The art of Kevin Blythe Sampson



An Undertaker With Purple Nails -

Character Study

An Undertaker With Purple Nails

Julie Glassberg for The New York Times

Doris V. Amen, a funeral director in Brooklyn, refuses to dress dowdy, even while working wakes at the Jurek-Park Slope Funeral Home, which she has owned since 1989. More Photos »

“SOMETIMES you got to do it all yourself,” said Doris V. Amen late one recent weeknight as she hopped up onto the back of her hearse, clamped her high-heeled pumps onto the back bumper and yanked a stubborn corpse on a stretcher out onto a windswept Brooklyn street.

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She wheeled the body into the embalmer’s office and left it next to a pair of unclothed waxy bodies stitched up like handbags. Then she headed back to the Jurek-Park Slope Funeral Home, where she is the funeral director.

Ms. Amen — yes, it is her surname, pronounced like laymen — bought the business in 1989 from a Polish family. Her clientele is still largely Polish, though she is not.

“Italian, but Brooklyn, born and raised,” she said, sitting in her tiny office, which is full of memorabilia and which rumbles every time the R train goes by.

As usual, she had her fuel: an extra large Dunkin’ Donuts coffee, mugs of fudge-flavor diet soda, and her electronic cigarette. And as usual, she wore a form-fitting knit dress and matching pumps. She was painting her long nails purple to match them.

Her two Cadillacs were parked outside the funeral home, on Fourth Avenue near the Green-Wood Cemetery: her 1978 silver hearse and her 2009 XLR coupe. The coupe gets a lot of whistles. The hearse is good for errands because it doesn’t get parking tickets. The decorative pillow above Ms. Amen’s head was embroidered with the words “Behind every successful woman is herself.”

“People are sometimes surprised I’m a funeral director,” she said. “But I tell them, ‘Listen, if a woman can bring you into the world, she can certainly bring you out.’ ”

Ms. Amen says she lands a lot of customers with her $1,999 starting price for a wake. This buys the use of a nice coffin for the viewing only. After that, the body is put in a cardboard box for cremation or burial.

“It’s bare bones, literally,” said Ms. Amen, who grew up in Bay Ridge and came of age there in the Saturday Night Fever era, a product of Fort Hamilton High School and Brooklyn College.

She has no children — “I have cystic fibrosis in my family and I didn’t want to pass it on to more children” — and her marriage ended in divorce 15 years ago. Since then, she has had two serious relationships, but both men died. She handled their wakes and funerals, and even prepared the bodies for viewing.

On this night, down in the funeral home’s furnished basement, Ms. Amen prepared for her annual Halloween party. She put a Frankenstein figure in a full-size coffin, and repurposed a child-size coffin to serve as a beer cooler. She also converted a large coffin into a couch by putting milk crates inside and laying cushions on them.

Last year, she surprised the partygoers by popping out of a coffin, long legs first, in a tiny miniskirt. This year, she would top that, she said, by wearing a leather dominatrix outfit and singing a few Rolling Stones numbers with a backup band at midnight.

In terms of funerals, things were quiet, though she was waiting on a “pending,” a Staten Island man who was “hanging on by a thread,” she said.

“Oh, please let him hang on till after my party,” she said, clasping her hands.

At 9 p.m., a family rang the buzzer seeking a next-day wake for their 95-year-old grandmother who had just died at the family’s apartment nearby. The family took the $1,999 deal. When they asked who would pick up the body, Ms. Amen pulled up her sleeve and flexed her bicep. The family members mustered a smile and handed Ms. Amen a $500 cash deposit. She tucked it into her bra and went out to start the hearse.

At the family’s apartment, with a police officer standing by, she pulled the bedsheet over the corpse and wrapped it cocoon-like, knotting it at the head and foot. Then, with the officer’s help, she lifted the body onto a stretcher and wheeled it out to the hearse. The family gave Ms. Amen an outfit to dress the corpse for the viewing, and Ms. Amen stuffed it into her purse.

By 2 p.m. the next day, Ms. Amen was dressing the body at her funeral home. The family, which had paid only the deposit, was two hours late to the viewing. An anxious Ms. Amen said she would drop the body at the medical examiner before paying for burial herself. (The family paid.)

“I’m not stupid,” she said, drawing on her electronic cigarette. “Don’t let the blond hair fool you.”

An Undertaker With Purple Nails -

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