During the past two months of the Coronavirus pandemic, Elmhurst and its surrounding communities have received widespread media attention, after being labeled the ‘epicenter of the epicenter.’ For a time, siren blaring ambulances were an all-day routine occurrence. For those entering stores and businesses, even today, that remain open if deemed essential, long lines form, people wear masks and gloves, and stand observing the social distance mandate of ‘six feet apart.’ Staff tried to enforce these guidelines, which were not always obeyed; a daily scene of stress shown on people’s faces, the average person of the street, eyes bearing the baggage of worry, persons of all ages, ethnicities, or status, exhibiting trembling hands; dread for the moment and for the days to come. The hospital itself garnered much attention, the quest for new protocols, on how to combat this new virus, the demands for PPE’s and Equipment. Later food giveaway locations became commonplace, and finally the 7PM cheers for hospital workers. Another business, overwhelmed by this crisis, and just as essential, has been the funeral business, and in Elmhurst, that means the longtime family run operation at 88-04 43rd Avenue, the Neufeld Funeral Home. Numerous articles too, have appeared in print, online, and on video, highlighting the plight of the Neufeld family and its staff, emphasizing the initial shock, and its emotionally toll, leaving tones of despair. At the beginning of May, one voice rose up, that of Liz Gardner, a St. Bart’s Alumnus, and former Elmhurst resident, insisting an action must take place to show support and gratitude for this family in a united front, and to organize a day for this event to take place. “How could we not say, ‘Thank You Joe and staff, we’re all supporting you during this horrific time.’ It was the right thing to do, but small in comparison for all he has done for so many people in this community; Joe, the Neufelds, and staff are the heart and soul of Elmhurst, N.Y,” said Ms. Gardner.
The history of the Neufeld’s presence in Elmhurst dates back to its founder, Gerard J. Neufeld, who grew up at 53-08 90th Street, one of nine siblings, at one of those huge homes with a wrap-around porch which were commonplace in Elmhurst at that time. Neufeld pursued a career in the funerary field, and opened the Neufeld Funeral home in 1940, at 83-05 Broadway, next to the L.I.R.R, some blocks west of the primary funeral home of the area, adjacent to the Old St. James Church, Skelton’s, which had served the area, since 1876. This first location served many families for area soldiers who had fallen during World War Two. By 1949, The Neufeld funeral home moved to its current location, 88-04 43rd Avenue, a familiar view to many who have come to pay respects and honor their loved ones for over seven decades. At that time, the area still had many tree lined streets across the grid laid out by Cord Meyer, many two level wooden homes dotted the landscape, and a lot of Old Colonial homes still stood, with a handful of apartment buildings starting to rise in the next decade, and it catered to the needs, after WW2 to a fast growing community, considered a suburb of N.Y.C, a place which still presented an old town feel where everyone knew the name of its small business owners. Skeltons folded in the 1970’s, and recent years have seen the closure and consolidation of other family run funeral businesses in neighboring areas. That combined with booming growth, and the evolving of the business model to learn and train to apply ritual and understanding of other faiths and traditions based on changing demographics, have set Neufelds apart in the center of the most densely populated diverse section of N.Y.C.
After Gerard married, the family remained in Elmhurst, and quickly grew to ten children, five boys and five girls; equally divided. Joseph Neufeld attended Stony Brook, got a degree in Mortuary Science, and was the first to join his father in the business, followed by his older brother Ray, after a stint in the finance industry. The Neufeld family all attended St. Bartholomew’s. Gerard belonged to the Knights of Columbus, a stone’s throw up 43rd Ave, the Lions Club, and was a founding member of the Newtown Civic Association in 1970. An Uncle Raymond, Gerard’s brother served as a St. Bartholomew parish priest for a time some years prior. Later, Joe volunteered as a basketball and baseball coach. He and his siblings had by that time left Elmhurst, and spread out, with families of their own. After Gerard’s passing in April 1980, Joe and Ray continued cementing the Neufeld legacy, which has now reached its eighth decade of service. Over a decade ago, around the time Ray retired, Joe’s son, Joe Jr. came aboard, continuing the lifespan of this three-generation business. Oftentimes, people stood to take photos at the lovely maintained garden in front of the funeral home, for occasions like weddings, considering the lack of nature around. The Neufelds have shown their character by providing benefit services for special cases such as the time a child was killed by a hit and run driver several years ago. Liz Gardner and Joe Neufeld, both St. Bartholomew Alumni, along with Father Rick Beuther, held reunions some years back. “I was impressed by Joe’s dedication, how he loved the community, and all alumni. He has a tremendous heart; told me tons of stories. He and his Father and brother are kind loving souls who’ve held many hands throughout the years they’ve been in Elmhurst.” said Ms. Gardner. She, and others spoken with, emphasize Joe’s civic work within the community; fund raising events for alumni in hardship due to health issues, ordering school supplies when needed, how Joe paid for the reunions to take place, how whatever funds were collected went to St. Bartholomew Parish and how much he has supported the area NYPD and FDNY, as well as being on the Board for Elmhurst Memorial Hall, and helping functions of the Newtown Civic Association to this day, all behind the scenes, never attention getting or craving the spotlight.
By the time the Corona crisis took hold, things occurred rapidly. The business averaged about seven to eight funerals per week. “It’s just so many deaths have happened here in Elmhurst,” said Joe Neufeld Sr., in his Inside Elmhurst interview. “We’ve had three hundred fifty funerals in just the past month. Those are crazy numbers, Crazy numbers.” Protocols changed. There were no services, traditional funerals, public viewings, or visitations. Along with the massive body count increase, came shifts within the usual process; delays in retrieving bodies, having to identify bodies by tags in crowded trucks outside hospitals, obtaining burial and cremation documents, and even delivery of crucial supplies. Boxes crammed with bodies shown on news were a shocking but expecting sight. This is what drew instant media attention. The Neufelds, Joe, Joe Jr., and Raymond (who came out of retirement to help), along with longtime employees, Omar Rodriguez and Nick Cassese had to remain calm and collected with the barrage of frantic callers and the sudden immense volume of death. It also affirmed how this family and staff, undergoing their greatest test, still performed their duties, with grace, care, and dignity, under pressure. Extra precautions were undertaken such as spraying bodies with special disinfectant and wrapping remains in double body bags. Bodies retrieved from the hospital were placed in a cremation box, later driven to the 1884 Fresh Pond Crematorium, which became open twenty-four hours, but still became overloaded. A Dr. David Penepent, Mortuary Science Professor at Upstate SUNY Canton, came to N.Y.C to volunteer his services at the Neufelds, and other N.Y.C parlors to transport bodies to out of state crematoriums. “We’ve all been very concerned about their health and welfare, and it’s been miraculous. Joe is so dedicated and respectful. He got it from our own Dad, who always insisted on doing the right things for other people,” said Neufeld sister, Maggie Henry.
Spurred by the articles and news coverage, which were shared by members of social media groups, people who grew up in Elmhurst, were St. Bartholomew Alumni, or simply concerned citizens heeding the call, when Liz Gardner posed the idea of doing something special to honor the Neufelds, many heartfelt words followed from people followed detailing their past interactions with the Neufelds and their desire to see it happen. “Going to a wake at Neufeld’s was always a comforting send-off with compassion and dignity. And, I have to say, that Joe Jr. shows that same God-Given Gift the Neufeld family has, a Great Spirit. I knew how heartbreaking and overwhelming this is for them. Joe and staff are men of honor,’ said lifelong resident Sandy Wieland-McTiernan. Ms. Gardner also reached out to me (I am affiliated with the Newtown Civic Association and the Elmhurst Preservation Group) to help collaborate in the effort and coordinate the schedule and lineup. So, it was that an organized concerted plan unfolded and a date for it to happen, May 9th, 2020 from 2P.M to 3P.M. Neufeld Sister Maggie Henry commented later, “You don’t need a lot of hoopla. It was the sincerity behind it, the respect shown to the family that we are all grateful for.”
Although the weather did not cooperate, and a steady soft rain fell, a moderate sized group of well-wishers descended upon the triangle of Veteran’s Grove Park directly across from the Neufeld Funeral Home. Organizers insisted people attend while maintaining social distancing, while wearing gloves, and masks. A lunch and dinner food donation ordered by nearby eateries was delivered earlier. Signs reading ‘Elmhurst Strong,’ and others made by another Bart’s Alumni, Maria Lukac were displayed outside on surrounding fences. A colorful decorative banner was presented later by current St. Bartholomew students. In addition to the group of former residents and St. Bartholomew Alumni, members of the Newtown Civic Association were present, along with some area people who came by word of mouth. Cheers and applause resounded once the Neufelds and staff joined the well-wishers, followed by waves of cheer and applause, and warm greetings of encouragement and praise. Also attending was Congresswoman Grace Meng, who said. “We want to make sure we’re standing strong and standing together to make sure we’re helping our community recover as soon as possible.” Pastor Timothy Pantoja of the historic stone 1902 Elmhurst Baptist Church at 87-37 Whitney Avenue on led the group in meditative prayer. “The Neufelds are genuinely good people, putting their craft and the ‘people’ over profit or expediency. They care about what they do and the community they serve. It’s so clear. I’m grateful to know Joe, and the family. They helped me and my church out a lot,” said Pastor Pantoja. Community Leader, podcaster, and videographer Alfonso Quiroz captured the event, which aired on the Facebook page, ‘Inside Elmhurst.’ “It was a perfect example of how the community comes out to support one another. Everything in the past weeks has been so negative and scary, that it’s nice to see people come together and show support,” said Quiroz. Another Alum who returned to attend the event was Luke O’ Brien, “The Neufelds have been an important part of the community for decades. They’ve helped generations of families deal with the most traumatic and difficult parts of their lives.” Although a caravan of cars to honk in unison was initially in the works, because of the warm words being shared and mingling, cars pulled away spontaneously while honking. Police on hand for the event took to their squad car, and circled the park a few times, while playing sirens at lower volume, followed by Sinatra’s anthem, ‘New York New York.’ “We are so grateful for this outpouring of support for all these people to come out like this,” said Joe Neufeld Jr. Not many dry eyes were cast by the onlookers, and it wasn’t from the rain, but a shared mistiness to stand in solidarity and a show of moral strength for the family that has lessened our burdens and eased our grief in our times of need, the Neufelds.
James McMenamin is a lifelong resident of Elmhurst, Vice President of the Newtown Civic Association, and Vice President of the Elmhurst History and Cemeteries Preservation Society.