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Culture clash brews over Hamilton Hill funeral home plans

Culture clash brews over Hamilton Hill funeral home plans

Neighbors oppose proposed Hulett Street business
Culture clash brews over Hamilton Hill funeral home plans
The structure at 322 Hulett St. is the site of a proposed funeral home. Some neighbors are opposed to it.
Photographer: Pete DeMola/Gazette Reporter

SCHENECTADY —  A culture clash is brewing in Hamilton Hill as Guyanese neighbors are challenging a proposed funeral home.

Nalini Khemraj, who lives two houses down and owns the empty parcel next to the proposed site at 322 Hulett St., said the funeral home would affect her Hindu beliefs because the business would prohibit her family from conducting religious functions in their backyard. 

Khemraj gestured toward her prayer flags.

“You’re trying to pray and there’s death passing through here,” she said. “Everything is contaminated.”

Since buying a house in the neighborhood in 2009, Khemraj said the block has stabilized and has become a good place to raise her three children. 

Traffic issues and funeral processions are also a concern.

Rodger Cheeks requested a use variance for 322 Hulett St. from the city Zoning Board of Appeals in May. 

The ZBA granted the variance. 

Now the proposed funeral home must be granted site plan approval by the city Planning Commission prior to operating the business.

The city’s Planning Department has deemed the application incomplete, citing the lack of a proper site plan drawing, said city Zoning Officer Avi Epstein. 

The application won’t be on the agenda until August at the earliest, he said.

The Planning Commission will examine the flow of parking, traffic, facade and landscaping, among other items. 

Epstein said the planning documents do not detail if a crematory would be operated at the location.

Cheeks and his father ran a licensed funeral home at the location for 60 years, according to planning materials. 

A variance was grandfathered in, but the location lost its legal non-conforming status when it ceased operating.

According to a state Department of Health database, the location closed in June 2001.

Upon retirement about five years ago, Cheeks has been unable to find a buyer for the property until a licensed funeral director came forward with an offer to purchase the building.

The buyer, Curtis Scepkowski, said his purchase is contingent on his being allowed to run a funeral home there. 

Cheeks declined to talk with a reporter during a recent visit to the property.

“I got other things to do,” he said.

Asked to address Khemraj’s concerns, he answered: “That’s their business.”

Aaron P. Proffitt, assistant professor of Japanese studies at the University at Albany, said death can have a “polluting effect” in some belief systems, and many would like to see it contained elsewhere.

People with traditionally polluting careers — those who work with death, human waste, barbers, butchers and leather workers — have been interpreted to be impure from a ritual standpoint, he said. 

“Those polluting careers seem to be impure and you want to keep them at a distance,” Proffitt explained.

One role of a priest in Hinduism is to purify negative karma and “to bring order to the chaos of the world,” he said.

“To live next door would bring all of that up.” 

Khemraj said she didn’t attend the ZBA meeting on May 1, citing overseas travel. But at least two additional residents, Rameshwarie Persaud and Heeralall Yeapersaud, wrote a letter opposing the project, stating a commercial establishment would not be a proper fit for the residential neighborhood, citing traffic and congestion issues.

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