Death and the City

A Dying Business

One upon a time, a young woman walked into a funeral home in Queens, New York. She needed an after-school job to earn some money, while she worked her way through college, and the funeral home was hiring. She had dreams of one day becoming a great writer. Well, if not a great one, at least a good one. Her byline would appear in newspapers everywhere, though she would settle for it appearing in her local paper.

In the meantime, she answered the phone for the funeral home and took on first calls –death call information about a death that just occurred.  During visitations, she sat at the front desk and directed people to the correct chapel –A, B, or C.

During lulls in business she did her homework. The funeral home was the perfect place –nice and quiet – for a college student to study. Sometimes she even snuck a peak at her books during visiting hours. She also read the industry trade magazines, and helped out more and more around the funeral home as time went on. Much to her surprise, she began to envision a  career as a funeral director. Her career goals had changed.   

About the same time, over in Brooklyn, another young woman was contemplating her future career. Would she become a dentist like her dad, she wondered, or maybe a lab tech, because she really really liked science. As she pondered those career possibilities, she attended college and majored in science just in case. Along the way, she met the man who would become her husband. He was studying to become a funeral director, and as she helped him cram for his national board exams, a thought came to her.

 “I can do this,” she thought. And so she enrolled in the next class. At the time, female faces were rare in funeral service, and both girls were discouraged. But they prevailed and paved the way for other women.

Today, both women have thriving careers, and are well-known in the business. The Brooklyn girl owns a busy funeral home, and is a favorite of reporters and videographers. The Queens girl, who is me, runs a small funeral business in Queens, and continues to pursue her writing ambitions, mining the rich material that funeral service has to offer.

These days many women explore a career in funeral service. But instead of walking into a funeral home, they declare their career intentions on social media, with screen names such as millennial mortician, mortician in the making, and lady undertaker. Many seem more enchanted with the mystique of death, rather than the actual career. Others are starry-eyed, and full of big dreams about a career that cannot be fully grasped until put into practice. All appear eager and optimistic about their future in funeral service.

Then I realize that no one has told them about the end of funeral service as we’ve known it. They are not aware that funeral homes around the city have closed –the real estate has become more valuable than the business. They don’t know, or don’t want to know, that there are not enough jobs to go around. The fringe element speaks to them of the green burial wave, and a holy host of other inane ways to dispose of the inconvenient “body.” They do not understand that these “alternatives” are little more than media hype.

At one time, funeral homes were reluctant to hire women. Now they do, but the irony is that few places are in a position to hire. In New York, word is that there are a mere 1,700 registered firms (bear in mind that some funeral homes have more than one registered firm). Mortuary schools certainly won’t tell anyone this truth, and seasoned funeral directors seem reluctant, as well. They don’t want to discourage the dreams of the young. Some say they want to help keep those dreams alive. But, don’t we help most by telling the truth?And don’t we have a moral duty to do so?

Here is the truth: Funeral service has literally become a dying business.

How in the world did we get here?


Are You Thinking of Hiring a Funeral Photographer?

Today, photographing the dead is making a comeback. But this time it’s not only the deceased who are being photographed – it’s the entire funeral service. Candid shots of the somber rituals, loved ones embracing, mourners comforting one another, are all captured with empathy, and discretion by professional photographers. Duane Knight is one of the … Continue reading Are You Thinking of Hiring a Funeral Photographer?

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Elaine & Jimmy: A Tale of Two Restaurateurs

During a recent conversation about iconic New York City restaurants, I mentioned Elaine’s. “Elaine’s? Never heard of it,” someone said. “Never heard of Elaine’s!?” I asked in surprise about the restaurant which had been featured prominently in the opening scene of Woody Allen’s film Manhattan. But maybe I should not … Continue reading Elaine & Jimmy: A Tale of Two Restaurateurs

How We Remember

I was honored to be asked to contribute an essay to NFDA’s ‘Director’ magazine in observance of the somber 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks. I chose to write about a few of the many 9/11 memorials to be found in cemeteries around the country. One of my favorites is in the Cemetery of the … Continue reading How We Remember

How To Feel Beautiful, Stylish and Resilient at 90

I am one of Iris Apfel’s 1.6 million Instagram followers. In a society that worships youth, and in which fashion models seems to grow younger all the time, 99-year-old Apfel is a breath of fresh air. The unconventional style icon’s fabulousness and ageless spirit is on full display in each and every photo. She is proof … Continue reading How To Feel Beautiful, Stylish and Resilient at 90

A Dying Business

Once upon a time, a young woman walked into a funeral home in Queens, New York. She needed an after-school job to earn some money, while she worked her way through college, and the funeral home was hiring. She had dreams of one day becoming a great writer. Well, if not a great one, at … Continue reading A Dying Business

12+ Things You Should Know About Planning a Memorial Service

Two summers ago, my cousin Elizabeth died. Her death was sudden and occurred less than two weeks after the death of her mother. But unlike her mother, who had a traditional funeral, Elizabeth’s wish was to be cremated and to have her cremated remains scattered. In the interim, her two sisters and I put together a memorial … Continue reading 12+ Things You Should Know About Planning a Memorial Service

Keep the Conversation Going Q & A with Salvatore Stratis and Jeffrey Gaines of Abigal Inc.

It was informative, and fun, to sit down with Sal & Jeff from Abigal Press for an interview about the printing company that has done exemplary work for funeral homes since 1936. The friends, and business partners had a lot to say about the work they’ve done, their unique view of history, and what they … Continue reading Keep the Conversation Going Q & A with Salvatore Stratis and Jeffrey Gaines of Abigal Inc.

Post Pandemic Funeral Service – Can We Find Some Normalcy?

As the winter of 2020 turned to spring, the death toll from Covid-19 seemed insurmountable. For funeral directors, it was the darkest and most challenging time we’ve ever faced. In an industry built on personal contact and a deep sense of tradition, we could count on neither. “The idea of not being able to do … Continue reading Post Pandemic Funeral Service – Can We Find Some Normalcy?

I Want to Watch

An essential component of our role as funeral directors is to maintain the sanctity of our work and protect the privacy of those in our care. Something that continues to trouble me is the prurient interest some have in the most private part of funeral service. “I want to watch. Can I?”  It is an … Continue reading I Want to Watch

R.I.P. Regis Philbin

Years back,  I was a guest on Live! With Regis and Kathie Lee. It was a lot of fun and, a few months later, Regis invited me to be on his cable show to talk about funeral pre-planning. His beautiful wife Joy was the co-host, and together we planned a pretend funeral for Regis. While … Continue reading R.I.P. Regis Philbin

Unsung Heroes

In July’s issue, American Funeral Director pays tribute to COVID-19 heroes.When I was asked to contribute, I thought of the countless funeral directors who fit that description (and how it would take untold issues to mention them all). I decided to profile Tom Boland (many funeral directors in NY know him), who not only went … Continue reading Unsung Heroes

Home Funerals

Today I participated in my second home funeral. The visitation was held in a magnificent estate in Greenwich, Connecticut and, as we were getting things ready, a colleague remarked that the setting was grander than most funeral homes. The room where the deceased reposed was bedecked with beautiful flowers, and family photographs. In the entrance … Continue reading Home Funerals

God Winks

As deaths from the pandemic have, mercifully, subsided, cemeteries have relaxed a number of their restrictions. One that has yet to do so was the cemetery I was at this morning. The gates are still locked, and to enter one must be a funeral director there to facilitate an interment. No visitors are allowed. As … Continue reading God Winks

In a Book

I’ve been mentioned in newspapers, magazines, and even on television (as a Jeopardy question), but it is quite a kick to be mentioned in mystery writer Thomas O’Callaghan‘s new novel NO ONE WILL HEAR YOUR SCREAMS. I’m truly flattered. Best of luck with the new book! NO ONE WILL HEAR YOUR SCREAMS  

The Art of Giving a Eulogy – Share the Best Stories and Get Personal About It

Over my long career as a funeral director I’ve heard more than my fair share of eulogies. In a sense, eulogies are like taking a scenic drive through a life. There are times the view seems so familiar, and other times when one may be struck by the beauty in front of them; beauty that … Continue reading The Art of Giving a Eulogy – Share the Best Stories and Get Personal About It

Can Long-Term Friendships Endure in Later Life?

Our girlfriends see us through the best and worst of life. In times of heartbreak, failure, and success, they are there for us. We share each other’s innermost secrets and celebrate special times together. These relationships, which can be so essential to our well-being and sometimes span decades, are ones we are sure will endure. … Continue reading Can Long-Term Friendships Endure in Later Life?

Fashion To Die For: How To Choose Your Last Outfit or Burial Gown

Have you ever uttered the words, “I wouldn’t be caught dead in that outfit!?” Well, you just might be – literally speaking – if you leave it to your family to decide what you’ll wear when the time comes for you to make your final public appearance. Now is the time to consider your final … Continue reading Fashion To Die For: How To Choose Your Last Outfit or Burial Gown

RIP Robert Morgenthau

Attended the funeral service for Manhattan DA Robert Morgenthau at Temple Emanu-El today. New York City’s longest serving District Attorney would have turned 100 on July 31st.  He is buried in Mt. Pleasant Cemetery.  

RIP Queens DA Richard Brown

Inside The Reform Temple of Forest Hills, it was SRO as hundreds of people, including elected officials, judges, prosecutors, court staff, and New Yorkers, attended the funeral service for Queens District Attorney Richard A. Brown. In his lengthy career, the highly respected district attorney successfully prosecuted many cases. The last one was the Karina Vetrano … Continue reading RIP Queens DA Richard Brown

Fake Funeral News

The funeral as we know it is becoming a relic –just in time for a death boom blared the Washington Post headline. Whoever wrote this garbage must have scoured the depths of kook-dom. This article bears no resemblance to what funeral directors do on a daily basis. Perhaps if newspapers interviewed actual, experienced funeral directors … Continue reading Fake Funeral News

Aging, Ambition, and Late Bloomers: The Goals That Push Us Onward After 60

Ambition has been defined as “a strong desire to do or to achieve something, typically requiring determination and hard work.” And while ambition does not take you on a straight path in life, it can take you on a journey you never thought possible. As Dr. Seuss famously wrote: “Oh the Places You’ll Go!” My … Continue reading Aging, Ambition, and Late Bloomers: The Goals That Push Us Onward After 60

What It’s Like to Work as a Funeral Director

“What’s it like to work as a funeral director?” This is a question I’ve been asked time and again. My response: It’s not easy, given the complex emotions involved. It takes enormous commitment and dedication, along with a compassionate nature and respect for tradition and ceremony. Funeral directors deal with issues of mortality – our … Continue reading What It’s Like to Work as a Funeral Director

The Saturday Evening Post Article

The article I wrote about the importance of keeping the funeral tradition alive is in the current issue of the Saturday Evening Post. It’s an honor to be able to make the argument in such a venerable publication. Here’s a link to read it online: Let’s Keep the Funeral Alive