Death is My Life
Alexandra Kathryn Mosca has had a long and noteworthy career in funeral service. Over the years, she has branched out into acting, modeling and writing. Today, hers is one of the most recognized names in the funeral industry. She has become a role model for the many women looking to forge a career in funeral service and for them her memoir — Grave Undertakings — is a “must read.”
While many have tried to emulate Alexandra over the years, she remains an original, continuing to inspire through example and to chronicle the industry in her articles.
Green-Wood Cemetery Book Q & A
What made you choose Green-Wood Cemetery as a book subject?
When I discovered (through a fortuitous trajectory of events), that Arcadia Publishing was including cemeteries in their Images of America series, I contacted them immediately. I thought to myself, How can they not include Green-Wood in their series!? After all, apart from its magnificence, this is the most famous cemetery in America.
My familiarity with the cemetery, through my work as a funeral director was another factor. Having been there many times over the years, I was familiar with many of the famous names, but when I began the book project my research continually surprised me. As I found more and more fascinating stories. it became a question of winnowing down the subjects because Arcadia’s Images of America Series books have a limited number of pages. Even if I were to publish Green-Wood Cemetery Part II, III and IV, that would not be enough to encompass all the stories Green-Wood has to tell. New stories are being discovered all the time.
How did you research?
I read everything I could: Newspaper archives from the Brooklyn Eagle and New York Times, newspaper clippings, websites, historical societies and the Library of Congress One of my goals in doing this book was to reacquaint readers with the history of this great city. We’ve all learned the names DeWitt Clinton, Elias Howe, Boss Tweed, Horace Greeley and Peter Cooper, in school as children, Yet, over the years their substantial contributions have become vague–even forgotten by some. I’ve also highlighted some of the key people who founded what became national corporations: Pfizer, Squibb, Tiffany, Steinway and FAO Schwarz.
What are the names of some of Green-Wood’s most famous permanent residents?
Many of the names I mentioned in response to the previous question are household names today. There are others like Currier & Ives and Leonard Bernstein, who were not only famous, but beloved. Then, there are those who, while their names may not be familiar, their accomplishments are. For instance, you may not know the name George Tilyou, but almost everyone knows of Coney Island’s Steeplechase Park. Henry Bergh, too, is another name that may not be readily recognizable. But this man founded the ASPCA and has been honored time and again for his incredible contribution to society.
What Impresses you about the way the place is operated?
There are so many ways in which Green-Wood reaches out to the community. Their outreach to the local students teaches respect for cemeteries as well as an introduction to history that augments in a tangible way some of what they are learning. The Civil War Project is another example. A group of volunteers have worked hard to identify veterans previously buried in unmarked graves. Over the last twenty years, the cemetery administration has brought the cemetery to the attention of the wider public, elevating Green-Wood to one on New York City’s premiere cultural institutions. Many refer to Green-Wood as an outdoor history museum.
What was your experience with Arcadia Publishing like?
If there was one fly in the ointment, that was it. I’ve often said that doing this book was a labor of love and indeed it was. Arcadia was difficult. The editor I worked with, while demanding, seemed quite inexperienced. It was a challenging just to communicate with her. Before I published with them, someone close to the project characterized Arcadia as “one step above self-publishing.” That became very clear to me after I signed a contact with them. Authors are required to do it all and I do mean all. There I was not only doing the writing, and gathering (and paying for) the photos, but doing the page layout as well. When the book was published, it was all up to me to do the marketing. But, the most unpleasant surprise was when my first royalty check arrived. Arcadia had withheld a majority of the amount. It took a strongly worded lawyer’s letter to get my money. Still, despite the ordeal it was –and while I would never recommend anyone publish with Arcadia– the subject matter was so historically important and compelling that I am pleased with the work I did.
What have you done at Green-Wood to promote your book? Have you given any tours or lectures?
Yes, I have given a number of sold-out trolley tours of Green-Wood for the public, as well as numerous private tours. Last year, my one of my trolley tours was a favorite listing in Time Out New York, one of the city’s premiere entertainment weeklies. Most recently, I was part of a panel discussion at the Old Stone House, an historic home in Brooklyn. Last year, I was part of a similar panel at the Brooklyn Historical Society. This is in addition to numerous book signings at various book stores and in Green-Wood’s historic chapel. What I’ve been enjoying lately is promoting Green-Wood, the book and the place, through social media.
What is it like to work as a funeral director?
It would take days for me to fully explain the intricacies of this career. Suffice it to say, this work is not for everyone. It takes enormous commitment and dedication. The hours are long and –contrary to public opinion — the pay is low.
Do you actually embalm bodies?
I have embalmed hundreds, if not thousands of bodies over the course of my career. At present, I primarily arrange funerals with families and guide them through the funeral process. I am there for them throughout the visitation period and with them the day of the funeral. However, I was called out of embalming retirement two years ago, by special request. That was quite a story which I will eventually write about.
Do you ever get squeamish?
Not at this stage in my career. I’ve just about seen it all.
What do you think is the best way to help people at the time of mourning? How can one best help them through it?
Listen to them. I’ve learned that people who have just lost a loved one need to talk about that person and what he or she meant. They often talk about the last experience they had together, as well as the details of the death and sometimes the illness that preceded it. They often tell these stories again and again to work through and try to make sense of what has happened. As funeral directors and friends, we need to be an available and caring ear.
How did you get into the profession? What attracted you?
By accident! I took a job in a funeral home the summer between high school and college. Working there piqued my interest. My plan was to get licensed as a funeral director, but continue with my dream of becoming a writer.
How did you make the transition from funeral director to writer?
As I mentioned, my life plan was always to be a writer and that’s what I was educated for. Still, it was my work as a funeral director and within the industry that gave me so much to write about.
Would you recommend this field to other women?
In good conscience, I would not. That said, I firmly believe that if someone is determined to forge a career in a certain field (even one in which job opportunities are extremely limited), they will find a way.
How can those interested in a career as a funeral director learn more about what to expect?
In addition to reading my memoir –Grave Undertakings– they can talk to established funeral directors in their area about the job market and what to expect.
Should they also contact the mortuary schools?
Only to find out the cost of tuition! The schools need to turn a profit in order to operate and so may paint a rosier picture of funeral service than what exists.