WORCESTER — Leaning back in his worn leather desk chair, Peter Stefan closed his eyes, taking in the silence as the clock struck midnight Saturday.
Until this moment, two sounds have echoed constantly throughout the 29-room Graham Putnam & Mahoney Funeral Parlors in Worcester since early Friday morning: the sharp ringing of telephone call after telephone call and the hollow tap, tap, tap as Stefan clears charred tobacco from his blue wooden pipe.
But for just a moment, Stefan enjoys the quiet. And then, the ringing phone intrudes again.
Stefan’s decision to oversee the burial of Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the dead suspect in the Boston Marathon bombings, has prompted thousands of calls, mostly from reporters, overwhelming his modestly staffed funeral home.
Despite a backlash from the community, the decision to accept the body of such a controversial figure was not actually a decision at all.
“This is what we do,’’ Stefan says. “We can’t separate the sins from the sinner. I’m burying somebody who is dead. Everybody who is dead has the right to be buried.”
Stefan is known in Worcester as an advocate for those in need, but it is unclear what fuels his passion for the disenfranchised. He’s reluctant to discuss himself, quickly changing the subject with a shrug of his broad shoulders and a wave of his hand.
After six days of serving as the body’s custodian, with no burial plan in sight, Stefan tries not to let his frustration show.
“I’ve been through way worse than this,” he says. “This is nothing. We’ll get this body buried.”
And for six long days, Stefan has mostly stayed holed up in his second-floor office, fielding call after call after call.
Stefan is a wide-chested man who moves in a stooped, labored gait. Describing himself as “a year older than Social Security eligibility,” Stefan, the father of five grown children, notes that he has not always been a funeral home director.
Raised by his mother in the Boston area, Stefan has a middle-class background. He has lived and worked at Graham Putnam & Mahoney since he bought the business 35 years ago. Before that, he was an accomplished saxophonist.
Photos of Stefan wielding saxophones adorn the walls of his office, and at least three instruments are scattered through the funeral home, some tucked beneath piles of burial permits and death certificates. He ducks questions about what led him away from music and into the funeral business.
Tamerlan Tsarnaev is certainly not the first unwanted body Stefan has shepherded to the grave.
One of the four members of the state’s board of funeral services, he has built a reputation for caring for the remains of the less desirable: immigrants, the homeless, the poor.
“The buck stops with me,” Stefan says. “Every time we get an unwanted case, I say to myself: If we turn away this body, this family, where are they supposed to go?”
On the wall above his desk hangs a red certificate, praising him for burying AIDS victims years before the disease lost its social taboo. On the mantel above that, a worn plaque from another community group proclaims him the “Gringo Advocate” for his work on behalf of Latinos.
It is in this office that Stefan holds court. Blowing thick smoke into the air, he returns phone call after phone call.
While the occasional caller decries him as “un-American,” many offer support.
Among those who called in the first 24 hours were his granddaughter, a number of old friends, and a few people offering advice about Muslim cemeteries that might take Tsarnaev’s body or volunteering use of their burial plot.
When he does leave his office, it is to walk downstairs, pipe in hand, to address the horde of reporters camped outside, leaving his employees and friends to work the phones.
“We’ve got to keep answering the phones in case Obama calls!” says Pat Kelly, 47, of Worcester, who has come to the funeral home each day to bring food — Italian cookies, bran and cranberry muffins, and coffee — and help with the relentlessly ringing phones.
Kelly met Stefan when her uncle died eleven years ago. He has been invited to every family gathering since.
“He is a wonderful, wonderful man,’’ Kelly says.
The funeral home’s half-
dozen or so employees wander the hallways of the Victorian mansion, once the home of a well-known Worcester businessman, awaiting instruction from Stefan.
Among them are Paul, an unassuming embalmer with a passion for organ music, who explains to callers that Stefan is busy. Meanwhile, his eccentric partner, known as Lonewolf to his co-workers, paces the hall, chain smoking.
When Stefan strolls away from the office to grab a salami sandwich from the kitchen, his staff members take down each missed call on pieces of notebook paper that cover his desk.
The work of recording and returning each phone call halts just once: On Saturday afternoon, Stefan ran out of pipe tobacco, and the employees convened to decide who would venture past the protestors outside to buy him more.
At least four cemeteries and the cities of Cambridge and Boston have told Stefan that they will not accept the body, and as he fields call after call asking why he is helping to bury a terrorist, protesters have staked out the sidewalk across the street, waving signs and declaring him a disgrace to the community.
“They don’t have nothing to say,” Stefan said, pointing to a dozen or so protesters.
For two days, Tsarnaev’s body lay two floors below Stefan’s office, in the funeral home’s cooler. On Sunday afternoon, it was moved to the first floor to be washed by Ruslan Tsarni, Tsarnaev’s uncle, who is overseeing the burial.
After washing the battered body of his nephew, Tsarni climbed the staircase to thank and hug Stefan.
“It’s nothing,” he said. “I’ll call you tomorrow.”
Kicking his feet atop a stack of burial permits, Stefan glances at a small oval plaque hanging on his office closet door. “Five-minute telephone time limit,” it reads in white and red letters.
“Guess I should probably take that down, huh?” he murmured from his desk Sunday night, as he fumbled to fill the bowl of his pipe with a fresh batch of Captain Black tobacco, a cavendish blend whose rich aroma hangs trapped in the office’s soft-green curtains and decades-old beige wallpaper.
Before long, the phone is again ringing. This time, it is the BBC, calling to confirm a live radio interview.
“Ya gotta hear the accents on these guys,” Stefan says, as he holds his pipe hand over the receiver.
But the media requests ended Monday morning, quieting the ringing phones.
Worcester officials told Stefan to stop granting interviews, and city and police officials booted journalists from inside the building.
Their logic was simple: The less time Stefan spends talking to reporters, the more time he can spend finding a place to bury the body.
“Hell, what can I say, I guess they’re right,’’ Stefan says. “We’ve got some work to get done.”
Beneath his fatigued, apologetic voice was the ever-present sound of his pipe.
Tap. Tap. Tap.