Frequently Asked Questions

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.

The Saturday Evening Post Article

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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

Pinelawn Memorial Park: My Mother’s Death Without Dignity

My mother died two years ago.  While we had been estranged for many years, it saddened me to hear that her health had deteriorated, and that she had become a shell of the formidable person she once was. I found out about her death through my beloved uncle, her brother, and it was after the fact.  By the time he was alerted, by her son (his nephew), she had been dead for several months. Believing her remains were en route from Florida to New York for a traditional funeral, he inquired innocently,  “What about the funeral arrangements?” It was then that he was shocked and horrified to learn that she had been cremated  I say “shocked and horrified” because my mother and her brother are Greek Orthodox. Cremation is not sanctioned by the Greek church, and frankly is a big no-no.  What’s more, my mother abhorred cremation.  Years earlier, she had been dismayed and shocked herself when one of her best friends was cremated.  “Not for me,” she said, soon purchasing graves at Pinelawn Memorial Park on Long Island, New York.

My uncle 92 years of age, at the time, was heartbroken at not getting the chance to say goodbye to his sister, and only remaining sibling. He said it left a hole in his heart. And things were about to get worse. I called the Florida direct disposer, a repugnant and disrespectful title for one who lays the dead to rest. Their website alone made my stomach turn. “Why pay funeral home prices for direct cremation services?,” it asks. Those commercial words suggesting a cheap alternative to a real funeral were not consistent with the dignified (sometimes haughty) woman who hewed to tradition and ceremony, and could more than afford the traditional funeral she believed in. I called and spoke to the proprietor, telling her that I am a funeral director (she is not) in New York. I explained that in New York we get everyone on board before such an irreversible act can occur. She told me in strident tones that she had not needed my permission. I also called the Medical Examiner’s office in the county in which my mother had died. They told me she had been found in her bed with a pillow mostly covering her face, having been dead for days. Her son had obviously not bothered to check in with his 86- year- old dementia-addled mother. My family and I had so many unsettling questions.

Her son plundered her considerable financial means for his own personal use while turning to the cheapest mode of final disposition. It was about that time that we found out he, the perennial ne’er-do-well son, was a convicted criminal who had done time in a federal prison. We  insisted he bury those cremains; it was the very least he could do.

While he lied to us and evaded our requests for the burial of the cremains, we prevailed. But the worst was yet to come. I expressed my concerns to the cemetery about our doubts that my mother’s cremains were actually being buried, and not just some Florida sand going into the grave. I appealed to the cemetery administrator Brendan J. Hickey to let me examine the cremains in advance, as a professional courtesy, so that I could then reassure my. He turned a  deaf ear to my pleas.

The morning we buried my mother’s cremains in her grave at Pinelawn Memorial Park, there was nothing “park-like” about the chaotic scene. My uncle, cousins and I watched in horror as backhoes circled (the gravediggers kept apologizing to me, explaining that they were only following Hickey’s orders) and cruel words were hurled at us by my mother’s son and his wife. Throughout the thousands of interments I have been a part of I have never witnessed such a scene.

The most shocking moment was when two Suffolk County police officers, summoned by Hickey, approached me. While I conducted myself with the utmost dignity and restraint, as I do at all funeral services, the police were told that Hickey “expected trouble.”

In my long career as a funeral director, I have striven to provide the utmost dignity for the deceased. Yet, for my mother there was none. And that I could not do that for her has caused a ceaseless pain. While I made a complaint to the cemetery board (not only for myself, but to ensure Hickey would never treat another family in such a crass and cruel manner), they never followed up with me. I was approached by reporter friends to tell my story as a cautionary tale, but out of respect to my uncle I declined.  I could not, in good conscience make worse the circus that had been my mother’s funeral. Each and every time I must go to Pinelawn Memorial Park the horror of that day comes back to me.

Certainly it is the funeral director in me, and how I hold dear that last wishes are sacrosanct, that made me want to advocate for my mother. It is the last good deed we can do for others. While my mother failed my all the years of my life, I was determined not to fail her in death.  Because of Brendan Hickey, I feel that I did.

A Funeral for the Ages

I was honored and humbled to be among the thousands of mourners inside St. Patrick’s Cathedral this morning for the funeral Mass of Det. Steven McDonald. The police office, who was paralyzed in a 1986 shooting became a symbol of forgiveness and compassion, inspiring so many.

The Funeral of Governor Mario Cuomo

A scene from the funeral of former New York State Governor, Mario M. Cuomo, as his casket is being carried to the hearse after a Mass at Park Avenue’s St. Ignatius Loyola. Read more about  Gov. Cuomo’s life and death in my profile which is in the March issue of American Funeral Director.

 

Joan Rivers’ Memorial Service

Outside Fifth Avenue’s Temple Emanu-El after the memorial service for Joan Rivers. I was there to cover it for Kates-Boylston’s “Funerals of the Famous” series. The experience was rather surreal as we were sitting in the second row, right behind Howard Stern and his beautiful wife, Beth. Howard Stern is not listed on the program, but was a surprise speaker. Donald Trump, along with his wife and family, was three rows behind us. Saw Barbara Walters, who we did not recognize at first. Mostly because she is so tiny in person. She actually came over and asked Tony a question (he looked like part of the security detail in his sunglasses).

I had the privilege of meeting Joan Rivers at a party, in 1988. Five years later, she invited me on her daytime talk show. I noted this in “Grave Undertakings” in a passage which reads in part: “…I received a call from the producers of Joan Rivers’ talk show. I thought it would be a thrill trading quips with the famous comedienne. She was my favorite.” On the show she asked me about my work and, of course, invoked her special brand of humor. I could never have imagined back then that I would one day be attending her memorial service, let along writing about it.

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Funerals Matter

The media is full of hype these days about the changing face of funeral service. While articles about green burials, home funerals or no funerals at all, proliferate, this is not the reality. Funerals matter and this book makes that case. A “must read” for anyone interested in a career as a funeral director. The author cites John F. Kennedy’s funeral, which –for those who remember or have seen the footage–spoke volumes about the need for ceremony. An article about this book appears in the March issue of American Funeral Director. Here’s a link to Amazon.

My Favorite Funeral

The funeral for Mayor Koch was a true celebration of his life! Each and every speaker shared memories –both personal and public–as well as anecdotes which made the entire audience laugh. Mayor Bloomberg, especially, was in top form regaling everyone with amusing quips and heartfelt praise. The signature moment came at the end of the service. As Mayor Koch’s casket was being shouldered out of Temple Emanu-El, the organist began to play New York, New York (if only Frank were there to sing it). In a moment both moving and celebratory, the entire crowd broke out in sustained applause. Here is that moment captured for history: