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A Grave of One’s Own

In the age of Trump, a funeral home in Brooklyn is doing a brisk business repatriating dead Muslim immigrants.

Rizwan Tabassum

Erhan Yildirim and Ahmet Turk Kargi had gone to the same mosque in Brooklyn for 20 years, but they didn’t become partners until Kargi woke Yildirim up from a nap. During Ramadan in 2009, Kargi would signal to his neighbors that it was time to break fast by opening his fourth-floor window in the building he shared with his mother in Bensonhurst to yell out, “Allahu akbar!” One of those neighbors was Yildirim. As the New York Police Department’s official liaison to the Muslim community, he has been the face of Islam in the city for the past 15 years. He woke up from the couch that had induced him into an afternoon slumber, and called Kargi to thank him for his yelling. As they broke their fast together, the conversation turned to Kargi’s search for employment, and Yildirim told him to be at the business at eight o’clock the following morning, sharply dressed.

The business in question is Piro Funeral Home Inc., which not only offers observant burials to New York City’s Muslims, but also traffics in the highly specialized line of repatriating corpses. Yildirim and a partner saw demand for such a business in the 1990s, and in 2001 he opened a location in Brooklyn, allegedly where Italian immigrant Navy Yard workers once had their bodies prepared to be sent back to Italy by boat. (The company used to be called Islamic Funeral Services, but Kargi changed it after he found that drivers honked, cursed, and swerved at cars with the Islamic Funeral Services name.) It has always been a steady business, but the whole concept of immigrant corpse repatriation has gained new meaning in the age of Donald Trump. “People are scared about Trump winning and Muslim concentration camps happening,” Kargi, 41, told me. “The directions that things are going in, people are very, very, very scared.”

Kargi has been running things since 2013, when Yildirim officially retired. Yildirim, with his crisp blazer and naturally ombréd silver beard, has been a fixture in New York for years, but rose to special prominence following the September 11 attacks. On a gray, slightly rainy day in October, he took me to a Turkish restaurant in Manhattan where everyone knew his name. A man who’s seen his share of press conferences, he clutched my tape recorder like a microphone, tossing it from hand to hand, sometimes placing it on the table, sometimes millimeters from his lips, all with the dextral arrogance of an athlete playing a home game. He had aged considerably since I saw him last. The funeral business had taken its toll.

Yildirim believes the undertaking profession should have a term limit of five years. During the Ottoman Empire, he said, butchers switched professions and became gardeners every six months. He had stayed too long and given too much of his own life, to both the living and the dead. “When a person dies and goes into the ground or flies home and then goes into the ground, that’s a journey. And in that journey you’re the pilot,” he said. It was an immense responsibility and he did it dutifully. But it was hard. He buried friends. He repatriated his father. “He had a liver transplant and there were some things missing on his right side, so I had to sew him closed with my own hands,” he said. “Wash him, prepare him. Back home, I did the funeral, even the religious part. The funeral service? I prayed it. What else can you do as a son to your father?”

Freed to focus on his work with the NYPD, Yildirm no longer keeps tabs on his former protégé. Kargi runs a tight ship. There are five full-time employees who are on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week. I visited the morning of a Bosnian repatriation, and everything moved speedily and quietly. I tell him the job seems emotionally exhausting. “The hardest part of my job is explaining that there’s a filing process, death certificates application process, burial permits that need to be attained,” he replied. “Even if I do attain the death certificates, each cemetery has different protocols. Some don’t do same-day burials.” At the end of the day he’s the guy who has to tell grieving families no.

When Kargi’s father was dying of cancer, he asked him whether he wanted his body sent back to Turkey. “God’s earth is God’s earth,” his father answered. “At least if I’m buried here, you can come and visit, because how often are you going to go back to Turkey?” His grave is in New Jersey.

Kargi’s father represents one segment of the aging immigrant population, and his customers represent the other. The history of American immigration is not only a story of settlers, but of sojourners, those who yearned to return home but could not, those who never felt like they belonged at all. We know that the Kong Chow Company returned 1,002 groups of likely immigrant bones to China by 1875, and disinterment was not uncommon. But it was not until the advent of the airplane that the repatriation of immigrant corpses could be done safely and in the mainstream. Now there are groups that specialize in the repatriations of many different nationalities. It’s a niche market because each group’s needs are different. Some Cuban-born immigrants have it in writing that when Fidel Castro dies, their bodies should be disinterred and sent back to Cuba. The bodies of Mexican immigrants who die crossing the border are stuck in a geographic limbo, a humanitarian crisis and administrative nightmare. Zimbabwe has a repatriation program that excludes coverage for citizens abroad who die as a result of “nuclear explosion, mountaineering, parachute jumping or skydiving, and war.”

About half the cases Kargi handles are repatriation cases. A call comes in, and he gathers vital information to prepare for “the removal”—when the deceased is picked up from a hospital or home. Then he begins paperwork: There are death certificates, burial permits, transmit permits, non-contagious disease letters. There’s the embalming and the religious wash, in which the body is shampooed head to toe then rinsed. It’s a ritual washing—water three times in the mouth, nose, and face. Then the ritualistic shrouding, the body wrapped in three layers of pure linen cloth. Last, the person is placed in a transport casket. Shipping cases, even expensive ones, basically look the same—just a wooden box with metal lining to keep air out. Caskets need to be pure wood. Even the pegs are wooden. The goal is for the person and the casket to decompose and become one with the earth. Sometimes people pour gallons of water onto the plot to wet everything in hopes it will decompose faster.

If the family wants a prayer service at the mosque, Kargi arranges it so that by the time the service is over, consulate paperwork is finalized and they can go straight to the airport. Muslim tradition states that a dead body must be buried within 24 hours, but that’s hard if a Muslim dies in Florida or Georgia, where death certificates can take three to five days to process at a minimum. California is the worst: It can take up to seven days. Piro Funeral Home has a longstanding relationship with Turkish Airlines, and Kargi is confident he can book a flight for a funeral before 9 am and ship before noon. Most repatriations go to Bosnia, Montenegro, Uzbekistan, Kosovo, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, but they’ve gone to more far-flung places, like Ethiopia and the Ivory Coast.

An aging immigrant’s choice of a final resting place is a politically powerful decision. I think of Chopin, who had it both ways. On his deathbed in Paris he asked for his heart to be cut from his body and buried in Poland. His body now lies at the Pere Lachaise cemetery in Paris and his heart, after a brief stay with the Nazis, is preserved in alcohol, probably cognac, at the Holy Cross Church in Warsaw. I’ve spoken to repatriation leaders in the Colombian immigrant community who stress that a lack of official recognition by the state prompts some immigrants—many of them undocumented—to decide the only dignified place of rest can be their home countries. I ask Kargi why so many immigrant families would pay a full thousand dollars more to have a loved one’s body shipped to a place they might not be able to regularly visit, the concern his own father had. “A sense of being close to their ancestors is probably one of the main motivators,” he said. “Every country has spilled blood in order to establish itself, so [they do it] for the sake of their grandfathers’ honor and respect. Or more simple than that, they just want to be buried next to their mother and father.”

Kargi’s father is buried at Jersey State Memorial Park Cemetery. His mother still lives in the building out of whose window he yelled out to mark the break of fast all those years ago. “I love America just as much as any other American, if not more,” he tells me, citing the opportunities his immigrant parents gave him. I remember the words of one famous expatriate, Gabriel Garcia Marquez , who wrote that “a person doesn’t belong to a place until there is someone dead underground.” Quietly, I ask Kargi if his mother has decided where she will be buried. Jersey State Memorial Park Cemetery, he said, same as her husband, same as their only son.