadavers. But the embalming practice, Celia admits, can still feel foreign. “It’s not just bathing, or grooming them, but actually making an incision into someone. Removing their bodily fluids and replacing them with embalming fluid,” she says to me. “How would you ever have exposure to that?”
Celia was exposed to the death business by her father, Nello J. Pinzi. Nello, an Italian man who moved to Connecticut from Wisconsin in the nineteen-sixties and founded West Haven Funeral Home, still has his picture hung at the entrance of the building. He was by Celia’s side as she ran down the same hallways we had walked through, after countless childhood days out ice skating on West Haven Green. He was by Celia’s side as she became an embalmer and a funeral director.
If Celia and I were to compare fathers, I think both of us would agree that they have little in common. Hers was born in Italy, came to America at a young age, and quickly found his place. Mine was born in China, came to America at a relatively old age, and is still struggling to find his place. Hers served customers from one town. Mine served customers from all around the world. Hers spent a lot of time with her. Mine spent next to no time with me. Hers was the person she modeled her career after. Mine is the person I deliberately chose not to model my career after. But there is one thing they have in common: both ran businesses. Yet her father’s business is flourishing in her hands, while my father’s business collapsed into a debt-stricken shutdown after three agonizing years of trade wars, mysteriously-vanishing clients, and a pandemic.
One of Celia’s many jobs is to make death, however sudden and repellant, look presentable, even dignified.
Unlike Nello J. Pinzi, my father always made a strenuous effort to separate his daughter and his business. Perhaps it was out of a masculine unwillingness to ask his daughter for help. Or, more likely, perhaps he felt I could do better than his business. He was one of those “Made in China” tag makers, the first college student from his small rural town who went back to establish a small factory there, making large quantities of cheap clothes to be sold in North America. Though his factory made lots of clothes, many of them for children, he almost never brought any home for me. His clothes, according to my mom, were too ugly for me. I grew up wearing Korean brands my mom had handpicked from city-center shopping malls, while the extra samples printed in the factory were thrown onto our car’s backseat to be used as napping blankets.
In the fall of 2018, in the midst of Trump’s trade war with China, my father visited me in New Haven and gave me a yellow leather jacket. It was a sample his factory had printed. His clothes had improved enough to suit my style, he insisted. On the same visit, he asked me if I could make a few calls to some potential clients in New York, since my English was better than his. Swamped with work and annoyed he couldn’t promptly get his tax return forms for my last-minute financial aid application, I put off making the calls. When I finally got around to it half-a-month later, no one expressed any interest. The few who didn’t hang up at the words “Chinese factory” asked about prices and sample types—questions I could not answer—so they hung up as well. Ashamed and infuriated by my defeat, I sent my father a long text blaming him for not having provided outlines for my call and lists of his company’s past accomplishments. “Understood,” he responded. It wasn’t until a few hours later that I realized I had said “textiles” instead of “clothing” in most of the calls. I never wore the yellow leather jacket.
Now, my father’s business is officially dead. When cutting costs to the bone still did not yield any profit, and instead drove him deeper into debt, he closed the factory. He managed to pay all the workers, but only by borrowing from loan sharks behind our family’s back. Earlier this year, my mother had to personally drag him to the sharks and pay off his nonbank debts using all of her savings. Bank debts remain unpaid. I wouldn’t say I’m responsible for his business’s demise. But I feel guilty. If I had learned how everything works, would I have prevented this? Could I have saved his dying business?
Celia learned how everything worked, and Celia did save a dying business. Her mother was a teacher, just like my mother. Her mother had discouraged her from pursuing the “blue collar life” of her father, much in the way my mother discouraged me from wearing those made-in-China factory clothes. Celia went to Georgetown. She decided to go back home and apprentice with her father after graduation. Recounting her mother’s attitude toward her choice, she chuckles. “Given how we were brought up and what education meant in our family… Yes, it’s respectable and all that. But it was not exactly, you know, the Georgetown…” Her voice trails off. I knew what she meant. The Georgetown graduate expectation. Or, perhaps more accurately, her mother’s expectation.
But Celia chose her father’s path anyway. She acknowledged that it could be because she grew up very close to her father, but there was also a feeling of obligation, like she had to take over her father’s business despite her mother’s reluctance. At the time, though, neither she nor Nello was sure if she could do it. Celia repeatedly referred to the year she spent apprenticing with her father handling cadavers as a trial; she and Nello agreed that if she passed the trial, she would stay. “He was like boot camp. Very, very, very difficult,” she said. “And I thought if I can survive that, then I’m really okay.”
She survived. Nello lived for another twenty years, with his daughter running his business by his side, before his death in 2009. His funeral, including the embalming, was performed by his staff, and for once, Celia assumed the role of griever instead of director. To her, funeral directors are buffers between the family and death—composed, professional figures that distraught families can rely on to shield them. Celia had acted as that buffer many times before, but for her father’s funeral, she let her staff be her Celia. She then took over the business completely, and people started calling her “the boss.”
West Haven Funeral Home has long been the busiest funeral home in West Haven—by a mile. Keeping it in the family keeps it alive—the home has been handed down through generations, both for the family who owns it and for the families who use it. At the age of 62, Celia has been recognized as “Celia Pinzi, L.F.D., past President of the Connecticut Funeral Directors Association and public member of the Medical Legal Commission for the State of Connecticut.” In a trim blazer and sparkling jewelry, she strides down the hallway full of memorabilia from her father’s time, converses confidently and tilts her head intently whenever she inquires about a funeral detail, as if that detail were the most important thing in the world. The young apprentice freshly graduated from Georgetown has become a woman with wrinkles on her hands and neck beneath the jewelry, one whose vast experience has taught the subtle tricks of the death business.
Less appealing than the smell of formaldehyde, to Celia, is the capitalism of the funeral industry. “It’s all marketing and consumerism,” Celia tells me as we walk past the samples in her casket room: Champagne Rose, $4995; Belvedere, $1995; Clairmont, $3295; Valencia, $2695. Polished stainless steel caskets, gold and green and blue and purple, line up on wall shelves like jewelry on display. A corner with a sign reading “CASKET EXPRESSIONS” contains customizable decorations, like little freezer magnets or laptop stickers, to be hooked on the edges or embroidered on the insides of caskets: an American eagle, golden angels, roses, jumping fish, army and navy prints, motorcycle prints. With thousand-dollar personalized caskets, custom-made DVD tapes, and obituaries posted in the local newspapers, the price of a funeral can easily get into five digits, sometimes even reaching as high as $20,000—and that doesn’t include the gravestone, the reception, or the cemetery plot. The large wake I saw was just a part of one such funeral. For some, there is an allure in the dignified grandeur of an expensive funeral. Even one of the staff members at the funeral home, a young man around his thirties named Jim, tells me he quit a finance job in New York to work in the funerary industry with Celia because of the “formality, decorum, and the black cars.”
At home, the staff meticulously avoid using the same brands of shampoo and shaving creams they use in the prep room; even the little things can bring death into the house.
The glamor of elaborate wakes and ceremonious burials endures, but behind the ornamental flowers and delicately made-up bodies, things are changing in the death business, and Celia senses it. On the other side of the wall from thousand-dollar caskets sit the different, but equally various species of urns: Anoka Blue, $295; Avalon Bronze, $495; Imperial Stone, $395; Tree of Life, $495. Celia points out a pair of smaller, pocket-sized urns called “footprints,” telling me they can be portable keepsakes and were used recently in another local middle-aged woman’s funeral. They are made of fine blue-and-white gradient porcelain, polished to perfection, and cost no more than $295. Cremations can cost a tenth of a full-scale funeral, or even less at places where procedures are not so personalized. To a community like West Haven, where many live paycheck-to-paycheck, the choice is obvious.
I’m no stranger to cremations. In China, where I grew up, a piece of legislation called “Regulations on Funeral and Interment Control” released in 1997 restricted all burials in cities and encouraged cremations in rural areas to preserve farmland. Burials quickly became things of the past, a relic now largely experienced through funeral objects in museums, excavated from ancient tombs. Cremations, on the other hand, exhibit a mechanical efficiency that many prefer to the impractical pomp and ceremony of an old-fashioned burial. Beijing’s Babaoshan Crematorium processes approximately 25,000 bodies each year; bodies packed in cardboard boxes enter automated cremation machines on belts, burn in furnaces, and turn into ashes packed in little bags with QR codes to help families identify their loved ones. In modern Chinese crematories, operations are clean, quick, and minimalist. The funeral services, colloquially called yitiaolong (one full dragon), can take care of all the steps between receiving the body and delivering the ashes. A similar service exists at Celia’s place now. In the middle of one of my conversations with Mike and Jim, Jim pauses to pick up a call from a potential client. The woman, whose grandmother had just passed away at a nursing home, wants West Haven Funeral Home to pick up the body, perform the cremation, and deliver her the ashes. She doesn’t need to see the body. After the call ends, Jim, a strong proponent of formal burials, sighs and says, “It’s another one of those.”
The “ones of those” have been taking over. The National Funeral Directors Association’s website currently has a whole section called “Cremation on the Rise.” According to data from NFDA, cremations have outnumbered burials since 2014. Almost 60 percent of bodies in the United States are now cremated, while a little under 40 percent are buried. It is estimated that in twenty years, 80 percent of bodies will be cremated. The Vatican has even allowed practicing Catholics to be cremated, despite their common belief in the resurrection of the physical body after death. COVID-19, too, is accelerating the change: cremation is faster than burial—a great advantage during the pandemic when funeral homes are strained by an unusually large number of bodies—and the World Health Organization has recommended cremation instead of embalming to prevent the spread of the virus. Celia has referred to an open-casket funeral with an embalmed and dressed-up body as a “traditional American experience.” This tradition, it seems, is dying.
Oak Grove Crematory, the official cremation branch of Celia’s business, now receives as much attention as the funeral home. In one corner of the casket room are pamphlets about “The Living Urn,” a new, $129 service that allows people to grow plants out of the ashes of their loved ones. Celia hasn’t gone as far as some funeral homes in incorporating services that turn ashes into cups, rings, fireworks, glass art, memorial tattoos, or vinyl records, but she is already adjusting to the new trends to keep her business alive.
There is, however, only so much one can adjust and only so much one can control. Celia has her uncontrollables: kids who do not want to take over the family business. Unlike my father, who kept me away from his business, Celia would very much love for her two sons to take over her place. But reality speaks differently. Both of her sons live in New York now. One graduated from Yale and works for American Express, the other works for the Michelin-star-winning Momofuku Restaurant Group. Neither has any intention of returning to West Haven. They believe they could do better than her business.
We are in Celia’s car driving back to campus when I ask her what will become of West Haven Funeral Home. She stays silent for a good moment, and I see her tighten her grip on the steering wheel.
“Big corporations will buy it,” she finally says. She would retire completely and receive good compensation. But is that what she really wants?
When Nello started the business, he named it “West Haven Funeral Home” so it carried the name of the town instead of his own Italian name. Back then, West Haven was a town divided between Italians and Irishmen; funeral homes served either one group or the other, and a place named “Pinzi Funeral Home” would only attract Italians. But Nello wanted his place to belong to everyone in West Haven. Through the name, he left Celia with a special legacy. She feels the weight of the name every time she sees a crowd gather in her hallway and spill into the parking lot, or when she and Mike restore a mutilated body’s dignity and open the casket for visitors to weep at the ephemeral beauty of their loved one, resting among flowers, which will soon become their last memory of the deceased. But West Haven Funeral Home, despite its name, is fundamentally a family business. When Celia cannot take care of it anymore, her father’s business will be, despite all her efforts keeping it alive, as dead as my own father’s.
Celia has referred to an open-casket funeral with an embalmed and dressed-up body as a ‘traditional American experience.’ This tradition, it seems, is dying.
Then comes the ultimate agonizing question: why do we try? Why do we try so hard to keep something alive, knowing that it will eventually die? If death is inevitable, how should one go? When Celia prepares a body for an open-casket wake, she does it so that the family remembers only the beautiful ending, not the ugly thing leading up to death—be it traffic accident or overdose, an act of violence or a long, painful, disease. But Celia has no one to turn to when her business dies, someone like her to make everything neat and clean and hide away the ugliness behind flowers and cosmetics. Instead, there are two big funeral corporations, Carriage Funeral and Service Corporation International, which have been conducting “cluster business” for a while—joined businesses with shared staff and shared equipment in a certain region. Both trade on the stock exchange. “They go into an area and saturate it,” Celia tells me. And they are saturating Connecticut. One has already acquired a family-owned funeral home in West Haven, to pair with another in Milford. Celia knows the ending. She tries not to think about it. She is good at compartmentalizing, after all.
Nine years ago, Celia worked on a series of funerals for the children killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. She heard the news right after her office’s in-house Christmas party and immediately decided to drive up to Newtown where the school is located to visit Daniel Honan, the only funeral director in town. For some reason she felt that she had to be there, the same way she felt that she had to take over her father’s business. When Honan saw her, he recognized her as the late Nello J. Pinzi’s daughter, and asked her if she needed any help. “I came to help you,” Celia responded.
She was the first to help. Others followed. Soon, a circle of funeral directors nearby set up a temporary command station at Honan’s funeral home, and they divided the work. Celia took the bodies of three children back to West Haven Funeral Home and embalmed them before bringing them back to Newtown. “They needed so much reconstruction for the families to view them,” she said. “I was exceedingly aware that these were babies, that these were little kids. And why is it different from any child?”
“It was twenty of them. That’s what’s surreal.”
At the command station, there were always at least two people working together at a time, and people took turns when they felt that they couldn’t continue the work anymore. Every once in a while, Celia held hands with the other funeral directors, encouraging each other that they still had everything under control. Families came; state troopers came; the media came; President Obama came. Celia did not know about Obama’s attendance because she deliberately avoided the news. A few reporters attempted to interview Celia, asking her if she had any comments. “And sometimes I would say, I just don’t, I’m—I’m overwhelmed. And I’m speechless. I don’t know what to say,” she remembered. Finally, all the bodies were restored, dressed, fingerprinted so jewelry could be made with prints, set up for viewing, sent to church services and eventually to cemeteries or crematories. The work was done.
Celia told me about her work with the children from Sandy Hook nine years to the day after the shooting happened. It had been almost a decade, yet what happened had never left her. I asked her what made her carry on, both with her work there and with her work after that. Celia acknowledged that it was partially the humanity and empathy she saw among the funeral directors and helpers, and the overflows of anonymous letters, flowers, and gifts sent to every service. But, being Celia, she also felt a duty to carry on. “Again, my compartmentalization,” she said. “This is what I need to do.”
On my last visit to the West Haven Funeral Home, Celia was supervising two temporary employees as they loaded a van with bodies to be cremated. I stood in the hallway while the men hurried around, carrying at least half-a-dozen caskets to the van. One of them, wearing a faded baseball cap and smelling of tobacco, asked me to step aside so he could remove another body from the prep room. I stepped into the slightly hazy afternoon sun. The van was right in front of me. It was filled with caskets, mostly simple, resembling cardboard boxes. It was hard to imagine that each cardboard box contained a person who had once walked the surface of this planet. In this dying business, there is a lot of burning to be done.