After decades of blessing those in their final hours, 71-year-old Rev. Colm Campbell has been thinking about his own mortality of late.
Heart problems forced him to retire from the U.S. office of the Irish apostolate two years ago and multiple hospital visits slowed him somewhat last year while he founded the Irish Cultural Center in Queens.
So it was when an Irish businessman named Alan Jenkins visited the centre last year exploring the possibility of shipping Irish earth to nostalgic expatriates in the United States, that Father Campbell gave Mr. Jenkins his hearty endorsement.
"It's an Irish tradition to sprinkle a little of the auld sod on the casket," Father Campbell said.
One year later, Father Campbell and a few thousand other Irish-Americans have received their hallowed Isle earth, and 65-year-old Mr. Jenkins has hit pay dirt.
"We've had an absolutely amazing response," said Mr. Jenkins, from County Cork, Ireland. "Within fifteen minutes of launching, our website crashed from all the orders."
As of this week, Mr. Jenkins' Auld Sod Export Company will have shipped about 160,000 12-ounce bags of Irish soil -- each retailing for $15 (U.S.) -- to a warehouse on Long Island where they are prepared for shipment to homesick Irish across the country.
With roughly 34 million Americans claiming some measure of Irish ancestry, "the growth potential is unlimited," Mr. Jenkins said.
"We've been getting calls from people wanting to start up franchises all week. And I can't get too much into it, but let's just say we're in talks with the biggest retailer in the world."
Mr. Jenkins came up with the idea of selling dirt while he was vacationing in Florida a decade ago. One day, a Floridian friend ushered him out of the sun and into a club frequented by expats eager for stories from the Emerald Isle.
"After a while, all these guys confessed to me they would give anything to have a drop of the auld sod on hand to drop on top of their caskets," Mr. Jenkins said.
Mr. Jenkins returned to Ireland certain he'd soon be converting Irish soil into greenbacks. But there was one problem: U.S. trade rules ban soil imports, a measure aimed at preventing foreign pests from invading the country's crops.
Ever the entrepreneur, Mr. Jenkins considered the idea for another five years before befriending an industrial chemist who thought he could concoct a system of cleansing the dirt enough to satisfy the U.S. Department of Commerce's stringent demands.
After much trial and error, the chemist declared it impossible. "But the idea remained stuck in the back of my mind," Mr. Jenkins said.
Last February, while lunching out, Mr. Jenkins overheard a young man at the next table say he was an agricultural scientist. Within minutes, the two had solved the embargo problem and began hatching a business plan.
"It was as if someone had planned us meeting like that," Mr. Jenkins said.
Over the coming months, Mr. Jenkins and 27-year-old Pat Burke patented a method of sanitizing the dirt for U.S. markets.
"I can't tell you anything more about that," Mr. Jenkins said. "I'll never know how cough syrup is formed, and you won't ever know my little secret."
The first container shipment of "Old Irish Dirt" reached New York's shores last week. Demand has already outstripped supply.
"It's been phenomenal," Mr. Burke said of the sales. "We didn't see this coming."
Mr. Burke and Mr. Jenkins expect to sell thousands more of the yellow packages filled with Irish terra firma -- each emblazoned with a cartoon man watering a shamrock patch and the words "Official Irish Dirt" -- but the profits won't be going straight to their pockets. Eighty per cent of proceeds will go to charity.
The feverish demand didn't take Mr. Jenkins entirely by surprise. During a business trip to the United States last year, he said stout Irishmen would tear up telling him about their desire for genuine Irish sod to be spread over their caskets. One man paid $100,000 to have his entire coffin buried in it.
At the Irish Cultural Center in Queens, Father Campbell has fielded dozens of calls about the soil. Most want it for burials, but some want it to grow true Irish shamrock. Still others think it's good luck.
Mr. Jenkins has another theory.
"When the Irish came to America, they took their religion, their schools, their sports -- but they couldn't take the dirt," Mr. Jenkins said. "Now they can."