It’s time for me to finally answer the question frequently asked of me….”So, what made you want to be a funeral director”? The “reason” died on September 25, 2009 and I thought it would be as good a time as any to tell the story.
It was Monday morning, August 5, 1974. Getting ready to start high school, but still in the middle of summer vacation, I recall being in my room, practicing my guitar lessons and looking out the window, I saw my grandfather and grandmother drive out of the yard. (They lived, along with my grandmother’s sister, in a mother-daughter apartment in our house.) I recall them telling me earlier that they were going to the doctor and then shopping.
I don’t recall how I found out, but I do recall riding with my dad in his unmarked police car to Raritan Valley Hospital, Green Brook, NJ where my grandfather had been taken. Even at fourteen, I knew exactly where I was going as I had started volunteering at the emergency room there at the beginning of the summer. The only memory of the hospital was looking into the “code room” and seeing my grandfather, looking blue, partially naked, with an ET (breathing) tube sticking out of his mouth. It was very upsetting and seemed surreal. My grandfather, at the age of sixty-two, fell over dead in a store after picking up a heavy bag off a shelf. Interestingly enough, he had just been to the doctor’s for an EKG and received a clean bill of health.
Once we got home, the commotion began. I remember only two things. First, I wanted to be alone and I isolated myself from my family and the parade of visitors. Second, every time the phone rang, I hoped it was the hospital; calling to tell us it was all a mistake.
On Wednesday afternoon, we went to the funeral home and that’s where, although I didn’t understand it at the time, learned the value of the phrase, “healthy psychology dictates meeting life’s problems, head on”. Once I got to the funeral home, I saw and touched his dead body. Although it was painful, I knew that the hospital wasn’t going to call. It was the first step in getting used to my “new normal”.
There was something about the funeral director, Teddy Levandoski that struck me. At a time when everyone was falling apart, he was in control. When no one knew what to do, Teddy guided us. At the age of fourteen, I realized, unconsciously at the time, that being a funeral director could be a good and noble thing to do with my life.
A few years later, I was preparing to graduate from Watchung Hills Regional High School and, although I knew I was going to college, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be a physician, a police officer, like my dad, or an undertaker. My father was pretty clear about the fact that he didn’t expect, nor want me to follow in his footsteps. Even as a police chief, he always had to keep a part time job or two to help make ends meet and to give my two sisters and me a better opportunity than he had. Still today, we don’t compensate our public safety officers and firefighters nearly enough for what they sacrifice.
I spent the first few weeks of 1978 summer vacation that year, working as a lifeguard and looking for a funeral home that would hire me, a shaggy haired, skinny, (but tanned) kid, who knew nothing about caring for the dead. After more rejections than I care to recall, I found a job an hour away. I was at the owner’s beck and call, twenty-four hours a day and seven days a week…all for the heart-stopping sum of $95.00/week. I became an expert in picking weeds in the rain as the boss thought they came up easier if the ground was wet. Alas, I digress.
I went away to college and Ted retired and moved to Florida. His son, Michael is about my age and carries on the family business in Bloomfield, NJ. We talk maybe once or twice a year and have worked together a few times as I have had the need to bury the last, remaining family members living near Bloomfield. I know that Mike and I have talked about it and he tells me that he had conveyed to his dad, the fact that he was “the original spark of funeral service” for my career that has now spanned over thirty ears. Although I talked to him on the telephone a few times over the years, I don’t recall ever seeing Ted after my grandfather’s funeral.
My mother called me last week and told me that she had seen Ted’s obituary in the paper and that I might want to call Mike. I did an Internet search and found the obituary and learned that Ted piloted a B-24 Liberator during WWII. No wonder he was good at being calm during a storm. I also learned that after he retired, he and his wife traveled the Country and Nova Scotia on a touring motorcycle.
It was two days after his dad’s funeral and I called Mike. We had a nice chat and he reminded me that his dad knew that I was an undertaker because of him. My only regret is that I never got the chance to sit down with him to thank him and to share a few stories.
Theodore Z. “Ted“ Levandoski: July 14, 1923 ~ September 25, 2009. May his memory be eternal.