Two decades after retiring his badge, Sal Arena is still directing traffic- at funerals.
The dark-suited, silver-haired Arena "works the door'' at Wyckoff's Vander Plaat Funeral Home, greeting mourners as they arrive, helping with their coats and pointing the way. He also sets up floral arrangements and carries coffins, among other jobs.
Owner Bill Brock tells The Record that employing a former cop has benefits, such as when a 35-car procession was departing the funeral home for a cemetery in West Milford. Arena, 71, called every police agency along the route, identified himself as a retired Pompton Lakes police captain and arranged clear sailing for the cortege.
While many retired police gravitate to security work, scores in North Jersey have found a place in the funeral business. Besides acting as pallbearers and working the door, they drive hearses and flower cars and go on "removals,'' parlance for removing the deceased from the place of death.
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A few have taken the second career further and gone to mortuary school en route to becoming a licensed funeral director. Only a licensed funeral director can perform embalming and sit with families to make funeral arrangements.
Brian Hammel, 71, a retired River Edge police sergeant, is one of five licensed directors at Barrett Funeral Home in Tenafly. He "wanted nothing to do with security'' when he left the police force at 57 and ruled out construction because that would get too difficult with age.
While an officer, Hammel moonlighted for a livery service that provides hearses and limousines to funeral homes. Funeral work, he decided, was a good fit.
"They're both service jobs,'' he said of law enforcement and mortuary science. "The funeral director manages one of life's most difficult situations, and police officers handle a lot of difficult situations as well.''
Ed Defort, editor in chief of the National Funeral Directors Association's magazine, says retired law enforcement officers are popular hires at funeral homes, many of which use part-time or on-call employees.
"They have a very disciplined demeanor,'' Defort said. "Their mood and personality would reflect the circumstances of the funeral home.''
He noted that police are accustomed to dealing with people in stages of sadness and confusion- emotions that come to the fore in a mortuary setting.
Police also cross paths with the dead and dying. And especially in North Jersey, where nearly every town has a police force and most towns have at least one funeral parlor, cops and funeral directors are well acquainted.
"Law enforcement prepares you for dealing with death,'' said Arena, who has worked part time at Vander Plaat since 1995. "It's your training, going to a home when someone has suffered a heart attack, or to make a notification that someone has been killed in an accident and won't be coming home.''
Many things police do, he observed, carry over to the funeral profession.
"Driving in all sorts of weather conditions that prepares you when you're leading the funeral procession,'' Arena said.
Bill Montano, the retired Pequannock chief, does many of the things Arena does, but at M. John Scanlan Funeral Home in Pequannock's Pompton Plains section.
"If you asked me when I retired 10 years ago to list 1,000 jobs I might have in my next life, funeral work wouldn't have been on the list,'' said Montano, 64.
Then he ran into Charles Scanlan at the local health club. The owner of Pequannock's only funeral home and the 30-year Pequannock police veteran knew each other well.
Montano started at the funeral home part time and switched to full time after five years.
"I drive hearses and limousines, work the door, do removals and help the directors dress and casket people,'' Montano said.
Many of the deceased and their families are familiar to the former chief, and vice versa.
"The rewarding feature?'' he said. "When people are distraught and say, `Thanks, you made the worst situation in life a little easier.'''
Working at a funeral home required a wardrobe change for the former chief.
"I went to Jos. A. Bank and got a lot of suits- dark suits, black and gray,'' he said. "If I'm at a viewing, light gray is fine, but during a funeral, it's always a dark suit.''
Another police chief, Robert Kugler of Saddle Brook, plans to shift to funeral work when he retires, but it won't be a huge leap. He's already a licensed funeral director. His family owns the township's Kugler Community Home for Funerals, which his father established more than 50 years ago.
Kugler, 52, said he always wanted to be a funeral director alongside his father, but his career took a different path in 1984, the year he graduated from mortuary school. A cousin encouraged him to take the state's Civil Service exam. He scored well, and the Saddle Brook Police Department had an opening.
"My father told me I'd be a fool not to take the opportunity to become a police officer,'' said Kugler, who rose to chief in 10 years.
In his off time, Kugler pitches in at the family business, where his father is still active.
"It's all about helping others,'' Kugler said of the two professions that consume him. "Throughout my life, I've been part of a family that's cared for others in their worst times, in their times of need. I imagine that's a key feature, too, of being in public safety.''