The Lakewood Funeral Home can trace its roots in the community back so far that when the business first opened in 1965 the part of Howell they were located in actually had a Lakewood mailing address.
And while the mailing address has been changed over the years, current own Marc DiCostanzo said very little else has changed inside the walls since his father Anthony started the business all those years ago.
Back then several other companies that surrounded the funeral home including the Lakewood Veterinarian and Lakewood Glass also bore the neighboring towns name, but only the funeral home carries on that now extinct tradition. "In its time it would have seemed a little strange to have the Howell Funeral Home with a Lakewood mailing address," DiCostanso said.
While Marc DiCostanzo runs the business now, he credits his father who most knew as "Tony Dee" with teaching him everything he knows about what can at times be a very challenging profession. His father, he said, started as an architect but realized that was not the job for him.
Tony Dee was born and raised in Trenton where his son said there was a funeral home on every corner, each catering to customers of a specific ethnicity. "He took a job with the local Polish funeral home and found his passion and realized that's what he wanted," his son said.
When he was ready to strike out on his own he moved his family to Howell and they lived in an apartment above the funeral home. "That's what most family run funeral homes do and that's what makes the family funeral home special because we do have someone here all the time." He said his father was also proud because unlike the funeral homes in Trenton, his worked with a wide variety of cultures and religions.
For young Marc, that also meant having the school bus pick him up in front of the funeral home knowing that some of the other children on the bus might not understand what he enjoyed so much about his daily life. In the very early days that included helping his father deliver auto parts from the distributor renting space on the property to various ports. "I can remember as a kid that to me it was the coolest thing that I used to get to drive with him in the truck," he said. "
DiCostanzo said he started to help his father in his other business when he was around 10-years-old and really got involved when he was 14. "It was second nature because of being born and raised here," he said. "It was the only thing I knew so it wasn't abnormal."
While his siblings did not share the same passion for the business, there was never a question that this was what he wanted to do. "To me, it was what dad did. Now that's my daughter where that's what dad does so she's just starting to get into the business."
That third generation of the family business is his 22-year-old daughter Elena who recently graduated with a degree in Psychology from Chestnut Hill College. DiCostanzo said that if his daughter does take over the business some day her background in psychology can only help her even during the hardest times. "That is what makes the job as rewarding as it is when you can deal with someone at their hardest time and help them and ease them through it," he said. "To have them come to you and thank you for helping them is priceless. You can't put a number on that."
In a profession as unique as being a funeral director, DiCostanzo said he knows it is not something for everyone. "It's something that you either have in you, or you don't. You can either do it, or you can't," he said. "I've had friends who thought they could try it and realize it's just not for me. I've never once looked at it and been shunned away from it from the depression end."
He said over the years he has built up a tolerance to dealing with the pain that comes with death, but said he is not immune to its impact. He said he remembers one funeral he did for a little girl where the parents asked him to put a Barbie doll in the casket with her. Fighting back tears he remembers going home that same day and seeing Elena opening that very same doll to play with.
It is stories like that that reminds him of how important his job is and why he does it. "There's times where it gets to you like that but you just have to be able to shut if off and do your job and know what you're doing," he said.
After all these years the funeral home has handled a wide variety of services both large and small. It ranges from high profile funerals like those of Lakewood Police Officer Christopher Matlosz and State Trooper Marc Castellano where hundreds of people came to pay their respects, to funerals that nobody has attended. "You see everything in this business," DiCostanzo said.
This past Friday the funeral home was recognized by the Howell Chamber of Commerce as the business of the year, and DiCostanzo said like his father he has been glad to be a part of the community for as long as they have been. "He was very very involved with any organization that was out there," he said. Whether it was the local churches or civic organizations or anything else, DiCostanzo said his dad taught him the importance of helping people. "If there was a charity organization out there, he was somehow involved with it," he said.
DiCostanzo said a lot has changed in the more than 10 years since his dad's death, but one thing that has not changed is his commitment to the community. "If there's an organization out there that comes to me, no is not an option," he said. "In today's economy sometimes you have to cut back a little bit with that, but if there's a good cause out there we do it."
With his daughter and his wife Dina working side by side with him DiCostanzo said is proud to continue the tradition his father started and being a part of the community he has known his entire life. And while he said he was honored to be recognized by the chamber for his efforts, he said he has done his job to help the people that come to him in their time of need and not for any accolades.