The Walter B. Cooke Funeral Home
on Jerome Avenue had eight reposing rooms on the first floor, eight more
upstairs and an extension with four additional reposing rooms. We did over fifteen hundred funerals a year
in the days when people were laid out for two to three days. The business employed little old ladies to
direct people to the proper reposing rooms and take care of getting tissues or
water for the grief stricken. We called
them “floor ladies.” Most of the floor
ladies were Irish and lived in the neighborhood. They knew everybody and everything about
“Good evening. You’re Margaret Connely’s niece aren’t
you? Now who are you here to see, dear?”
“Mr. O’Dwyer. How are you Mrs. Doyle? My Aunt Margaret couldn’t come so I said I’d
go to show the family’s respect for Mr. O’Dwyer. He and my father and Uncle James go way back
“Your Auntie’s not under the
weather now is she?”
“It’s nothing that won’t
pass. The doctor says she has ta’
flu. She’s feelin’ poorly right now but
she’ll be well in no time. ‘Twas all I
could do ta’ keep ‘er in bed ta’ night.”
“Give her my regards and tell her I
expect to see her back in church in no time.
Meanwhile come this way, Mr. O’Dwyer’s right down here on the left.”
One of the ladies, Mrs. Doyle was
starting to look a bit shabby just because she was so old. Even her white uniform looked as though it
had been worn just a bit too often.
Eventually she got sick and had to stop working. We went over to her house to visit her and
bring her candy. She always wanted to
hear all the news from the funeral home.
“What’s doin’ at ta’ home? And don’t ya’ be tellin’ me nottin’. I’m smarter than that’n I’ll know when you’re
shortin’ me on ta’ gossip.”
We told her who was laid out and
regaled her with stories about the antics of our co-workers. I told her about my kids and the silly things
that they did.
“My oldest, Eddie, wanted to
knock the socks off the baseball out in the backyard. My wife gave him a gentle pitch and he took a
mighty swing. Just then, Brian ran out
of the house and when I scooped him up in time to keep Eddie’s bat from
smacking him in the head, I turned the wrong way and got clobbered in the tail
end with Eddie’s backswing. I fell face
down laughing so hard that I couldn’t answer and my poor wife and kids thought
Eddie had killed me.”
She told us what news she learned
from her other visitors.
“Mary Cunningham came by. She said ‘lizabeth Norton and ‘er husband are
talkin’ of retirin’ ta’ Florida. They’ll
never do it, their whole family is here.
Why da’ people talk such foolishness?”
Slowly she slipped further and
further away and finally she died.
Patsy Doyle was a loyal employee
and was very popular among the people who lived in her Irish Catholic
neighborhood. There was one thing
certain in that neighborhood; you were not really dead unless you were buried out
of Walter B. Cooke. We expected a lot of
callers during her viewing hours so Patsy Doyle reposed in one of our larger
first floor rooms.
I was on duty the first night
that Patsy was laid out. Calling hours
started in about thirty minutes. The
floor lady was off helping someone with a few last minute details. Consequently there was nobody at the door to
greet early arrivals. Two old ladies
rapped on the office door and stuck their heads in.
“Excuse me. Can I talk to you a minute?”
“Absolutely. What can I do for you?”
“We’re here to see Mrs.
Doyle. Can you tell us where she is?”
This sort of thing happened
fairly often. People came to call before
the official viewing hours began.
Sometimes the callers had to go to work or had some other pressing need
that interfered with coming at the appointed time. Sometimes the caller just wanted to be sure
that he would miss the rosary.
In this case the family wasn’t
there yet but everything was set and the ladies could pay their respects and
sign the book. Then they could decide
whether or not they wanted to wait to see the family.
“She’s right inside. Here, let me take you to her.”
The next thing I knew one of them
was on her knees.
“Oh my God! Why did you do that to us!?”
I was thoroughly confused. “What are you talkin’ about?”
Apparently these two ladies had
moved out of the neighborhood.
Completely unaware of Mrs. Doyle’s death, they merely stopped by to see
Mrs. Doyle and catch up on all of the latest news.
I got hell from everybody over
that one. I still say I did nothing
wrong. How was I supposed to know?