When Mr. Neufeld’s father opened the funeral home on 43rd Avenue in 1940, Elmhurst was a close-knit, suburban-style neighborhood where families with names like Shea, Bausheimer, Stahl and Celentino kept the local funeral market healthy. But when Raymond Neufeld and his brother, Joseph, took over the business in the mid-1970s, a growing influx of Asian immigrants, including Chinese, Koreans, Thais and Filipinos, combined with a continuing drop in the city’s annual death rate, began to transform the business.
The Demography of Death
Increasingly, newer arrivals to Elmhurst sought out other neighborhoods, ones where Asian and South Asian traditions were more deeply ingrained, to take their dead. And so over the next two decades, even as Elmhurst’s five other funeral homes closed or relocated, leaving Gerard J. Neufeld the sole survivor, the brothers Neufeld saw no growth in their own business.
“We constantly have to resell ourselves to the new people coming in so they’re not afraid of dealing with the American guy,” Joseph Neufeld, 57, said about the neighborhood’s growing number of self-contained ethnic pockets. “But with some groups, that’s becoming harder to do. Sometimes the barriers go beyond language.”
“I’m sure there are other funeral homes in the city that are doing very well,” Raymond Neufeld said at day’s end as he prepared to return home to his family on Long Island, where he is a volunteer firefighter. “But for us, the shifts in the business and the neighborhood changed funerals from being a lucrative endeavor to just about a break-even thing. Now, it’s only a matter of time before a Chinese funeral home opens up around here.”