Joel and Isaac Barkay, proprietors of Barkay Bros. Funeral Home on East Folkim St., announced recently that they had accepted an undisclosed sell 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. Part one may be found here.
Building upon the success of their late father, Joel and Isaac Barkay’s Barkay Bros. Funeral Home became the trendiest place in the city to have your corpse embalmed. Barkay Bros., over the last 47 years, has filled nearby posh Elmwood Memorial Cemetery to near capacity with a veritable Who’s Who among the city’s dead.
“The most important quality an undertaker can possess, aside from a strong stomach, is discretion,” insisted Joel Barkay in a recent interview with The City Desk. “We’ve buried all sorts of famous people here. I could tell you who had tattoos, false teeth, false hair and false limbs. I could tell you who had plastic surgery or breast implants. I could even tell you which well-known actress was born a man. But I won’t. That would be a violation of the Mortician’s Code of Ethics.”
Working with so many deceased actors, recording artists, writers, business tycoons, and other luminaries offered the Barkay brothers the opportunity to rub elbows with living celebrities as well.
“We had a Halloween party in the upstairs part of the Home back in 1972. Bobby ‘Boris’ Pickett was there with his band to play his song ‘The Monster Mash,’” recalled Isaac. “There were all sorts of actors and singers and Playboy playmates and whatnot dressed in all these great costumes. Everyone was having a nice time. But then things started to get weird. Turns out this putz, some two-bit late-night horror movie host dressed like a vampire, was passing out sugar cubes laced with LSD. Some of the most beautiful people I’ve ever seen were screaming, crying, shivering and just basically tripping balls all through the funeral home. Bad scene.”
Of course, the Barkays also buried ordinary people during their tenure.
But that doesn’t mean that they didn’t have extraordinary funerals. “I remember this one fella, a strapping Scandinavian type named Fjalar something,” recollected Joel. “I’d just finished dressing his body for the casket his sister had picked out for him, when I get a call from a lawyer in Iceland saying the stiff’s will expressed a desire for a traditional Viking funeral. Apparently, these Vikings liked to have their bodies pushed out to sea on giant, floating, flaming pyres. Who am I to judge?
“So, Isaac and I build this makeshift raft, strap Fjalar down next to a couple barrels of oil, and drive with his family up to Mischcoon Lake one night. We did it in secret, because the whole mess was probably illegal. Anyway, we do the service, light the raft with a torch, and shove it off into the water. And the damn thing explodes not 20 yards out. The fireball nearly singed off my eyebrows. We all jumped in the hearse and got the hell out of there.”
Joel is a licensed undertaker, and Isaac is a stonecutter, able to craft beautiful grave markers. Having experts in both specialties under one roof make for lower business costs, but on one occasion it led to near disaster.
“I was in the shop working on a bronze plaque when I go to open on of the 30 gallon drums of the acid I use for metal etching,” remembered Isaac. “I pop the lid, and right away I notice a familiar smell. It was embalming fluid. Horrified, I ran down to the basement to tell Joel about the mix-up, but… well, let’s just say I was too late. Thank God it was already a closed-casket job.”
When asked if he had any favorite epitaphs from over the years, Joel says the one that stuck with him is an epitaph that (nearly) didn’t make its way onto the headstone.
“When (millionaire furniture magnate) David Floyd Lowell died in 1984, his will stipulated a simple, unadorned headstone that read simply ‘Forgive me, Sylvester.’ I have no clue who this Sylvester fella was, but the idea that such a rich and powerful man was so haunted by his deeds that he wanted his final message to be an austere plea for forgiveness… well, it was just very poignant.
“Lowell’s wife couldn’t stand the idea of seeing her husband in a pauper’s grave, though, so she filed an injunction with a court to have that stipulation stripped from the will.”
As you may be aware, the memorial Lowell wound up with is a twelve-foot long marble duvet, ornamented with brass accents and claw feet, atop an overbearing mausoleum.
“That thing took me nearly 6 weeks to finish,” Isaac said of the mausoleum. “But if you were to climb up and look on the underside of the duvet, you’d see ‘Forgive me, Sylvester’ carved in tiny letters.
“The customer is always right.”
Isaac and Joel recently sold Barkay Bros. Funeral Home to national mortuary services chain ServLimited International, citing economic woes. The brothers were offered positions to work as employees of ServLimited International, but they decided together that it was better to retire. They’ll continue to perform funerals throughout the end of August.
“So, if you want to enlist our personal services,” advised Joel, “make sure to be dead by then.”
— Ray Ingraham