Life goes on for family living in Wilmerding funeral home
Upstairs, children play. They run and laugh and chase each other. They act their age.
Downstairs, Dad works. He speaks in hushed tones and avoids sitting behind a desk because it would make him seem superior. That's the last thing clients need at a time like this.
“Preparing children is the worst; people you're really good friends with — that's all difficult,” Nick Bellich said. “But I just think: Pull it together. This is what you have to do to make this family happy. You're going to make this person look the most natural, the most beautiful they can be for their loved ones when they see them for the last time.”
There was never a doubt that Bellich, 30, of Wilmerding would become a funeral director.
While other kids gravitated to baseball cards and army figurines, he dressed in a suit and tie and mimicked his grandfather, Jimmy Alfieri, who founded Alfieri Funeral Home in 1954. He emptied his toy chest and used the container as a casket during pretend funerals. At age 10, he found a dead deer in the yard, grabbed a shovel and buried it.
“It was a good feeling,” Bellich recalled. “I thought, ‘Hey, I'm doing a good deed.' ”
He spent his childhood playing on the funeral home bier, upon which the casket sits during a viewing. He witnessed funerals and watched families grieve. He observed the way his grandfather, and then his Aunt Rose, treated mourners delicately, with dignity.
On an early date with his future wife, Nicole, he brought her to the funeral home. The hearse needed gasoline. He let her drive it to the station.
He earned his funeral directors license in 2009. He took over the family business from his grandmother when she died in March 2014, becoming a third-generation Alfieri Funeral Home director.
Then he moved his family into the funeral home: Nicole, and their four kids, Nadia, 4, Dominick, 3, Alaina, 2, and now Carmine, 7 months.
“They play on the bier just like I did and they don't think anything of it,” Bellich said. “My son will come up to the kneeler and say a prayer (in front of an open casket); he'll say, ‘She's with God.' ”
“We don't look at it as morbid. We were never afraid of it, and they're not afraid of it.”
Living in a funeral home has drawbacks.
The house must always be spotless — a challenge with four young children — because at any moment, their door could swing open as mourners file in.
But there are advantages.
Funeral directors work long, unpredictable hours; death does not observe holidays. With his workplace one floor below, Bellich gets to see his family every day.
Plus, the kids are a form of therapy for clients.
“They like that they can hear little footsteps upstairs,” Bellich said. “They say, ‘I hear pitter patter. Can I go see them?' It gets them away from being in a funeral home. They come up for life for a couple minutes.”
Going to bed at night with a body in their home does not bother them. Bellich is providing a vital service at a terrible time, and that is what matters.
And so what if they sometimes smell the embalming fluid through the vents? They smell the flower arrangements, too.
“A lot of times these people I bury I've grown up with my whole life, I went to church with them, sang in the choir with them,” Bellich said. “It's tough to prepare them and to talk to their families. But you can't break down when everybody else is breaking down.”
Bellich does not believe in ghosts or spirits.
His wife is not so sure.
Every now and then, she said, she'll catch a whiff of an unfamiliar perfume or cigarette smoke. She'll turn, look and wonder.
Neighbors also wonder: On Halloween, nobody comes.
His childhood, the job, the house — it all gives Bellich time to ponder death.
“I'm not worried about what's going to happen to me when I die,” Bellich said. “I'm more worried about not being around for my family. I don't fear dying because I'm so aware of it.”
Bellich is the embalmer as well.
When a body arrives, he closes himself in a quiet room downstairs, alone, away from his family.
He disinfects. He sets the facial features. He injects fluids. The process takes about 90 minutes.
Bellich doesn't charge families for children's burials. Neither did his grandfather, because you don't think about money when something like that happens.
His youngest deceased was 3.
Walking into that room, he said, took it out of him.
But he thought of the family's grief, put his emotions aside and did his job.
“And when it's all over, you just kind of ... go to bed,” he said. “That's what I do.”
He stopped talking.
The silence of the empty funeral home was nearly absolute.
Except for the pitter patter of small children running above.