Suggestions from an Earth-Friendly, Progressive Funeral Home Owner
I spent the wee hours of December 21, 2016 in the dining room of a lovely woman who wanted to hold a two-day wake for her newly deceased husband in the home they had shared for decades. Around midnight, the headlamps of a van driven by another funeral director working for me shone in the driveway, and the dead man was rolled into the residence on a covered stretcher, still in his hospital gown.
The woman’s two adult sons slid the Christmas tree nearer to where we stood and then left us in the twinkling light, with our bowl of soapy water and essential oils beside us, and scissors nearby to snip the hospital bracelet off his wrist. The dead man was now on a massage table I had draped with a vintage chenille daybed cover. The widow hesitated over which military uniform to put her husband in, and changed his jacket twice. From a cooler on the floor, I pulled several thin slabs of dry ice, which I wrapped in brown Kraft paper and soft bath towels. I was relieved that I secured the ice before the vendor’s closing time, but our deceased gentleman was actually in wonderful shape. There was nothing to fear. By eleven o’clock the next morning, loving friends with plates of Christmas cookies, cakes, sandwiches and salads arrived, and a priest dropped by for an impromptu service.
The following morning, December 23, we were ready to place the dead man, a little sunken in the cheek but still well preserved from the ice, in a cardboard casket. We drove him to the crematory chapel I use in Brooklyn. The widow, illuminated from within by the two days she had just spent with her late husband, friends, and family members, had a last chance to place her hands on the closed cardboard box that we had draped with an American flag for that moment. She then witnessed the uncovered casket’s entry into the cremation chamber flanked by her two stalwart, loving sons. We all hugged and said goodbye, and as I stood there watching them drive off, it hit me that virtually none of my training for licensure as a New York funeral director had prepared me for this homespun funeral service—not my $21,000 year of mortuary schooling, not the instruction in embalming, and not the required continued education.
Even though I billed this woman $5500 for the funeral, I knew that I was still some months off from pulling any meaningful salary out of my year-old company once I accounted for my $7400 annual insurance premium, my cash advances, my “trade” assistance, my rent, my car lease, my answering service, and other more typical small business costs. Another year with no true return on investment; only the satisfaction I get from my work. I am telling you, I get satisfaction from my work beyond belief. This is not a pity party. This is the tale of my fledgling funeral LLC which I am confident will be a thriving concern in the future despite the rules and regulations of the funeral business, not because of them.
Some quick background on me personally: I was a happily-married, fifty-four year old mom of two, and a magazine writer with a little psychoanalytic training when my father died in South Carolina in 2009. Back then, you might have called me religiously promiscuous: I identified as a Kundalini-practicing Buddhist Presbyterian who had also served on the board of the synagogue my Jewish husband and I attended in Brooklyn. As a writer, I was covering the new American spiritual scene that I once represented. Americans were inter-marrying, feeling more spiritual than religious. Stewardship of the earth was becoming a value yearning for ways to express itself. Cries for progressive funeral service were not being met by an industry that was frumpy and outdated.
The people who knew me best recognized that my decision to start mortuary school was a deeply personal repositioning. The more I got into funeral service, the more I became aware of a force field at work that inhibits innovation and seems to keep new firms from profiting. Frank Ostaseski, one of the key founders of the Zen Hospice Center, has mentioned that the conventional funeral industry needs a loving and compassionate burial. I can’t help but agree. I would like to review a few of the things I have learned the hard way as a funeral firm owner.
I. Mortuary education is out of sync, and far too focused on embalming.
You may have heard that mortuary school is demanding, but it is arduous in the most peculiar way. Mortuary school is uniquely frustrating in that you are forced to memorize enormous quantities of information; the curriculum has a lot of leachy tentacles that can grab you and suck you dry without requiring any intellectual reflection or synthesis. For example, you must learn the names of each of the twenty-six bones of the foot and the precise flow of the circulatory system. It is back-breaking test prep. You have to learn about leprosy and yellow fever, and study color spectrum and theatric lighting, or the ways blue or red or purple acetate films refract from the ceiling fixtures of funeral home chapels. We sculpted ears and noses out of wax and pancaked makeup onto each other’s faces.
Embalming instruction is still the cornerstone of mortuary education. And, actually, I adored my embalming teacher. I now know with great intimacy how formaldehyde chemically mummifies the dead and binds the proteins in soft tissue. But frankly, for me, the year-long mortuary program had too little to do with the things I needed to study to help people get through the sadness of a death, and emerge in one piece, integrated, calm, and forward-looking in the bearing of their grief. Greener funerals, home funerals, and family-centered funerals were introduced to me through a fortuitous trip to Boulder, Colorado at the annual convention of the National Home Funeral Alliance, a group that is changing the funeral industry beyond its own definition of its goals.
My starting mortuary school class of forty-eight was winnowed down to twenty-one by the end of our academic year; this was standard, apparently. Of the younger people coming into funeral training, a disproportionate number of the students from minority groups were summarily flunked after tuition was collected, much of which was paid for with student loans. The school was much, much harder than mere passage of the National Board exam might require, but in unnecessary, poorly coordinated ways, and for reasons I’ll never understand.
II. Residency requirements are outdated, and morticians lucky enough to find a residency that allows them to pursue their true interests are underpaid.
Today, I get letters from women in New York City who have graduated from mortuary school and passed the National Board but cannot find a reasonable residency. The corporate funeral firms occasionally offer women opportunities to volunteer before residencies are extended—as if they see the gals as powdery docents, excited to have some proximity to the healing powers of overpriced funeral service!
So, I was personally fortunate to get a state-required year-long residency from a sweet funeral firm that had a modicum of interest in what I wanted to do. I found a working funeral home owner who did not show me the door for expressing my zeal for earth-friendlier funerals as well as my request to bring my own aromatherapy diffuser to the office. Also, more importantly, he proved to be someone who did not keep me in what is known in Brooklyn as “the pit.” The pit is the embalming room. I worked into the middle of the night for seventeen days straight at one point. I was responsible for holding the funeral home phones at night, driving caskets in the snow to the airport, picking up deceased people from the medical examiner’s office or nursing homes by myself, and working on my baseball stitch to repair the Y-shaped incision on folks who had been autopsied.
I liked the other people at the firm so much that, once licensed, I was willing to work there for a very low salary. After a year of earning quite a bit below minimum wage, my boss started to pay me twenty dollars an hour as a licensed director. Also, because he allowed me to blog and lecture as a death educator, I continued working there for three years as I became a notary, a funeral celebrant, and then a home funeral guide, trained by Jerrigrace Lyons and Olivia Bareham, all the while mulling over exactly what to do next. Since I had been a magazine writer all my previous working years, it was not too tough to see the potential in a well-written, thoughtful funeral planning blog so I launched my recommendations into the social media sphere. Upon publishing a list of green cemeteries within a reasonable drive of New York City, I was profiled by the New York Times for bringing the “Back-to-Basics” funeral service to an urban area that had little experience with it.
By end of my third year as a mortician, I desperately wanted to operate my own earth-friendly company. I did not want to just offer green burials, I wanted my business’s website to shout, “we are green burial advocates!” So, I left my job to start my own business.
III. There must be greater openness to alternative corporate funeral home structures like non-profits and community-backed cooperatives.
When I phoned the New York Bureau of Funeral Directing to say that I was gearing up to one day launch a non-profit, the fellow on the other end shouted “NOOOOOOOO” so loudly that I had to distance my cell phone from my ear. The only nonprofit funeral firm in New York was created from Jewish community funds and a rare, very specific act of the State Legislature. Otherwise, it is illegal to set up a funeral home in New York State as a non-profit organization. This all seems a little mysterious to me. It seems to me that there should be a lawful way to model any funeral home in New York after successful nonprofit funeral societies, such as People’s Memorial in Seattle.
IV. Outmoded “ready-to-embalm” laws place unmanageable financial burdens on funeral home start-ups.
In an ideal world, I would have set up an attractive, calming funeral arrangements office with one pine box and one willow casket in the neighborhood where most of my customers live. But arranging any funeral in a satellite office detached from a chapel and prep room is illegal in state of New York. I am required to be physically attached to a tiled, ventilated, formaldehyde-ready, 120-square-foot prep room with hot and cold running water, a utility sink, sewage and waste disposal, tight closing, rigid doors, and a funeral chapel with 300 square feet of floor space. As I was launching my new company with only $20,000 in family savings, I couldn’t pull those things out of a bag.
So, sixteen months ago, I met with the owner of Brooklyn’s oldest Jewish funeral services firm and presented him with photographed evidence of the green, home, alternative funerals I had been helping families orchestrate at the firm where I was trained. He pretty quickly agreed to hang my shingle and host my eco-friendly company (which conforms to Jewish principle). Today, I pay Joe $300 a month in rent. His unionized staff of directors earns good money on every call I get—helping with my transfers, the driving, and heavy lifting. I personally appear with flowers in my arms at any hour, day or night, at the place of death when a family is waiting in the room. I have not been happy with the quality of the cot covers or flat house stretchers my trade service uses, so I have recently spent another $1000 on my own gear.
I have no permanent, personalized desk space in the funeral firm where I now hang my license, there is just no room, and there is also no storage for anything more than a few white alternative containers there, and there is no current opportunity to get a willow casket into the Jewish showroom. Nevertheless, I am getting along well with the guys, and my clients appreciate the opportunity to make funeral arrangements at their own dining room tables anyway. They can stay in their bedroom slippers or meet me in the cafeterias and waiting rooms of hospitals. I am a virtual funeral home. I show all my biodegradable caskets on my iPad, and I can carry the shrouds anywhere in a bag.
But as long as a “ready to embalm” room and full chapel are mandatory for any freestanding funeral home start up, there will be no New York City freestanding funeral home startups! It is as simple as that. No one could do that on their own in New York City unless an angel investor with no expectation of rapid return on the dollar, someone who, say, would just be willing to buy and refurbish an existing funeral home and decorate it in a way grieving families might find healing. Someone like Yoko Ono or media mogul Martha Stewart, who might decide to create such a funeral firm as a public service to make a substantial, aesthetic shift in the way we care for our dead.
I once informally shared my “not-so-ready to embalm” frustrations with New York regulation with a lobbyist for the New Jersey Funeral Directors Association, and I have to say, I greatly admired his directness. We were waiting at the elevator of the Atlantic City Trump Casino, where New Jersey directors had their conventions until last year. And I said, “Why can’t I have an attractive, sweet-smelling satellite office in Park Slope Brooklyn where I can meet with families to make funeral arrangements?” He said, “Because we don’t want insurance agents and others outside the industry to start selling pre-need.” Then he smiled and said, nicely and straight to my face: “You’re our worst nightmare.”
V. The General Price List format should be adapted to extend the funeral director’s role beyond disposition into more modern directions.
Here is where I may sound to you too much like a funeral director. The whole industry has been geared to think of a funeral director as the custodian of the body and little else. To that end, I recently called the new head of the New York Bureau of Funeral Directing to report that I was doing a heck of a lot of work for my customers that I could not legally monetize through my funeral home’s General Price List (“GPL”): grave and niche shopping, support in organizing memorialization efforts as a celebrant, lumber and fabric hunting. I searched a Bed, Bath and Beyond in Manhattan last month to find an afghan throw in the deceased’s favorite shade of robin’s egg blue so that we could place it over a cardboard casket (I found it, too). I am regularly engaged these days in the planning of memorial services that are almost as elaborate as weddings and tough to get to conform to the GPL. So, here is what the New York Bureau of Funeral Directing’s legal team recently advised me to do: start a second LLC and call it something like “Fitting Tribute Events.” Two bank accounts, two tax filings. I am thinking I have got to do it, but gee, I wish there were an easier way.
In order to survive in the future, funeral homes will have to monetize some new goods and different service options, and I feel this is worthy, distinguished work. It doesn’t mean the consumer has to buy these services from the director, but at least funeral homes could develop some new areas of expertise. As cremation rates rise, and funeral homes bid farewell to heavy, fancy casket sales, responsible funeral theorists are wisely thinking that funeral directors should help in the effort to keep the legacies of the dead well remembered.
The good news is that in 2016, my first year of business, I directed twenty-six pretty gorgeous funerals (five green burials, three home funerals, fifteen cremations services, and three large memorial services). I am on track for managing forty funerals and twelve memorial services in 2017. The word is out. I am seeing encouraging business growth and getting great reviews posted online. It will not be long. Sometimes I get angry and frustrated, but I am getting attention and receiving thanks, and that helps push me forward. Also, I feel certain that the future of the funeral will be female informed.
I hope to soon be training new directors in sustainable, reasonably priced funeral services, and to help more families find stability in their own gumption and resilience, inspired by my growing firm. Never in my life as a writer and social observer have I found an area that so desperately needed more public scrutiny and awareness. It is a great, great honor to be a change agent in the funeral business. I am not going to shut up, and I am not going to quit. I expect to be a little old lady tromping around cemeteries in my sneakers. I want to be buried in a silk shroud, surrounded by whatever flowers are in season. This way, trust me, I will die happy. I end all my funerals by saying: “May the source of peace grant you each peace, and grant peace to all who mourn.”
† Amy Cunningham is the owner of Fitting Tribute Funeral Services LLC and Fitting Tribute Memorial Events LLC, with Kateyanne Unullisi, the co-editor of the popular blog TheInspiredFuneral.com.