Russians make up a large percentage of the modern-day clientele at the cemetery. They tend to be big spenders, huge spenders in fact. They prefer in-ground plots, which have become scarce and expensive. They will shell out for the black granite, laser-etched monuments. They will buy the gaudiest caskets in stock; shiny, gold-leafed boxes that cost more than a new car. They will clean out the flower shop in one go; after a Russian funeral, the store would be bare except for stems and loose petals. Their funerals are large, with usually hundreds of attendees. There are a lot of open displays of emotion too; sobbing, hysteria, pounding on the casket.
To service this sizable source of revenue, we had our own special cadre of Russian funeral directors and salespeople. They tended to keep to themselves, and didn’t mingle with the other funeral directors. The Russians had nice cars; late-model Benz, Lexus, and BMW cars occupied their preferred niche of the parking area. The other funeral directors drove a motley assortment of cheaper cars of assorted vintage. Rumors abounded that many of our Russian clients had mobster connections, and some of them overtly did. Not all of them, but a significant and disproportionate amount. The Russian funeral directors wouldn’t even speak to us lowly drivers; they’d send an assistant. The other funeral directors treated us as part of the family, if not quite inner circle.
However, there was one funeral director, Ollie, who kept in close with the Russians. He wasn’t a Russian himself; he was a lapsed Mormon from Utah. He was known to be a hard drinker, and fancied himself a ladies’ man. He always had cash on him, and was the type who’d tip one of us a C-note for doing him a favor. He was also a man with a lot of secrets, so many that a certain furtiveness came to dominate his general demeanor. He looked like he was lying to you whenever he told you anything.
Early on in my career, before I really understood the law and how things worked, I got a call at 6AM from Ollie. “Are you awake?”,he asked. “Get dressed and come outside. I’m already in front of your place. I need you to go on a run with me”.
I was up in a jiffy; helping Ollie on a 6AM run seemed like a good way to get a $100 tip. I was kind of flattered he had taken it upon himself to just show up at my place; there were others who had been doing the job a lot longer. However, I also lived the closest to the cemetery, so I figured that maybe that was behind it. Either way, I figured it was small inconvenience to get in good with Ollie; I figured helping him would lead to other interesting, and perhaps lucrative, assignments.
He was in the white Chevy van we used for hospital and morgue runs. “We have a pick-up at a residence.”, he told me.
“Why didn’t you bring the Cadillac? I just washed it last night”, I asked him. Usually we use the hears for residential pick-up; it looks more elegant than stowing the beloved in a cargo van.
“The family doesn’t want to attract a lot of attention. It’s one of Victor’s cases. They’re Russian.”
“Oh, I see”.
We pulled into a driveway of a place on Hobart. It was about as nondescript of a residence as one could imagine, aside from the expensive cars in the driveway. The neighborhood was a quiet, residential, middle-class one, just beginning to stir with morning activity. We exited the van and made our way to the front door.
“When we get inside, you are not to say a word”, Ollie instructed me. “You will follow me into the bedroom, we will secure her, and we will leave. The family is expecting us.” He rang the doorbell. “Remember: just remain quiet and do as I tell you”
A youngish man answered the door. He seemed solemn but not especially grieving, although I figured he might be the type to hold it inside; everybody’s different. Inside the living room was a woman, whom I presumed was the young man’s wife, and two older men. Without exchanging more than the most cursory of greetings, they led us to the bedroom and left us alone to work.
The case was a woman in her 60’s. She had been suffering from an illness for some time, and had mostly remained in bed in her last days. We found her on the floor, where she had apparently fallen. There was a contusion on her temple, with coagulating blood around it.
“What happened?” I whispered.
“She was sick and she fell” said Ollie, laying a sheet beside her. “Help me get her rolled up and onto the gurney, we need to do this fast”, he told me in a harsh whisper that suggested he was in no mood for questions. So, we loaded her onto the gurney, strapped her up, and wheeled he out.
The family was still assembled in the living room, and their conversation hushed as we entered. “Thank you for your help” the young man said, in an Americanized Russian accent. “Tell Victor we will take care of everything today” Nobody attempted to touch the case on the gurney in a last gesture of farewell, as so often happens.
We drove back in relative silence, although Ollie put on the radio for company. When we arrived, he instructed me to wait in the car while he unlocked the front gates; it was only 7:30, and the park didn’t open until 9:00. We then drove back to the embalmer’s building to stow her in the cooler. We unloaded her, wheeled her in, found a good shelf for her, and slid her into her place. Then, it was time to talk turkey.
“So, here’s the deal”, Ollie said, fishing his wallet out of his hip pocket. He pulled out a $100, glanced at me, and pulled out another two $20’s. “This was a personal favor. Just between us”
“Sure thing”, I said, reaching for the sign-in clipboard.
Ollie reached out and literally smacked the board out of my hand. “Aren’t you listening?”, he said, raising his voice but not quite breaking a whisper. “I said it is just between us. Don’t sign her in, don’t do anything. Your involvement in this matter is ended. I will handle all the paperwork”. He handed me the money. “You live just two blocks from here, don’t you?”
“Do me a favor and go home, have some breakfast or something, and come back at 9:00, like none of this happened”
“Okay”, I told him. I didn’t know what kind of shenanigans were afoot, but something about his tone told me he meant business. I headed home, puttered around for awhile, came back and quickly forgot about my mission with Ollie. We were getting into the first month of the death season, and things were getting busy.
Ollie was fired two months later. I never did figure out what was the cause of his dismissal, but there were several competing rumors, all of which sounded plausible. It wasn’t until years later that it finally dawned on me why he had called me to go on that run; it was because I was a newbie. The veterans would have known that the presence of blood and a body on the floor was a police matter, not a cemetery pick-up job; a body with a visible injury has to be reported to the coroner. I didn’t know this stuff; there is no formal training for my job. Ollie was doing Victor the favor; I wonder how much Victor paid him?