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Death in Bridgeport

Dalcamo Funeral Home rolls with a changing neighborhood.



Two middle-aged Chinese women squat on the sidewalk in front of the Dalcamo Funeral Home in Bridgeport. One slowly stirs a fire inside a red metal pot that's slightly larger than a wastebasket, while the other scoops a handful of paper out of a plastic bag and throws it into the flames. The paper is printed with Chinese characters--it's "hell money," and it's being burned so the relative who recently died can take care of himself in the afterlife. Nearly identical with their short-cropped hair, white shirts, and black pantsuits, the women squint as the smoke floats above the pot.

The family had told Bernie Dalcamo it didn't want to burn hell money or incense, but when people began arriving at 9 AM for the funeral he saw an elderly woman carrying a white plastic bag filled with both. The family had changed its mind. The funeral-home staff accommodatingly rolled the red metal pot onto the sidewalk and let the two women burn the hell money a couple feet from the funeral home's front door, on 26th near Normal. The staff also set a sand-filled metal pan to hold the incense sticks in the chapel, where most of the 40 or so relatives and friends had gathered. Once the family had everything it needed, Dalcamo returned to the tiny front office and started sifting through papers.

At one time the 58-year-old Dalcamo, who runs the funeral home with his 56-year-old brother Matthew, let Chinese families burn hell money in the chapel. But then fire inspectors paid a surprise visit. Dalcamo explained that the fire they saw was part of a funeral rite. He showed them the lit incense and the oranges, rice, and chicken arranged on a table placed perpendicular to the casket. "They're Buddhist," he said. "What you going to do?"

Dalcamo's father, Matthew Sr., never handled a Chinese funeral in the 46 years he ran the business. His family had come from Sicily, and he was born in Chicago in 1909. He worked as a landscaper and peddled fruits and vegetables out of his car during the Depression, opening the Dalcamo Funeral Home in 1939, shortly after his father died. It was the second funeral business started by Italians in Bridgeport and was intended to serve Italians, who'd begun settling on the south side in the late 19th century.

The first Chinese community in Chicago had formed in the late 1880s along Clark south of Van Buren. By 1912 the Chinese families had been pushed out by the expanding financial district and had migrated south to the area around Cermak and Wentworth. In the 1960s and '70s changes in immigration laws brought large numbers of Chinese immigrants to Chinatown, which by then was bordered by 31st Street on the south, Archer and Cermak on the north, the Dan Ryan expressway on the east, and a railroad embankment on the west. By 1980 overcrowding was pushing families into neighboring Bridgeport, which was also more affordable. Still, says Esther Wong, executive director of the Chinese American Service League, "it's scary to move out of Chinatown." Asians are now the fastest-growing ethnic group in Bridgeport. According to the census, in 1980 they were 2 percent of its population; in 2000, 26 percent.

Bernie and Matthew took over the funeral home in 1985, after their father died. The next year the brothers did only 44 funerals, about two-thirds of what the family had done the previous year. "That was scary," Bernie recalls. "Did we lose business because my dad died? What was our future?"

Two years later a saleswoman for a local Chinese-language newspaper persuaded Bernie, who'd handled a few cremations for Chinese families, to take out an ad. "We really have nothing to lose," he recalls thinking. The saleswoman wrote the ad in Chinese and told her friends about the funeral home, and slowly the brothers got more business. They took out more ads in Chinese-language newspapers, community calendars, and local telephone directories. Bernie and his wife also began attending fund-raising banquets sponsored by civic and business groups in Chinatown.

For many years Chinese families had gone to Bowman Chinatown Funeral Home, which was founded more than 100 years ago and sits surrounded by restaurants and shops in the heart of Chinatown. "Ever since it's been Chinatown," says funeral director Tom Kotrba, "Bowman Funeral Home has always dealt with the Chinese." But he acknowledges that families have started going to other firms. "The reason the Chinese are going elsewhere has more to do with they are moving further south than anywhere else. They're not confined to the Chinatown area anymore."

In 1995 the Dalcamo home got its big break when it held the funeral for Yate Wong, a community leader who owned the popular Chiam Restaurant on Wentworth. Bernie hired around 15 limousines to transport the family and friends and three cars to carry the 170 or so floral pieces that filled the funeral home. "Then the word got out," says Bill Moy, a florist who delivers bouquets to both Bowman and Dalcamo. In 1991 the Dalcamo Funeral Home handled four Chinese funerals. By 2002 the number had risen to 69.

One reason may be price. Bowman charges $1,650 to $11,300 for an immediate burial, excluding ceremony, visitation, and cemetery charges. Dalcamo charges $900 to $8,200. The Dalcamos still do Italian, Irish, Polish, and Mexican funerals, but the Chinese community accounts for 40 percent of their business.

Neither of the Dalcamos has learned to speak either Cantonese or Mandarin. But Bernie has made friends with some of his Chinese neighbors, and he sometimes asks them to translate for him. Mark Lee, who opened a gas station at the corner of 26th and Canal in the early 1990s, speaks both Cantonese and Mandarin and often acts as an interpreter for the Chicago Police Department. He says he helps out the Dalcamos at least once a month. They've done the funerals for his brother, his mother-in-law, and his aunt.

Esther Wong says Bernie "doesn't need to speak Chinese if the Chinese are happy with his service." But, she adds, "it would surely help if he had Chinese staff." Bernie says he wants to hire Chinese staff, but the people he's found who were interested in a job faced serious opposition from relatives and friends. One young man's family owned restaurants, and they told him he couldn't enter the mortuary trade because it would be bad luck for their businesses. A young woman who wanted to take a job as a translator during summer break was forced to turn it down after her mother's friends said it was a bad idea.

The red metal pot, the fire in it long out, is still sitting in front of the funeral home when the family and friends of of the man who's died gather on the sidewalk. Bernie puts the casket into his silver Cadillac hearse, then slowly drives away, followed by a dozen cars and a black limousine carrying the widow and her children. They all head down Halsted toward the street where the man lived.

Bernie scans the houses for the address. "There might be a flower piece out there," he says. "Might not be." Finally he sees a thin wire stand supporting a spray of white chrysanthemums and yellow gladiolas tied to the gutter of a house on the left. He puts both the flowers and the stand into the hearse. "When you pick up the flower piece you have to pick up the stand," he says, "because you can't leave nothing [associated] with death."

During the first few Chinese funerals he did, Bernie left the stands behind, thinking the families could use them to support tomatoes or other plants in their gardens, just as the Italian families did. A friend told him that one family wished he hadn't left theirs behind. "They understood that we weren't 100 percent tradition," he says. "They weren't upset, as they were trying to teach us stuff."

He's had to learn other lessons too. When he put a $4,000 sign outside the funeral home spelling out his business's name in English and Chinese he used the same Chinese characters he'd had printed on his business cards. Within a month two people told him he should change the sign because it included the character for death, an inauspicious symbol that people didn't want to see looming over the street. He quickly shelled out $875 for a more culturally sensitive translation.

Bernie drives up Canal Street toward Chinatown to give the man the traditional last tour of his community. The quickest route would be on Halsted, but the cars can't retrace their path because an evil spirit that follows the dead might catch up with them. The family members could toss hell money out of their car windows to appease the spirit, but no one does.

Bernie drives 12 miles per hour up Wentworth, then turns onto the freeway ramp and leads the funeral procession to Stickney, where the man will be buried in the Chinese section of Mount Auburn Memorial Park.

At the cemetery Bernie shows the widow and her two grown children to their seats. Standing in front of two floral pieces with a framed photograph of the deceased man by his feet, he reads a quote from Socrates, though he can barely be heard over the din of power saws chopping tree branches nearby. He closes with a poem by Percy Bysshe Shelley.

The friends of the family then walk up and lay white carnations on the casket. The pallbearers and the family members strip off their white gloves and armbands, and the widow removes her black shroud. All are laid atop the carnations. As the two graveyard workers lower the casket into the ground, everyone except the widow and her children turns their back.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Saverio Truglia.

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