The inevitability of a trip to Brenna Funeral Home at 340 Hamilton Ave. in Trenton’s Chambersburg section has been a bittersweet reality to scores of Italian-American families since 1929.
A handsomely restored Victorian style home with a rich history, it remains one of a handful of funeral facilities patronized primarily by Italian-Americans who dominated the “Burg” until an exodus to the suburbs by younger generations reacting to increasing crime and new ethnicity diminished the area’s lure. When the Burg’s brand names left, relocating to Robbinsville and Hamilton as De Lorenzo’s Tomato Pies, Rossi’s Bar and Grill and Papa’s Tomato Pies did, Brenna’s remained a final destination for many who stayed.
Now the family-owned business, faced with the reality of a changing dynamic in the old Trenton neighborhood a stone’s throw from Columbus Park, has branched out by opening Brenna Funeral Home’s Immordino Chapel at 1799 Klockner Rd. in Hamilton, a new, suburban location where parking and crime are not issues and longtime owner Frank Immordino insists on Old World values, right down to newly ordered pin-striped suits for his funeral workers and an espresso machine for families who come to mourn. The company website even boasts of a 168-hour work week to assure customers that someone is always there.
An immaculately dressed man who says he never saw his own father in shorts because he too liked to dress formally, Immordino is a visibly electrified type, charged up for the next problem, ready for a phone call from a grieving customer, quick to joke when he’s not working, somewhat addicted to his espresso maker. But his demeanor can change dramatically when things get serious—like explaining if he’s going to close his iconic Trenton funeral home.
“I have both locations now,” he said. “When someone calls to do business, I tell them to come to this conference room [in the new Klockner Road facility.] When they see what this looks like, they want to have the funeral here. But we give them a choice of funeral homes now.”
He really never had any crime or any parking issues at the Hamilton Avenue location, he insists, but Immordino’s been looking informally for a Hamilton location for awhile. None worked out until the new Immordino Chapel location opened in late June and held a funeral the next day. That’s how good business is.
The Hamilton facility is state-of-the-art with a showroom for shiny coffins and urns and an immaculate seating area where large, flat screen TVs used for digital photos of the deceased vie with tasteful artwork for attention. The former site of five doctors’ offices, the new funeral home took Immordino longer than he anticipated to open. Everything was done to Immordino’s specification, with his attention to detail a testament to his participation in what was the late Daniel Brenna’s business.
“I’ve been doing this since I was 16,” he said. Now 54, he says he had no hesitancy becoming an undertaker for a very human reason. “When I was a kid, I always liked the big cars and the clothes. I still do.”
Wife Jackie, who works as pharmaceutical rep for Bristol-Myers-Squibb, is his childhood sweetheart. They met in class at Lawrence High School and never dated anyone else. Married 30 years, they have two sons, Michael, 23, who attends Rider University while working on a master’s in accounting, and older son Frank, 26, a finance and business manager for the Faulkner automotive organization.
The secret to their successful marriage? Brenna replies, “she’s smart.” In turn, the former Jackie Johnson answers, “He makes me laugh.”
The biggest question surrounding Immordino’s move to Hamilton is an obvious one: Does it mean he will close the Brenna Funeral Home on Hamilton Avenue, following De Lorenzo’s, Papa’s Tomato Pies and others by moving to the suburbs and selling the older site?
Immordino is somewhat hesitant to decide, choosing to work at both locations and considering adapting the older site to the changing face of the Burg. He promises the same 168-hour work week results and Old World values expected of the names Brenna and Immordino no matter which location mourners visit.
Both locations are oases of silence and decorum on the inside with the Hamilton Avenue location an authentic recreation of the building’s origins filled with memories. But the newer funeral home in Hamilton holds owner Frank Immordino’s future.
Able mask his emotions in his profession, Immordino says a child’s funeral is the hardest emotionally and, now that he’s getting older, he sees more friends among the deceased.
Loyalty to the Brenna name can be attached to some extra gesture on Immordino’s part. Although he’s called “an A to Z guy,” he went beyond what was asked of him when John Di Veronica’s aunt died. The Ewing resident asked for a closed casket because Alzheimer’s disease had altered his aunt’s appearance. Immordino had another idea.
“He called to tell me it would be an open casket and said, ‘Just look at her. You let me know what you want to do,’” Di Veronica said. “It was unbelievable. She looked 10 years younger. Her hair was perfect. He showed attention to detail, compassion for the family. He didn’t miss a trick.”
But what Di Veronica remembers most is how Immordino knelt down in his expensive suit at the cemetery to tell the grieving man’s son, who was close to the aunt, “how much his aunt loved him and that he was her favorite nephew. I’ll never forget it, how he got down on one knee and dirtied the knee of his pants to say that to my son.”
Greg Gore of Hamilton had his father brought to the funeral home Aug. 12 and is still moved by how well he and his mother were treated in the new facility.
“Frank is like the Energizer Bunny,” said friend Vince DiDonato, the builder who did the work on the new Hamilton funeral home on Klockner Road. “This building was five doctors’ office, and we took out the walls, the plumbing—roof to floor, all new.”
Active in community charities and organizations, Immordino displays a nuanced appreciation of Italian-American culture and sensibilities. Photos of casts from “The Sopranos” and “Goodfellas” are hung in a private office and draw a laugh from the undertaker when someone points them out. A photo of his father, who died when Frank was only 12, and portraits of Frank’s sons personalize the experience for a visitor in the unhappy circumstances of making arrangements for a funeral.
Italian families respect the Brenna name, and with the new location, it’s like Immordino has brought Chambersburg to Hamilton.