Joel and Isaac Barkay, proprietors of Barkay Bros. Funeral Home on East Folkim St., announced last week that they had accepted an undisclosed offer from the giant mortuary services conglomerate ServLimited International to purchase their business. The local funeral home had been run by the Barkay family for 72 years. Joel and Isaac, lifelong bachelors aged 69 and 67 respectively, agreed to sit for an interview with The City Desk to tell the story of the rise and fall of Barkay Bros., and to reminisce over the most memorable moments on the job.
“Dad was always able to make very shrewd decisions in his life,” began Joel. “He was working as an apprentice undertaker in Poland in 1932, and had the good sense to leave everything behind and move to America.”
Benjamin Barkay found his way to the city in the summer of 1932, and rented a one bedroom apartment in the thriving Jewish community on 112th street. He spent his days working for a grocer and his evenings practicing his English and studying his preferred vocation. In 1937, Barkay finally saved enough money to open his own enterprise. He called it “Barker Funeral Home,” anglicizing his surname, fearing anti-Semitism might drive away business.
In 1939, Benjamin Barkay was married to Bina Feinstein in a small ceremony at the old Temple Shalom-Beth Israel on Shetler Square. Bina bore Benjamin two sons, Joel and Isaac. Barkay prepared his sons from a very young age to someday take over his business. He took older son Joel on as his apprentice, and insisted Isaac learn the stonecutting trade.
“Dad figured that if I could make the headstones for the burials, he wouldn’t have to ally himself with the local Stoneworker’s Union, who he had decided were ‘a bunch of crooked price-gouging schmucks’,” explained Isaac. In this way, Barkay was able to keep his operating costs low, and business began to flourish even in hard economic times.
In 1953 a chain of events started that would change Barker Funeral Home forever. Popular former Mayor Orson Winthrop, then 96 years old, was walking his Pomeranian downtown on July 19 when he was stuck by a streetcar. Winthrop’s estate paid Barkay an enormous sum to make sure the mayor had one of the finest funerals the city had ever seen.
“Dad pulled out all the stops for Mayor Winthrop’s funeral,” recalled Joel, who was 15 years old at the time. “A mile-long procession through downtown, a 20-piece bagpipe band, black satin ticker-tape tossed from rooftops, huge bouquets of flowers, a horse-drawn carriage for a hearse, the best plot at Elmwood (Memorial Gardens)… the whole works.”
Needless to say, the funeral garnered a lot of attention for Barker Funeral Home. Then, in October 1955, Benjamin Barkay pulled off his biggest and best scheme yet.
On October 2nd, the Union-Star-Sentinel-Telegraph-Bee Gazette published a story by reporter Ward Ellis about the death and disappearance of all but the tiny, pickled liver of a homeless orphan named Tony [More on that here– Ed.]. The story quickly captured the hearts and imaginations of the city’s residents. Benjamin Barkay, sensing opportunity, used his influence as the brains behind the Winthrop funeral to acquire an audience with Mayor Harcourt. Barkay suggested it would be excellent publicity for Harcourt’s re-election campaign if a symbolic burial service was to be arranged for the orphan’s liver. Harcourt seized on the idea, and, not surprisingly, asked Barkay himself to handle the proceedings.
The hepatic funeral was executed so seamlessly and somberly, soon the crème de la crème of the city insisted on having their remains rendered by the famous Benjamin Barkay. The fact that Ward Ellis’ story about the orphan’s liver turned out to be an elaborate hoax did nothing to slow down the Barker Funeral Home’s success. There were even rumors that Barkay was in cahoots with Ellis from the start.
When The City Desk asked Joel and Isaac to comment on that allegation, they chuckle. “Not only did that crafty bastard probably set up the whole liver thing, it’s possible he was driving the streetcar that struck Mayor Winthrop, too,” joked Joel, winking a rheumy eye.
Sadly, Benjamin Barkay passed away in 1962 at the height of his business’s success. His sons, barely 20 years old, had inherited the funeral home. To honor their father’s memory, they restored the family name, calling it “Barkay Bros.” They moved all of their mortuary and stonecutting equipment to their current location on East Folkim St. in Wicker Hills, a strategic move to place them closer to the city’s finest burial grounds, Elmwood Memorial Cemetery.
Part II may be found here.
Related: The Orphan’s Liver [March 19, 2007]