Cover Story » Vol. 42

The duty of Peter Stefan

By Bernard Whitmore

4It’s often said that human nature reveals its truest aspects in the face of disaster. This proved true with the Boston Marathon bombing. First responders, as usual, won our admiration. But when the body of one of the suspected bombers landed in a Worcester funeral home, something far less inspiring took to the streets.

People stood across from Graham, Putnam & Mahoney Funeral Parlors on Main Street wrapped in flags and hurling protests against the man who would perform the funeral rites Tamerlan Tsarnaev.

It takes a very special kind of person to show the professional integrity and steely resolve that Peter Stefan did. His calm and logical approach to “duty” was my first exposure to Mr. Stefan. Then, as he came to enjoy recognition for his efforts and we learned more about him, my respect grew and I was excited to have the opportunity to talk with him.

Question: What led you to the funeral business?
Answer: I was brought up in Boston. I always liked the funeral business. I had the thought that in the Worcester area, there were a lot of people of my ethnic background. In most cities, the funeral director gets the business of his ethnic background. That never happened here with the Greeks, Romanians or Albanians. In every other city, every ethnic group went to their ethnic undertaker. Not here. I thought it would be advantageous financially. But it never was.

When I got here, all I had around me were poor people. This was the late ’60s, early ’70s. So I said to myself, thinking of the old outlet stores, “There are more poor people than people with money!” So I developed the adage that a fast nickel is better than a slow dollar. If you count the pennies, the dollars will take care of themselves.

And it worked. I did twice as much work, maybe, but I did twice as much business. And now, I can’t handle the business that’s here. It’s that busy.

I always worked with the poor people. I was at the beginning of the AIDS epidemic; the only one who did anything. Not that I’m a shining star, but no one else wanted to touch “those people.”

Peter Stefan

People know that’s what I’ve done for years. Your reputation precedes you down through two or three generations. Last week, we had the drug overdose rally. I brought my hearse and a casket down there. I took the pillow out of the casket and put a mirror in its place so people ~ drug users ~ going by it could look in and see their own face. These deaths are a big problem that needs more attention.

I have something I’ve been working on. I filed a bill to recycle prescription medications, to stop throwing them away and give them to poor people who can’t afford them. For five years, I’ve had a prescription drug fund for poor people, to help them buy their medicine. That’s one of the things I’ve worked on for years. We give away diabetic supplies ~ not prescriptions ~ diabetic strips and monitors that people have extra. I try to give it away.

I’ve always done that. Being brought up as an only child by my mother; my father died when I was very young. My mother, aunts and uncles worked very hard, very good people, not greedy people. You learn by example.

God must love the poor because he made so many of them! We collect anything here to give to the poor. Pencils to give to the schools.

Question: So if I have a box of pencils, I can bring it here for you to give away?
Answer: Yeah… I’m going to show you what I have out there in a second.

Peter led me out of the front parlor to an enclosed side porch. When he opened the door, I felt a waft of air with a perfume reminiscent of elementary school pencil-sharpening detail. He wasn’t exaggerating! Sitting on the floor near a couple bouquets of flowers were three large cartons packed with bundles of used pencils, pens, sharpies and other markers.

As we returned to the main desk of his funeral home, we walked by plaques commending Stefan for community service. Awarded by church groups and civic organizations, one award from AIDS Project Worcester commended Stefan “for his dedication and generosity at a time when others turned their back.”

As the man whose business is called upon when there’s no close kin interested in the recently deceased, Graham Putnam & Mahoney Funeral Parlors receive many calls from the medical examiner. Stefan is immersed in tragedies of which most of us are unaware. This changed abruptly in the weeks following the Boston Marathon bombing.

Boston Marathon ExplosionsAnswer: The Marathon Bomber thing … I have a lot of pride in my country. But I lost a lot of respect for the country with that one. The government turned its back. Except for one or two, political people locally turned their backs.

But the worst thing of all, I think, is that there wasn’t one religious leader in the world that stood up and said, “This is not what Christians do. What Buddhists do. What Jews do.”

The Pope could have said something! He talks about the Gaza Strip, Palestine. Why not say, “This is what the person’s job has been; he’s burying the dead.”

But not a comment from anybody. I talked to the Russians and got more respect out of them. People tried to hurt my business, but it increased 30 percent. Because people finally got the idea that “He’s really doing what has to be done.” I got 8,000 faxes, 10,000 emails in support. I got $10,000 to $12,000 in contributions. Where did the money go? Into that prescription drug fund.

People said, “He did it for the money.” I didn’t take a nickel for that funeral. Not a nickel.

At least I stood up and did something! I can’t separate the sins from the sinners. In this country, we bury the dead. Lee Harvey Oswald ~ the reporters were the pallbearers. Alger Hiss, the Rosenbergs, they all had funerals. Gangsters who murdered a hundred people, they have big funerals with 10 flower cars and 10 limousines.

But this guy was a Muslim terrorist. That was the big story. He had to be buried, and if I hadn’t, within a week or two, the comments would have been made, “Why don’t those guys do something?”

Question: You’ve written a book about it. Can you tell me about it?
Answer: It’s history. The book is basically: Why I did it. How I did it. And why it had to be done. I’m calling it Peter Stefan’s Last Rites for the Boston Marathon Bomber.

It tells about what I felt and reflects back on when I lived in Boston. I reflect back about a friend I went to grammar school with. We were walking right up near where the bombing happened.

He said, “Let’s go get and ice cream cone.”

I said, “Nah. You go. I’m gonna go home.”

Well, he went up the alley and I went home. Going up the alley, a skylight slipped off the top of the building, landed on him and killed him. Seven or 8 years old. A couple days later, they took us outside the school and made us stand when the little white hearse went by.

The ironic part is that the funeral home was this one. In Boston, long before I was ever associated with it.

Boston Marathon Explosions

Question: But of course the compelling part of that history was the problem of what to do with the deceased bomber.
Answer: His parents are in Russia, and I wanted to get the body over there. I thought that was the place to bury him. But the officials here wouldn’t leave me alone: “Get him out of here!”

If I could have had another day or two. The Secretary of State [John Kerry] tried to talk to the Russians. And I talked to them. The information I had and gave to [Russian Security] was this: I’d like to bury him over there if I can. But here’s the story: I can get him to Moscow, but you have Aeroflot Airline. Number one, they’re not going to fly the body.

The only other airline you have is the military, and they sure aren’t going to fly the body. So it’s over the road if anything at all. It’s a 25-hour ride, Moscow to Chechnya ~ and it’s probably no Route 290.

All I’m looking for is: I’ll send him there, but I want the president of Russia to come out publicly and say that he’ll make sure that the person is buried in a decent manner. If he does that, I’ll send the body. But I told the Secretary of State, “If I send him over there and we have no plans made, they’ll turn this into a political football. They’ll embarrass us to no end. Especially me.”

Did I want to bury him down in Virginia? No. That was done behind the scenes, and I didn’t think any of it should be done behind the scenes. When it was done, the country blamed me … that I did a sneaky thing. The state of Virginia was after me.

I had the uncle drive him down there. He took him.

5And I didn’t agree with the president when he threw Osama bin Laden in the ocean, either. That isn’t the way Muslims are buried. I talked with a Muslim theologian, and he agreed. What they should have done is given his body back to the family; let them do their body washing and bury him.

The comment was, “No country will take him!” That’s crap. He was living in Pakistan, and they knew he was there.

So I disagreed with what they did there; we made more enemies out of Muslims than friends by doing that. You see, not all Muslims are bomb-throwers. You got some of these radicals, but most Muslims are people that work really hard in this country. They just want to make a living here and establish themselves.

And that’s it.

Do we act like they do over there and behead people? No, we don’t. Do we drag the bodies of Iranians or Iraqis through the streets? No. But some countries… they do that.

I said to them [his critics], “If you want to bury people in the dumpster, pass a law and I’ll follow it. But until you do that, I’m gonna do what I think is right!”

I thought we represented the country with great respect. If the book does sell, there are a lot of charities I’d like to do some things with. Get some bills passed to help people in this business. The prescription bill; I’d like to see that passed to help a load of people buy medicine.

Question: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?

Peter paused to consider this. During the course of our conversation, his manner and tempo seemed to channel a cross between Humphrey Bogart and James Cagney. His sincerity was leavened with jokes and plenty of pointed opinions. But here, he became more measured and responded thoughtfully.

Answer: From my mother… she’d be the one. And there was more than one good piece of advice.

She told me, “Always treat everybody well, even though you won’t be treated back the same way. It doesn’t matter; it’s what you do that counts.”

I think today you can make all the money you want, but the biggest thing is to make a difference. Money isn’t everything.

Someone asked me, “What would you put on your tombstone?”

My answer was: “I hope I did enough.”

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