Saturday, August 1, 2020

The Irishman’s Grave – “I Heard You Paint Houses”

My wife and I watched the 2019 movie, “The Irishman,” a few months ago. We watched it during our local coronavirus lockdown in April 2020, when most Philadelphians were binge-watching television. Quite intriguing, this film. About Jimmy Hoffa’s mob bodyguard, Philadelphian Frank Sheeran (aka The Irishman) and his life of crime (he was mainly a hitman for the Bufalino organized crime Family in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s). Its historical fiction in that it suggests how Hoffa disappeared – a mystery that has never been solved. The movie is adapted from the book, “I Heard You Paint Houses,” by Charles Brandt. In Brandt’s book, Sheeran, interviewed in an old age home, supposedly confessed to killing Hoffa. Robert DeNiro does an astounding job in the lead role of the Irishman.

Friendly Lounge today in South Philly
I felt a closeness to this movie, for odd reasons. My Dad was a union man in the 1960s and 70s, when Hoffa was president of the Teamsters. My friend Ted tends bar at the Friendly Lounge, the South Philly bar where some of the movie was filmed, which is the actual bar where a lot of the real action took place when Sheeran was just getting his start in the 1960s. Ted told me about the movie before it was released. I live about six blocks from the bar. 

Another reason I felt some attraction for the film is because of crime family mob boss Russell Bufalino. As a kid growing up in the sixties, in northeast Pennsylvania, his name was always in the papers. He controlled northeast PA for the Mafia. I never paid much attention, but I remember my parents talking about him frequently. Bufalino, played by Joe Pesci in “The Irishman,” seems to have been the mob boss who got the Irishman, whose name was actually Frank Sheeran, into Bufalino's crime “Family.” Up to that point,  Sheeran was just a small town crook. 

Robert DeNiro as "The Irishman" choosing a final resting place in the movie (ref.)

At the end of the movie, Sheeran goes coffin and crypt hunting. He’s living in an old age home and wants to choose his final resting place. As Brett McCracken says in The Gospel Coalition article, “How ‘The Irishman’ Prepares for Death,” (Nov. 20, 2019) “He wants to be buried above ground in a mausoleum because it feels “less final” than burial in the ground or cremation—like maybe his body could be resurrected more easily that way.” This article shows a photo of him, a still from the movie, in a simple community mausoleum choosing a spot.

At some point after seeing the film, it occurred to me that Frank Sheeran might in fact be buried for real somewhere near my home in Philadelphia. Fairly easy to find with the Internet at my disposal. Holy Cross Cemetery in Yeadon, PA, is a suburb of Philadelphia on the southwest side. The website tells me he’s buried in a mausoleum there and someone even uploaded a photo of the crypt cover you see at the beginning of my essay, with Frank and wife Mary’s names engraved on it. Not tremendously helpful, this information, as I had no idea whether he was buried in a community mausoleum like in the movie or in one of the many private mausoleums at Holy Cross. 

“Are you family?”

So one spring afternoon in April I drove out to Holy Cross in search of The Irishman. The cemetery is only about ten miles from where I live so in the early weeks of the pandemic, I donned my mask and took a Saturday drive.
Holy Cross is a cemetery I’ve written about a number of times. One of my blog posts, “Graves of the Mob Bosses,” details several underworld characters who are buried here. They’ve all got elegant headstones or mausoleums, surrounded by Christian statuary – Jesus, angels, saints. Some Catholic cemeteries have a problem burying criminals within their gates. Holy Cross apparently does not. Gangsters like Philip Testa and Angelo Bruno, serial killers like H.H. Holmes, are but a few who reside on or in these consecrated grounds.

Masked myself, I asked the masked office worker if he could tell me where Frank Sheeran is buried. He seemed a little nervous and a bit hurried. He told me specifically which community mausoleum Sheeran was in (he pointed out the window to the large modern structure up on the hill), and he described to me on which side Sheeran’s crypt was. I thanked him and as I turned to leave, he asked, “Are you family?” I took this to mean a blood relative, so I simply responded, “No.” It wasn’t until much later that I thought, maybe he meant “Family…..” That was a bit sobering.

I had little trouble finding The Irishman’s crypt in the mausoleum. It was all rather peaceful and quiet. So unlike his life, as it is depicted in the movie. According to Charles Brandt’s book, Sheeran supposedly admitted that he painted between twenty-five and thirty houses. That is, he killed that many people, many of whom were Hoffa’s enemies and rivals. Many secrets are buried with Frank Sheeran. His mausoleum is not the one shown in the movie; they filmed that scene with DeNiro elsewhere. 

Community mausoleum where Sheeran is buried (rear at right)

References and Further Reading:
Link to Ed Snyder's blog post  “Graves of the Mob Bosses”