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Grave Situation for City's Funeral Homes: New Yorkers Just Aren't Dying Like They Used To


After 40 years of working in Williamsburg, Keith Senko thought he’d heard and seen it all. He grew up in the family business, Senko Funeral Home, founded in 1928 on Bedford Avenue. He’d seen the neighborhood transform as Polish and Hispanic families gave way to rebel artists, hipster hordes and, now, creative yuppies. Bookings for Catholic wakes went down; requests for alternative ceremonies went up.

“I’ve done every kind of funeral under the sun: Wiccan, Apache, Blackfoot, Hindu, Buddhist—you name it,” said Senko, 58.

But a couple of years ago, he got a call that surprised him. “They wanted to ‘check out’ our venue—I’d never heard that before,” he said. The caller said the deceased, a lifelong Manhattan resident, had been “extremely hip,” so the funeral needed to be as well.

“It had to be in Williamsburg, they said, because it had to be ‘on the cutting edge.’ That was a new one,” Senko recalled. “I told them we’ve been on the cutting edge for a hundred years.”

If Williamsburg were to become a hot funeral destination, Senko would be a chief beneficiary: He has the neighborhood’s last funeral parlor north of the Williamsburg Bridge. One by one, his competitors closed: Blizinzki Funeral Home on Metropolitan Avenue, Abramo’s on Humboldt Avenue, Polakas on Berry Street, Matthew Ballas on Grand Street and others since the 1990s.

A similar pattern has been playing out across the city. Over two decades, hundreds of funeral homes have shuttered, many of them multigeneration family businesses—neighborhood mainstays who could be counted on to remember old-timers’ nicknames or provide a steady presence to the grieving.

“It’s unbelievable what’s happened,” said Robert Ruggiero, executive director of the Metropolitan Funeral Directors Association, a local trade group. When he took office in 1990, the organization’s directory listed 841 funeral homes. Last year, his mailing list was down to 473, a 44% drop.

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