GLEN RIDGE, NJ — The Glen Ridge Congregational Church was filled with adults and pews of teenagers who filed in this past Monday, Jan. 23, for the funeral service of Nathan Latifi, 16, a Glen Ridge High School junior who died Jan. 16, the result of a single-car accident in Brookdale Park in Bloomfield. Among the mourners, Superintendent of School Dirk Phillips was seated in a back row of folding chairs, as was GRHS Principal John Lawlor. Thomas Mustachio, the church’s minister of music, accompanied the solemn silence with a piano prelude.
According to the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office, the crash involved Latifi and three other vehicle occupants, all minors; Latifi was a rear-seat occupant. In the days following the incident, flowers and candles were placed around a damaged tree off West Circuit Drive, in the park. An electric light pole that was doubtlessly struck by the veering vehicle remained nearby on the ground.
The Rev. Jeff Mansfield welcomed the people. He said that, because the influence of Latifi’s life was too big for one church, he had asked several pastoral colleagues to help him. One was the Rev. Margarette Ouji, of the First Evangelical Lutheran Church in Montclair, who said the years ahead would be a jumble for people who knew Latifi. The other was Rabbi Marc Katz, of Temple Ner Tamid in Bloomfield, who professed God’s guardianship for people in need.
GRHS soccer coach Brian Ianni spoke for coaches Michael DelloRusso, Rob Hill and himself.
“Nathan lived his life with kindness and loyalty,” Ianni said. “He never got too high or too low.”
Ianni said he had recognized Latifi as a gifted, but reluctant player, who eventually developed into a team leader. Most importantly, Ianni said, Latifi knew his limitations.
“Thank you, Nathan, for illuminating the hallways with your smile,” the coach concluded.
Tributes from teammates and friends followed. In them, Latifi was acknowledged, sometimes tearfully, for his athletic ability, the defeats that broke his heart and the victories that lifted him, but always for his kindness. Those speakers included Morgan and William Horan, David Kelly Jr., Caden Lonergan, Jaden Segal, Matthew Koskuba, and Shoh Nishino.
Some of the remembrances recounted silliness done for laughs among mates, such as Latifi’s love of mozzarella cheese balls, including, for the kicker, him drinking the cheesy water in the container down to its dregs.
Michael Koskuba, a father of one teammate, spoke. He said it was apparent that soccer and unity were a common theme of the recollections. He recalled how the GRHS players, for emotional support, would form a chain by holding one another’s shoulders. He asked the mourners to hold one another as a common expression of sorrow. They did.
“I love Nathan and will miss him terribly,” Michael Koskuba said. “We must continue to support the Latifi family and Nathan’s friends.”
Mustachio followed, on the organ, with Carole King’s “You’ve Got a Friend.” The music provided an interlude between school and home recollections. When it concluded, Alison Shea, Latifi’s girlfriend and “first love,” spoke.
Shea said she was friends with Latifi’s older sister, Fiona, before becoming his girlfriend. She remembered his initial awkwardness and how, for her 17th birthday, he asked her to be his girlfriend, as a present to him. And then one November day, she recalled that the words “I love you” slipped from her. Shea said she felt good that he had had her “precious love at such a young age.”
Nonetheless, they broke up before she went off to college at UCLA.
“I tried to shake him 3,000 miles away,” she said.
But her love changed to something deeper, she said, when she began to love him as a brother.
“He was the sweetest boy to hold my hand,” she said. “Thank you, sweet Nathan, for the best year in my life.”
Latifi’s cousin, Jack Gashi, spoke. He said he could clearly see people and family events with Latifi, going back to his Brooklyn upbringing, when he was a boy and Latifi’s father, Jon, was already a man. With some family members, Gashi said, he visited the Brookdale Park accident site.
“I have seen things this past week that have changed me,” he said. “I’ve seen the redwood trees of my life break down and weep like babies. I have seen humanity, and in that humanity I have seen Nathan.”
Latifi’s sisters, Mia and Fiona, spoke briefly. Mia said her brother was the most beautiful boy in the world and every story she heard about him made her proud to be his sister. Fiona said that, although her brother was six years younger, he was everything she ever wanted to be.
His father, Jon, said whatever it took, his son showed up for people.
“Maybe it’s imagined or not, but I feel his presence these days,” Jon Latifi said. “Leave the church a better person. That’s how you will honor my son.”
The service ended and the interment was private.
Photos Courtesy of Chris Troyano and by Daniel Jackovino