For more than 50 years, Edward Yarmus has been spending his days with the dead and those who love them. The longtime funeral director loves his work — and remains upbeat about life.
“No regrets,” he tells The Jewish Week, in an interview about his long career, still going strong at Plaza Jewish Community Chapel on the Upper West Side, where he has worked since 2001.
“To me, it’s more than a job,” he says. “I know that I can make a difference when someone leaves this world. I bring a lot of positive energy to that.”
It is, admittedly, an unusual line of work. Sometimes when he and his wife are out socially, he doesn’t want to get into the details. “I say I’m a window washer. Or I say that I’m there for the end of life and I cut it short.”
Meeting up with Yarmus has been complicated to plan, as he doesn’t know his schedule from day to day, although he always arrives at Plaza by 6:30 a.m. from his home in Bergenfield, N.J. When contacted about a death, he has to shift into immediate action in making plans. When I arrive to interview him, he is sitting with a family; their meeting has gone longer than expected.
“He is a unique human being with an enormous heart,” Stephanie Garry, chief administrative officer of Plaza, tells The Jewish Week. “It takes a special breed to work in this world. To be so present and caring for families every day is one of his greatest assets. Fifty years of doing just that is a long time.” Plaza recently honored him for his long service.
Yarmus, who is about to turn 75, was born in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and the family moved to Paterson, N.J., when he was 8. His mother and father immigrated to the U.S. as children, from Russia and Poland respectively, and his family was Conservative, kept a kosher home and he had a bar mitzvah in a local shul.
After high school, Yarmus felt called to serve in the U.S. Air Force and enlisted. Basic training was rough, but he enjoyed serving overseas. For several years in the 1960s, he was stationed in Numazu, Japan, at the foot of Mount Fuji, at the 5th Air Force Sea Survival School, training students from the Air Force and Navy who would be serving in Vietnam. He learned Japanese and on days off enjoyed driving around Japan in a 1953 black Chevrolet Belair.
“You came in as a boy and left as a man,” he says of his service.
After an honorable discharge in 1967, Yarmus returned to Paterson. A family friend who worked at a funeral chapel in Paterson asked Yarmus’ mother if Edward might be able to help them out. He worked with the funeral director and after some weeks asked how to pursue this sort of work. The funeral director wrote a character reference and suggested that he apply to the American Academy McAllister Institute of Funeral Service in New York City, and that costs would be covered under the G.I. bill.
At mortuary school, Yarmus studied anatomy, biology, public health, embalming and more, and the students visited Bellevue to see cadavers, all per New York State regulations for a funeral director’s license. Most students were going into family businesses. For him, it was all new but he already knew that he wanted to make a difference in the experience, for the living.
In 1968, he began his first job with Louis Hirsch & Sons in the Bronx, where he served for more than 30 years. There, he learned the specific Jewish rituals, which were not covered in school. In the beginning, funeral directors did everything, from picking up the body (and sometimes driving Chevra Kadisha, or burial society, members to the hospital or home first, to await transport) to making plans with the family to accompanying them to the burial. In those years, he worked closely with communities in Washington Heights, and now has the next generation of those families, who followed him to Plaza. In fact, one of those families introduced him to his wife over 40 years ago.
“Eddy, I got a tough one for you,” is a line he hears frequently. “Tough” might refer to a person dying far from home, or in a tragic accident, or to a family whose members are not speaking to one another. “Nothing phases me,” he says.
Ever accommodating, he has helped people who want environmentally-friendly funerals to secure non-wooden caskets, and he has helped families who have built their own, from wood. When a family has financial concerns, he is able to adjust accordingly.
Rabbi Simon Hirschorn, director of religious affairs at the Hebrew Home at Riverdale, has known and worked with Yarmus for more than 20 years.
“He stands out as someone who combines professionalism and human kindness. He is working in a difficult business, dealing with people when they are most vulnerable. I know that any family I have spoken to that has had to deal with Eddie has been so appreciative of his kindness.”
Just as Yarmus was introduced to the field by a friend of the family, Darren Picht, manager of Plaza and funeral director, was brought in by Yarmus. Picht, who has now been in the field for more than 20 years, remembers a moment when he was 17 and in high school, mowing the lawn in Bergenfield, when Yarmus drove by, asked if he had a black suit, and told him to put it on and join him. The two went off to Co-op City in the Bronx, and Picht remembers being frightened as they entered the apartment of the deceased to transport the body to the funeral home.
“Mr. Yarmus — that’s what I called him then — told me, ‘This person will never hurt you. It’s the living you have to worry about.’”
Picht, who had been interested in forensics at the time, started working at Hirsch & Sons after high school, and attended mortuary school.
“The most important thing he taught me was his work ethic. If you are 10 minutes early, that means you are five minutes late. And I learned from his patience and understanding.”
As for changes in the field, Yarmus would like to see more families come into the business again. In order to attract more Jews to the idea of becoming funeral directors, Plaza offers a fellowship for schooling and training.
For Yarmus, Plaza is a sacred place. Although not a religious person, he feels the holiness around him at work. About the afterlife, he’s a believer.
“I’m not sure how to say this, there has to be something after you’re here. Somehow the soul and spirit live on.”
Has he ever feared death?
“Never, not even in the Air Force, when I was involved in potentially dangerous operations.”
He says that he has long understood that life can be cruel, but he can’t get emotional at work. His personal attitude: “You’re knocked down. You get right up. You do the best you can, you try to make a difference.”
He has seen challenging times, as one of his daughters was diagnosed with cerebral palsy at birth.
Yarmus has no plans to retire. These days, he no longer goes out to transport bodies — his emphasis is on dealing with families. When not working, he enjoys spending time with his wife Ann, two daughters Cheryl (now living on her own in a facility in Closter, N.J.) and Marsha, and three grandchildren. He is active with a fraternal organization, the Independent Order of Odd Fellows. In fact, through the organization, he has been able to help some people to afford burial plots.
“To me, the highest mitzvah is that everything goes smoothly for the family.”