My whole life was in front of me then, never giving a thought to death or wakes. Then as I got older, no matter how far I traveled, these were the very things that always brought me back home to Windsor Terrace. To Smith's.
No matter how much that Brooklyn neighborhood changed, Smith's always seemed the same to me. Time froze in that building. In an odd way, it was the only reality left here now. You walked in, shrugged off your overcoat, and headed down the long narrow hallway that lead to the bottom floor room. It was always that same room.
You would sign the book under the small, brass lamp, walk up and pay your respects, and there was always this feeling that you were home again. Smith's, we never called it M.J. Smith's, served as a sort of final, celestial passageway out of Windsor Terrace. It was as much a part of our lives as Holy Name Church across the street where our baptismal certificates and report cards are still on record. To us, it was our birthright.
No matter how far away we moved, to Staten Island, to New Jersey, to Queens, to Long Island, an Irish wake at Smith's was always waiting for us. Once born here there really was no leaving. Coming back to Smith's in Windsor Terrace was just a part of the circle of our lives. It connected us forever. The writer, Pete Hamill, who was once an alter boy across the street in Holy Name Church, waked his mother, his father and a brother there.
Its history dates back to advertisements on the back of matchbook covers the funeral home used to place out in the lobby, "serving the community since 1875." However, it moved to 9th Avenue in 1910. About four months ago, rumors started spreading quickly through the neighborhood that they were selling Smith's, closing it down.
Recently, I went back there and found that the once prominent, hunter green awning with the name Smith's on it had been stripped clean of its metal frame that extended out to the street. A huge building for sale sign hung over it now.
"Even dying ain't the same in the old neighborhood," said Denis Hamill, the New York Daily News columnist, who is as much a part of Windsor Terrace as Farrell's Bar and Grill. "Smith's was once the neighborhood's last call. Now that marvelous three-cushion shot in the same zip code, Smith's, Holy Name, Green-Wood Cemetery is over. A scratch."
"Seems like everybody that grew up in the neighborhood went through Smith's before their final resting place," said Bill Kahaly, a long time resident. "I mean, when we heard that it was closing it was like a source of conversation in the neighborhood, and it still is," he said as he stood in front of the rectory of Holy Name Church across the street from Smith's.
A sign in the window of the funeral home says that they "have relocated to 255 9th Street," the address of Joseph G. Duffy's Funeral home. "I went to a couple of wakes in Duffy's and it didn't seem the same for some reason," Kahaly said. "I know that we're talking about the death, the passing of somebody, but it's a tight neighborhood, and I guess most of us always thought that Smith's would be our final resting place. And another thing, after the wake, you can't walk to Farrell's anymore for some beers."
"We haven't closed, we've moved," said Gloria Bischoff as we sat in the office of Duffy's on 9th Street in Park Slope. She has worked for M.J. Smiths and Duffy's for over 20 years. At some time in the early 70's, the two funeral homes operated as one. Along with her was Dan Sturges, another long time associate of Smith's.
"The neighborhood has changed, "said Sturges, when asked why he thought Smith's was no longer doing business in Windsor Terrace. "There are newer people coming in. There are still many old timers around, there's no question about that, but it's becoming a younger neighborhood. You have a lot of people whose children move away. The parents still live there, but there is no guarantee that they are going to come back when the time comes for the parent's funeral. It used to be. Not anymore."
"We still use the old M.J. Smith's phone number, and they are still listed in the church bulletins," Bischoff said. " In the beginning we were getting calls like,'oh my God, we heard that Smith's closed.' And we tell them we just moved to 255 9th Street. We moved to bigger facilities with larger chapels."
No matter the reasons or explanations of the closing, feelings are still running high about the end of a one hundred year old funeral home that once served Windsor Terrace.
"They took something out of the neighborhood that was tradition, and now it's gone," said Bill Callahan, the day bartender at Rhythm and Booze on 10th Avenue and Prospect. "A lot of people were hurt by the closing of Smith's"
Up in Farrell's Bar on 16th Street and 9th Avenue, there were similar feelings. "Ever since I can remember that place was there. It was a landmark. The first thing I did when I heard it was closing was to call my wife, and then my brother in law down in Florida, and everybody I knew from the neighborhood. It was that important," said Al Cush whose father was waked there.
At my own mother's wake in Smith's, I remember being pulled away from the incredible grief of it all, a Galway woman in her 50's being struck down crossing the street with her arms filled with groceries. Tragedy. A three-night wake followed, filled with crowds of people from the neighborhood that never stopped flowing in as I sat up in the front row, dressed in a dark suit and white shirt, and black tie. I was 19.
On the third night, Howie, who drove the 9th Street Bus through our neighborhood, pulled me from the crowd and walked me to the men's room. He lifted up the back porcelain top of the toilet tank, and took out a six-pack of Rheingold Beer. He opened two of them and we drank them, and more. And life went on.
There was always something of an "Our Town" mood to wakes at Smith's Funeral Home. Families watched out for each other. Windsor Terrace was our Grover's Corners, and Smith's was part of it. There was always this sadness at wakes there, a profound silence as the living sat watch with the dead. But there was something more that I saw there when I was young, a sense always that life would continue, and the stars would continue "their old, old crisscross journeys in the sky" that Thornton Wilder wrote about.
Now it's gone.