New York

Peter's Story: New Jersey Funeral Director Sees More Overdose Deaths Than Ever

Tune in for "State of Addiction," a special week-long investigative series beginning on Monday, Dec. 11 on News 4 New York.

What to Know

  • Peter Kulbacki, who founded the Brunswick Memorial Home in the 1980s, says he's seeing more opioid overdose deaths than ever
  • "I'm on the tail end of this," he says. The crisis has mushroomed in the last few years, all in his own backyard
  • Kulbacki is encouraged by the increasing openness of families dealing with addiction-related deaths; he hopes it will spark more dialogue

Peter Kulbacki has owned the Brunswick Memorial Home in East Brunswick, New Jersey, since the early 1980s. His blog post, "F*** You, Opioids," went viral earlier this summer when he described the increasing overdose deaths his funeral home is handling. Below are his words, as told to NBC 4 New York's Michelle Kim.

There are many places to turn if you or a loved one has an addiction. Here's the breakdown of trusted resources for tri-state area residents. 

Five years ago, we might handle five or six addiction-related deaths in a year. I saw it start to uptick perhaps three years ago, and I would dare to say in the last six to eight months, we’re probably getting three to four calls a month, sometimes more. And they’re all ages, from a teenager, 20s, to a 58-year-old a few weeks ago.

My contention is that the numbers aren’t telling the real story. I’m dealing with families where I know what the backstory is, yet there’s nothing on the  certificate to indicate any relationship to [opioid] abuse. There's nothing on the death certificate to allude to drug abuse and overdose, but we’re sitting with the families and hearing the backstories of what led to the person's demise. The cause of death is listed or categorized on a death certificate as a suicide or accident, or in one case, a homicide. I believe that the overdose numbers are underreported.

Nina Lin/NBC

This addiction crisis respects no one. It crosses all lines, whether it's socioeconomic or it's religious or it's ethnic. The families that we’re getting calls from, and many of them are personal friends of mine, are what most people would call good families. Good, hardworking families, good parents, good communities, oftentimes churchgoing families. 

We had a call over the last couple of years from a local family that I knew, and it was Mother’s Day. And they found their late-20s son dead in bed of an overdose on Mother’s Day. Can you imagine what Mother’s Day is going to be the rest of his mother’s life, what Mother’s Day is going to mean? We are professionals, but when you hang up the telephone from a call like that, you can’t help but personalize it, you can’t help but empathize with that family. You can’t help but feel for them, what is Mother’s Day going to be like for the rest of their lives, that correlation.

Source: CDC; Map: Will Mathis/NBC

Sometimes it’s a complete surprise. Very frequently, though, families will sometimes express relief. Knowing that there was an addiction problem, that the person -- their son, their daughter, their loved one -- was combatting and confronting. I hear of the relapses, I hear of the sneaking around, I hear of the suspicions. In some cases, the families say to me, "Now we know where he or she is, because many times they would disappear and we would have no clue. Every time the phone would ring we would jump not knowing what was on the other end of the telephone." 

Don’t get me wrong, they’re still mourning the passing of their son or daughter, in some cases their parent -- but the relief is palpable. Because in many cases, it’s gone on for years and they knew it and they’ve tried what they could to help the person, but they kind of knew it was inevitable. 

In a time span of six weeks earlier this year, we handled three calls from families that we knew. I wrote a piece out of frustration, and it went viral on our Facebook page -- it was viewed well over 16,000 times. with massive amounts of feedback and comments on it. I was concerned when I wrote the piece that it might be offensive to certain people. That ended up being the furthest thing from the truth. I’ve had clergy approach me and commend me, and I’ve had many conversations with first responders and clergy, a pharmacist, a couple of pharmacists, as a matter of fact, that have told me that for certain doctors and certain scripts, they will not fill them, they refuse to fill them.

It’s not uncommon today when we do have a addiction-related passing that the families are more open about it during the funeral and the visitation. I think that’s a good thing. I think it’s good for their own mental health, I think it’s good for those that are attending, too, because often there are hushed whispers in the corner about what’s going on with this person’s son or this person’s daughter.

The benefit of that is, I think, it sensitizes people to the enormity of the problem and perhaps to keep their eyes and ears open, and to be more vigilant with their own family and with their friends, knowing that the problem is as large as it is.

I’m on the tail end of this, I see the devastation and the grief. And sometimes the relief in the families, which is sad. I don’t know, all I do know is that it has mushroomed. It’s in my backyard. I fear for my grandchildren, who are 3 and 5 years old.

The victims of the opioid crisis don’t have one face, don’t have one definition. It crosses all lines. It’s not just the junkie on the street, it’s the college student, it’s the mother, it’s the father, it’s anyone. It could be in our own families. I have it in my own family. Our staff has family facing issues as well. I’m fearful. There is no answer, and for those who want to damn the junkie, tell me what a junkie looks like. Because today there is no one size fits all.

** This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

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