By Laura Porter
WORCESTER – Since early February, Mercadante Funeral Home in Shrewsbury has offered services for the Jewish community in Central Massachusetts, providing a separate area for tahara, the ritual preparation of the body required for burial.
This new arrangement with the non-Jewish funeral home allows a second option – and a local one – for end-of-life services.
When Perlman’s Funeral Home in Worcester closed a few years ago after decades in business, both the Worcester Orthodox Council and the Federation of Central Massachusetts were concerned that there was no longer a Jewish funeral home in the Greater Worcester community.
Richard Perlman, associated with Brezniak-Rodman in Newton since 2011, continues to provide services for those who choose to have the tahara performed in the Boston area. He lives in Worcester and is a member of Temple Emanuel Sinai.
However, the Council, comprised of Modern Orthodox laypeople, “wanted to find a way that the religious practice of tahara … for burial in our local Jewish cemeteries could be properly performed locally in addition to the present option of it being performed out of town,” says Bernie Rotman. Rotman, a local businessman and community leader, is a member of the Council.
“Without a local option,” says Howard Borer, “the community would have been left without a critical institution of Jewish life to service the deceased.”
The founding of the Worcester Orthodox Council itself reflected a desire to expand halachic authority. Notes Borer, “the variety of Jewish life in the community has lent itself to alternative ways of looking at things that could broaden participation and involvement.”
At Borer’s invitation, Bernie Rotman spoke to the Federation board “to see what could be done to establish a local address for tahara,” says Rotman.
The connection with Mercadante was a natural one, going back two generations. Louis Mercadante, who opened his own business in 1961, first apprenticed and then worked full-time at Perlman’s, starting out his career with George Perlman.
“He remained close with Richy and Bobby, George’s sons, until he died in 2003,” recalls Louis’ son, Kevin, who now owns the family business.
A more recent connection between Perlman’s and Mercadante’s is through marriage. Kevin Mercadante’s cousin, Sharon Mercadante Kalagher, who has also been his administrative assistant for thirty years, is married to Bob Kalagher, who was director of Perlman’s for its final two years.
When members of the Jewish community, including Bernie Rotman, approached Mercadante, the funeral director was more than willing to step forward.
“We spent a year going through it, figuring out what we needed to do,” he says. “Because [Jewish deceased] can’t co-mingle with Christians, we built a tahara room – something no one else has in the city of Worcester.”
In consultation with Rotman and others, Mercadante and his staff came up with a solution “that would offend neither religion.” They took a large section of the garage they used for the limousine fleet and “did everything we needed to do to bring it up to code as well as for the religion.” In addition, during Jewish preparations, Christian statuary is blocked or covered in relevant areas of the funeral home. They are also able to perform funerals in any of the local synagogues.
With ten full-time and forty part-time staff members, the business has enough people who can “do things quickly for Jewish needs,” he says.
The Worcester Orthodox Council helped organize the new Worcester tahara group that performs tahara at Mercadante; most of the members of Worcester’s original chevra kadisha continue to work with Richard Perlman at Brozniak-Rodman in Newton.
“Mercadante has gone over and above to create an environment that people feel very comfortable using,” says Howard Borer.
The renovation was completed six weeks ago, just before the death of Milton Raphaelson, a former judge and a leader within the Worcester Orthodox community. His family opted to use Mercadante, and the funeral was held at Congregation Beth Israel because of the projected high attendance.
“Working with Mercadante has been a pleasure,” says Bernie Rotman. “It’s also nice to have the same fellow there who was at Perlman’s, Bob Kalagher.”
The new situation “gives the Jewish community one more option, and it is great to have an institution back in Worcester, especially when the community’s institutions have been in flux,” he says. “People can go to Richy Perlman, whose family has been doing this for many, many years and who does a very fine job. Or you can use this other option, offered through a non-Jewish funeral home. Most people seem pleased that there is a Jewish option locally.”
Howard Borer concurs, noting, “We are very pleased that the Mercadante Funeral Home has stepped forward to help our community perform all funeral preparations in accordance with halacha.”