American Funeral Director
Philadelphia’s Pennsylvania Burial Company
TEXT AND PHOTOS BY ERIC D. RUGGERI
Pietro Jacovini Sr. originally founded the Pennsylvania Burial Company as The Italian Burial Casket Company in 1921. Originally located at 9th and Hall Streets in South Philadelphia, it then was exclusively a casket manufacturer, which added funeral directing services around 1933 when Pietro obtained his funeral directors license from the Common wealth of Pennsylvania. Pietro, an inventive and enterprising young man, was also the first Italian American in Philadelphia to own and operate a printing press and later started “Il Popolo Italiano,” Philadelphia’s first Italian-American newspaper. Pietro also was a co-founder of the prestigious Peirce Secretarial School, which was located at Broad and Pine Streets in Philadelphia.
In addition to founding Italian Burial in 1921, Pietro also founded Independence Beneficial Association, a pre-need pre-paid burial insurance plan in 1927. Pietro Jacovini Sr. was known for asking his plan purchasers “what can you afford?” when selling his plan to Philadelphians during an era when disease and deadly plagues were common in the United States. Specializing in pre-planning funerals for $1 down at signing and one to five cents a month, the plans were quite popular during the early 1930s and had a face value of $250, the price of a complete funeral at the time. If the policyholder died before the $250 cap was paid, Pennsylvania Burial gave them a funeral for face value anyway. This was one of the man y ways Jacovini gained his great respect within the Italian-American Community as a young funeral director.
In 1943, Italian Burial moved to 1327-1329 South Broad Street in South Philadelphia and its founder changed the name of the business to The Pennsylvania Burial Company to place more emphasis on the funeral directing aspect of the business. Pietro Jacovini’s children, Pietro Jr, and his brothers, Joseph and William Jacovini, later became the owners. The prestigious Broad Street address where the firm still operates today was once a three-story music conservatory building, which was easily renovated for use as a funeral home. Then in the early 1950s, Pietro Jacovini’s great-grandson, Peter J. Jacovini took over the business and Pennsylvania Burial absorbed Peter’s cousin’s funeral home, The Victor L. Baldi Funeral Home immediately next door at 1331 South Broad Street. For legal purposes, the two businesses operate under the two separate corporate names and licenses however they operate essentially as one.
Today, Pennsylvania Burial Company is still a family owned independent funeral home owned and operated by third generation funeral director Peter J. Jacovini, his cousin Victor L. Baldi Jr., and their son’s fourth generation funeral directors, Peter Jr. and Victor III. The firm currently handles about 300 cases a year of which few are cremations. Pennsylvania Burial Company is the only known funeral home in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania that does not use the suffix “funeral home” after its name or include the name of an individual as required by current Pennsylvania law. The organization of Pennsylvania Burial preceded the Pennsylvania law requiring funeral homes to be specifically named after an individual. The facility is only a few blocks from where the world-famous Geno’s Philly cheese steaks are made in South Philadelphia.
The building Pennsylvania Burial occupies is a unique one for a funeral home. It is an immense building that is three-and-a-half properties wide and runs a full city block deep. The business also has a large parking lot across the street, which accommodates about 100 cars for services – the largest parking area for any downtown firm. The building is three stories tall and has nine parlors, all of which can be opened up into larger single rooms that seat over 100. “We can have simultaneous viewings on multiple floors and still give them a lot of room,” Supervisor Peter Jacovini says of the spacious facility. The building also has a unique hydraulic operated elevator, which allows the public to travel to different parts of the building in a smooth hardly noticeable ride. Also on the second floor is a parlor specifically devoted to handle funerals for the Chinese families, of which Jacovini says she still handles about a dozen annually.
The building is tastefully furnished with theater-quality carpeting throughout as well as large mirrors and imported marble floors from the 1940s. Beautiful chandeliers are popular in the building, even in the public elevator. There are bathrooms within a short walk from all parlors on all floors. On the third floor, there are two spacious apartments where the owner’s sons reside that have as much square footage as a small dwelling. A smoking lounge in the basement appears to be the size of a small nightclub lounge equipped with booth-style seating famous from the 1950s. Parlors #6-9 are located on the second floor, #1-5 being on the first.
“About 70 percent of our families are from Italian background,” said Peter Jacovini from his tiny office on the first floor of the building, which is decorated with funeral directing licenses from the early 1900s. “Seventy percent of those services are Catholic Masses off-site in churches with most having a viewing here the night or morning before, however nighttime viewings appear to be dropping off.” Jacovini added, “Service talks for us and we have more repeat families than any other firm downtown.”
Pennsylvania Burial has handled a lot of high profile funerals over the years. It has been called upon to handle many former Philadelphia police chief inspectors, the firefighters killed in the famous Arco refinery fire and explosion in the 1970s, and high-rankling Philadelphia Archdiocese priests, bishops, and cardinals. Additionally, Pennsylvania Burial has been entrusted to handle the high profile services for the various former Philadelphia branch Mob families of Angelo Bruno, Frank Sindone, Frank D’Afonso, as well as The Scarfo’s and Testa’s. Pennsylvania Burial today still serves the survivors and their families of these late notorious crime bosses. “For Philadelphia Godfather Angelo Bruno’s funeral in 1980, we had a 7 p.m. to midnight viewing time that went well beyond that. They had hundreds of flower arrangements including 10 flower car loads just for orchids,” Jacovini remembers. “We had to supply 28 limousines for the family and several thousand people came to pay their respects at the viewing,” Jacovini adds. “In the funeral of Philadelphia Mob Boss Phil Testa’s wife’s service, we had 23 flower cars loaded with the most beautiful arrangements,” Jacovini says. “We had every flower car rented from here to New York City,” he adds.
In the 1940s and ’50, when the U.S. Presidents came to Philadelphia’s Memorial Field to watch the annual Army/Navy football games, Pennsylvania Burial’s limousines were contracted by the Secret Service. Peter Jacovini himself also drove Pope John Paul II in one of their limousines when he visited Philadelphia in 1979. They were referred to the Secret Service by high-ranking members of the Philadelphia Archdiocese. Peter jokingly remembers having to make an important telephone call from the back of one of the limousines while the Pope was away from the car. Halfway through his call, he noticed the Pope walking back towards the limousine. He quickly had to end his call telling his caller, “look, I have to go. The Pope is coming.”
Today, the average traditional funeral with a modest metal non-sealer casket runs about $4,300 at Pennsylvania Burial, considered very reasonable for the area. “We only look expensive,” Jacovini says of his prices. Jacovini preaches 100 percent personal service to his families. His family handles all arrangements conferences personally. “If someone comes in and asks for one of us specifically, if they’re in the country they come in and handle the arrangements – that’s our policy” Peter Jacovini says. Some of the families that come in don’t even know Peter Jacovini by his actual name, referring to him as “Willie’s Boy,” having dealt with Peter’s father William back in the day. Part of the firm’s 100 percent personal service motto includes 100 percent funeral coach removal for all home deaths. The firm maintains an impeccable fleet of silver Cadillac hearses, limousines, and flower cars in an attached garage to the rear of the funeral home off an alley, where all remains are discreetly received at the facility.
The arrangement conference rooms as well as the casket showroom are located on the second floor of the building. The impressive showroom displays 35 caskets ranging in price from $500 for a minimum metal to a 48-ounce solid seamless bronze for $20,000. About six different brand name caskets make up the demographics of the room and several of the best sellers are kept in stock. “Our families are particular about their casket selection,” Jacovini explains. “When they go into the showroom and make their selection, they get that exact casket on display, not something ordered and delivered later. It is not unusual for a family member to make a casket selection, put a mark on it somewhere inconspicuously, then check for that mark later at the viewing. If it is not there, our people have some explaining to do.”
The fourth generation funeral directors of Pennsylvania Burial, Peter Jacovini III and Victor Baldi III, are looking forward to serving the families that have been coming to Broad Street “since the beginning of time.”
The two live on site in the apartments on the third floor of the funeral home. “You can’t get too much closer than that,” says Jacovini III.
Eric D. Ruggeri resides in West Chester PA. Employed in funeral service since 1989, he is associated with several area funeral homes. A frequent contributor to this journal, he has been a police officer full time since 1988, and is a member of the Region III D-MORT disaster response team. He can be contacted on line at Deathfive0@aol.com
The American Funeral Director for April 2002