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The Journey Begins

Funeral service has come under attack lately. It is being co-opted by a fringe element, unlicensed start-ups, and a media hell bent on turning a solemn industry into entertainment. Like so many of our colleagues, we have worked tirelessly to keep dignity in what we do. To that end, we have created this site. On it, we will highlight the best of funeral service, and call out the worst. We hope you will follow along, and we welcome input by our colleagues.

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 screennames 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 there are few places in a position to hire. 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 say they want to help. But, don’t we help most by telling the truth?

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

How in the world did we get here?

Originally published on alexandramosca.com under ‘Death and the City.’

Let’s Be Truthful

The Morte Girls are often asked by young people (and some not so young) about how to forge a career in funeral service, and what it’s like. We explain that the hours are long, that most of us work nights, weekends and holidays, and that the pay is generally little more than adequate. Additionally, the workday can often be stressful, with the unpredictability, and the ever-present sense of urgency. Some days, being a funeral director it is a thankless job, while on others it is totally rewarding. And in the spirit of full disclosure, we also tell them something many others do not: opportunities are few and far between.

In New York City, where we are based, funeral homes continue to close, or be purchased and consolidated by large corporations. Often, the property is worth way more than the business. Some neighborhoods have one or two funeral homes to serve their communities — others have none. This does not bode well for job seekers. After completing our year at American Academy — McAllister Institute, we both made extensive lists of funeral homes to contact about doing an apprenticeship. These days, that list would be quite small.

Another potential wrinkle in obtaining employment is that New York State is considering allowing non-licensed individuals to make removals. In our opinion, this is a HUGE mistake. Whatever you can do without a license cheapens all our licenses and makes us less professional as an industry. What’s more, it takes away jobs from an already dearth job pool.

So, before you pay the steep tuition required by today’s mortuary schools (we’ve heard our former school charges approx. $40,000), do your homework. Go to your local (and not so local) funeral homes and ask about the job market. Funeral directors will tell you what the schools may not.

We’d like to see the dedicated, hardworking, next generation achieve their career goals. But we hope they will do that with their eyes wide open, and full knowledge of what they’re up against.

You can read more about American-Academy-McAllister Institute in the link below.

Inside New York City’s Oldest Mortuary School.

Our Latest Interview

In our recent interview with Authority Magazine, we reiterate the importance of funeral service & how we continue to uphold cherished traditions. Clearly, the Covid pandemic underscored (in a major way) what any funeral director can tell you: #funeralsmatter.

Moonrise and the Morte Girls

Last night, the Morte Girls attended Moonrise, a most unique event at Green-Wood Cemetery. It was a two mile stroll through the grounds, after dark, on a perfect fall evening . Along the way, we encountered performance artists stationed in and around some of Green-Wood’s many notable mausoleums and monuments. Food stations, too, were available.

Our ties to Green-Wood run deep. Doris is the cemetery’s “go to” funeral director, having handled the funerals of the cemetery president’s family, as well as many of the staff’s loved ones. While I, enamored with the grounds from my very first visit as a funeral director, wrote a book about the place. During the researching and writing process, I traversed the grounds countless times. Still, seeing it at night is something extra-special. Even in the dark, we discovered new sites and saw others in a different light. Highlights were the Currier (of Currier & Ives) monument lit up in pink, and the Charlotte Canda Gothic memorial (a perennial favorite) illuminated by candles.

When at last we came to the end of the trail, we were sad to see the night end. But we have our memories, and lots of photos, some of which we shared on Instagram.

Yet Another Trying Day at Pinelawn Memorial Park

In the past, I’ve written about the horrific conditions I, and my family, were subjected to at the funeral (if you can call it that) of my mother in 2015. Then again, at the funerals of my uncle in 2017, and my aunt in 2019, we were treated badly. Having experienced such callous treatment by a cemetery has made me hyper-vigilant that families in my care won’t receive similar treatment. Mercifully, I don’t get to Pinelawn a lot, but when I do I’m filled with dread. A dread that is, unfortunately, borne out by reality.

When I arrived at Pinelawn for today’s funeral, I was surprised to see that the bathrooms were still closed. porta-potties were still standing from the height of the Covid pandemic. My hearse driver took a look and reported how filthy they were. He also commented on how the cemetery could possibly think that would be sanitary. But that paled in comparison to what was to take place.

After I signed in the funeral at the outside tent (the office is still not open) the staff took their sweet time, as usual, clearing the paperwork (now having the extra step of going inside to the office). As we waited, I commented to my hearse driver that it was unbelievable at this late date that the office and bathrooms were still closed. Only the day before, I had been at St. Charles Cemetery, across the way, where bathrooms were open and clean, and funeral directors were welcome to enter the cemetery office. Suddenly a man standing in earshot broke into our conversation and in a nasty tone declared, “We are the best cemetery in New York. During Covid we buried more bodies in a day than any other cemetery.” And at what emotional cost? From the stories shared with me by other funeral directors, there was little in the way of dignity, respect, or compassion taking place. What’s more, those burials were not done out of altruism, or charity,, the cemetery was getting paid.

When we finally went to the site of the family’s crypt (45 minutes after we were scheduled) we had a pissed off deacon, now made late for his next assignment (he began the prayers before all the mourners had even left their cars). It was also left to us to explain to a holy host of arbitrary rules to a grieving family: the casket (a casket they never got the opportunity to see) could not be present during the commital service (it would be placed into the crypt before,and the family would not be able to witness this), only 10 people could stand 20 ft. away, and the rest in the roadway. What’s more, the mourners could not place their roses on the casket, a longstanding ritual, and the deacon ended up praying to a curtain high above us. Of course, there was no explanation for any of this (irrational as it is, how could there be!?).

I was heartsick for this family,and apologized profusely. A friend of the family asked in dismay if this was how the funeral industry was treating people. The hearse driver and I explained that it was this particular cemetery’s policy, not the funeral home’s. Only the day before, we had had an entirely different (and positive) experience at St. Charles. The lack of uniformity is incomprehensible. And after recounting this experience to a colleague, who shared a similar story, we are hoping to get clarification by reaching out to the cemetery bureau.

At this late date, there is little reason to behave as if Covid is the dire threat it was in the spring, especially, on Long Island, a county with a low infection rate, and in which people dine out in restaurants with regularity. As my co-Morte Girl pointed out, “surely the cemetery staff eats in restaurants, and uses the facility’s rest rooms.”

On a personal note, the daughter of the deceased gave a short eulogy. She spoke of the difficult relationship she had with her adoptive mother, (whose name was the same as that of mine). Hearing her words, and witnessing the adverse conditions, brought back searing memories of the trauma I experienced five years before at Pinelawn. It was a painful PTSD experience that I’ve yet to shake.

Families and funeral directors, alike, if you’ve had a bad experience with Pinelawn (or any cemetery), feel free to contact the Morte Girls through this site and tell us your story.

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 embalming they want to watch. In mortuary school we were told that the only non–official who could legally watch was the next of kin. “But why would they want to?” asked out instructor.

Some years back, I was interviewed by a young freelancer for a piece about Green-Wood Cemetery (my book about the cemetery had recently been published). At the conclusion of our interview she asked if she could come to the funeral home to watch an embalming. It was not the first time I had been asked, and, as always, I was taken aback by the question. After telling her that she could not, she spitefully cut me out of her article. Not very professional!

At one time or another many funeral directors have been asked that question by the morbidly curious. Some feign an interest in funeral service as a way to gain entrée.  At other times a funeral director is careless in his/her thinking and allows a person into the embalming room. That is always a mistake.

A colleague shared the story of a funeral home owner who allowed a friend to keep him company in the prep room. When the friend’s mother died, he went elsewhere for her funeral. When his funeral director friend asked why, he responded by saying, “I feared you would let someone else in to keep you company, and I didn’t want anyone to watch my mother being embalmed.” The funeral director’s indiscretion  cost him a funeral –and the trust of a friend.

Recently, I overheard a “videographer” working on a potential documentary ask a funeral director if he could watch an embalming. I hope the funeral director will have the good sense to turn him down

It is both morally reprehensible, and illegal, to watch an embalming without being qualified to do so.  Please don’t ask us to break the law. And if those factors don’t deter you, ask yourself this question: Would it be okay for strangers to watch the embalming procedure of someone you love?

A Funeral Home Director’s View of the Pandemic

A Funeral Home Director’s View of the Pandemic

In this article I wrote for Next Avenue, three seasoned, and respected, NYC funeral directors shared their thoughts and experiences with me. They were hard to hear, and even harder to write about, but such is the reality in these dark days. Funeral directors are doing all they can, against overwhelming circumstances, to lay the dead to rest with dignity and respect.

RIP Dr. Jacquie Taylor

We were saddened to learn about the recent passing of Dr. Jacquie Taylor. Funeral service lost an excellent champion in her. An educator, who was also licensed as a funeral director, Dr. Taylor  truly “walked the walk and talked the talk” unlike so many others today. In 2013, I attended a continuing education seminar Dr. Taylor gave in NY. As colleagues greeted one another, we expressed the hope that this lecture would be relevant and fruitful. And we weren’t disappointed.

Dr. Taylor began the seminar by discussing the unfortunate effect interlopers are having on funeral service. I was riveted by the word interloper. No one had ever put it better. “They believe that just anyone can do what we do. In fact, many of them think they can do it better than we can,” she said. She went on to say that some of these people  have been publicly dispensing advice and giving seminars themselves, as unqualified as they might be, about funeral service issues and concerns.  In essence, she told an enrapt audience, they are attempting to do our work without the qualifications. After the seminar, I went to meet her and thank her for her spot on observations. She was so inspiring that later that night a respected Ohio colleague and I began a Facebook group called Funeral Directors for Real.

 Dr. Taylor’s words resound mightily in a day and age when social media is rampant with self-appointed experts aka wannabes. The now ubiquitous, and meaningless, term “funeral consultant” (funeral directors are the consultants) is everywhere. Many of my colleagues likely recall our first taste of this in the form of a pushy and obnoxious woman, who not only wormed her way into a national magazine article, but promised that her “connections” could lead to jobs for those who “stuck with her.” Websites abound with advice from these “experts,” most of whom are unlicensed and unfamiliar to anyone actually in funeral service. They all seem to be looking for a piece of the pie – a pie that is steadily breaking down due to outside interference. And it is not only the outsiders. We have to endure more than our fair share of the fringe element today. We have some who see funeral service as entertainment, hawking sensational YouTube videos, and others who refer to themselves by the pompous, albeit comical term “death educator.”  Who among us has not cringed as their gibberish has made its way into print? Why are we allowing these people to speak for us?  They are all such an embarrassment to the men and women who have dedicated their lives to caring for the dead.

“There has been a deleterious effect as the boundaries of funeral service have become increasingly porous,” Dr. Taylor said that day. Nothing could be further from the truth. And while she is no longer here to advocate for our industry, we can carry the mantel forward. Interlopers be gone!

Rest in Peace, Dr. Taylor.

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