Episode 11: Amy Cunningham and the Meaningful Funeral
Intro: This is Tanya Marsh and you’re listening to Death, et seq. The Fall semester just started at Wake Forest, so we’ve gone to episodes every other week for a little while, but the students in my Funeral and Cemetery Law class this semester will be helping me with some episodes, so you can look forward to some interesting topics. In the near future, you can look forward to an interview with Josh Slocum, the Executive Director of Funeral Consumers Alliance, and a conversation with my friend Tim Mossberger, the unofficial archivist of The Avett Brothers, about their music and mortality.
But today’s episode is an interview with my friend Amy Cunningham, who is a progressive funeral director in Brooklyn, New York. Amy went to mortuary school in her 50s and embarked on this second career with an incredible amount of energy and empathy. She is the owner of Fitting Tribute Funeral Services and she is one of my favorite people. I hope you enjoy our conversation.
Tanya Marsh: I am sitting with Amy Cunningham today in Brooklyn. Thank you, Amy so much for joining me on Death, et seq.
Amy Cunningham: Hi Tanya. I’m very excited to be here.
Tanya: Amy, I think of you as a non-traditional funeral director for a couple of reasons. You don’t come from a funeral family. This is your second career. And you actively promote home funerals, green burials, and a number of other of “non-traditional” processes, rituals, and methods of disposition. And you do all of this in a state, New York, whose licensing makes it particularly difficult to be a non-traditional funeral director because of the licensing requirements. So can you just share your story and what motivated you to become a funeral director?
Amy: Sure, it started with my father’s death in South Carolina in the care of hospice and you know down there it’s obvious to people in the small towns who to call when they need a funeral director—they know the funeral director from the Chamber of Commerce, from Rotary. So when my dad died we gave him a magnificent music-infused funeral service in the Presbyterian Church. I was amazed by the sweetness of the funeral director down there.
I came back to Brooklyn. I was then a journalist writing about Buddhism meditations, spirituality, the new spiritual marketplace in the United States, how families were into marrying and mixing faith within their family system. I came back to Brooklyn after Dad’s funeral and said to my husband, “gosh I admired that funeral director so much. I wonder what it would be like to be a funeral director. I wonder how you go about doing that.” That was in 2009, and six months later I was enrolled in mortuary school here in New York.
It was a very rigorous demanding year and far more embalming and chemistry and science education than I ever anticipated. I’m not bitter about that now, but I was then. I got through all that and then took six months to, at the age of 54, not many funeral homes are eager to hire a mother of two who’s had a career in journalism that doesn’t seem applicable to the funeral biz. So it took a while to get a residency. But I did land a good one with a marvelous man who trained me and then I stayed there for three years and was always consistently interested in meeting the needs of families with a lot going on in terms of their faith constellation. The average family I meet with in Brooklyn these days—someone’s a lapsed Catholic, someone’s Jewish, someone’s going to Buddhist retreats and practicing yoga. And they’re trying to figure out how to arrange a funeral for a grandmother who had no faith at all, but then became a Mormon in the nursing home where she fell in love with the chaplain who was a Mormon and people come to me in that state. And when I sit with the family like that I feel I’m really in my sweet spot that I can truly help validate them and show them that they are not atypical that this is really the way we are right now in the United States. We can build a good ceremony.
Tanya: I like that phrase “faith constellation” because that kind of pushes back on the notion—a notion about America in general, but maybe Brooklyn in particular, that we are increasingly unchurched and without faith. But that’s suggesting that you actually have this sort of diversity and these mixed families of different ritual backgrounds, different faith backgrounds and so trying to find the middle ground or factors that are common to all of them, something that’s meaningful.
Amy: And yes there’s a core of spirituality there and there may even be prayers or poetry that is loved within that family. So it’s finding the right mix of language and music and the flowers and the right casket for that kind of group. They’ve got a lot going on so they want to keep it simple. And they’re terrified about being ripped off or paying too much and too many people come in quite uninformed so to guide that kind of family through an experience that that then leaves them in an exalted, uplifted place is very meaningful work and I love it.
Tanya: So what would you say your goal is as a funeral director with respect to families and the funerals that you’re trying to accomplish.
Amy: While I do a lot of alternative services, home funerals, green burials, witnessed cremations, I start out a bit simpler than that. I just want to give them a kind of ritual, a separation ritual that will be meaningful to them and that will endorse or include the values of the deceased and also send them out of the cemetery or out of the crematory that day off to their luncheon or whatever meal they’re going to have after the service send them off in a place where they feel that that deceased person was loved, honored take good care of, and that we really did as a group the best job we possibly could.
Tanya: Do you tend to deal with people more on a preneed basis? Do you have a lot of people come to you in advance to arrange their own funerals, or do you find that you’re dealing more with families after the fact, or is it a mixture.
Amy: Increasingly, as I get better now I’ve been very fortunate to have some good press, people are coming to me in advance. But I would say more frequently they’re calling me the night of or two days prior to the death and the care of hospice occurring. A lot of my folks are dying in the care of hospice. I’m making inroads through hospice and getting known to hospice workers as someone who will take not only take great care of the deceased person but manage that complex family constellation.
Tanya: And so mostly you’re serving people in Brooklyn?
Amy: Brooklyn and Manhattan, and Queens recently.
Tanya: And then where are their families located? Are the families predominantly local. Or is an aspect of it that … I mean is part of the reason that people are calling you sort of at the last minute because the families coming in from out of town and nobody has made any arrangements.
Amy: Some of that. I’m calling people who are in hospital corridors. But the cell phone will say they live in Portland or Cincinnati or Florida. So a lot of kids with parents dying here in New York because that’s got that’s got to be a challenge.
Tanya: If you’re not from a funeral family, you’re not inheriting a funeral home or buying into an existing funeral home that has a book of business.
Tanya: Because most funeral consumers, the studies show, don’t shop around. And there’s an incredible reliance on using the funeral home that you’ve gone to funerals at before, to stick with a funeral director or a funeral home for multiple generations. So what are some ways just from a marketing perspective, getting started as a new business owner that you’ve tried to use to combat some of that.
Amy: I used my background in journalism to develop some PowerPoint presentations that are purely educational or are not sales pitches. I just show people what a cremation is. What is cremation history. What did cremations look like in ancient Rome. And I started delivering those presentations at the Park Slope Food Co-op. Now we have 15,000 members in an alternative grocery store here in Brooklyn. And then my little show kind of took off and went on the road and Greenwood Cemetery now has me giving those kinds of workshops monthly and that’s been great for all of Brooklyn. If someone asks me for a business card I may give it to them but it’s not about spreading the word of my company, it’s more about just giving them the facts because I think all funeral directors need to see themselves as educators. Death is a rather complicated today and there are a lot of important decisions to make involving thousands of dollars. And families will really feel cared for when they feel like they’ve been educated not just sold a bunch of goods.
Tanya: Is it that younger people? Older people?
Amy: It’s neat. A lot of older people sometimes maybe couples in their 50s, 60s, 70s saying to each other “we really got to get going on this. We want to spare our children the struggle of putting a funeral together for us.” But then also I’m seeing people in their 20s and 30s are interested in funeral planning but also looking at careers in the end of life sphere. And I love these kids. I’m really impressed with the young people I’m meeting. I tell older people are in good hands because these are the people who are going to be taking care of us. And I think the book has not yet been written on how 9/11 influenced a whole generation of people. and deaths awareness and Caitlin Doughty’s books and all the great articles that have been running in The New York Times about getting ready for death and how to face it with dignity and courage. All of that is feeding a culture of young people who really want to get involved and help do death differently. In whatever way that means. And we used to say … I lead a Death Cafe at the cemetery now and it used to be said that death was the last thing any family wanted to discuss. And it was a forbidden topic. I don’t find that to be true anymore. I think podcasts like yours, everything that’s going on, has made death much more interesting to folks and a great topic to contemplate daily, just as the Buddhists advocate that life is improved through death and contemplation and then awareness.
Tanya: The rural cemetery movement of which Greenwood was a part of, Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge Massachusetts as a part, were designed in part to give lessons to the living. They were designed as places of contemplation. I mean that was a thing that was part of our culture not that long ago a century, a century ago, and that we’ve really lost connection with. That acknowledging death and its inevitability and trying to think about how we want to deal with it both for ourselves and for the people that we care about doesn’t have to be a scary icky saying it’s actually an affirming thing right.
Amy: Right. I may be a funeral director because I spent two weeks every summer of my girlhood in Texas and my grandparents used to take me to church every Sunday. And then after church we would drive to the cemetery. It wasn’t even a topic of conversation. We would just go pull weeds up, look at the stones and say, oh you know, there’s Aunt Mildred. And then just go out to lunch. Nothing was really spoken, that was just a ritual that we had.
Tanya: I mean I used to go to Nebraska in the summer of visit my grandparents and my grandmother and I in particular we used to go around to all the cemeteries in the county and she’d point out to me who all our people were. We’d pull grass. We were just in Nebraska about three weeks ago and cleaned up some grass around some of the tombstones, and I think I put on Facebook that were visiting my grandmother.
Amy: It’s a lovely thing.
Tanya: It’s a connection. It’s a connection through the generations and your relationships with people don’t end at death. So Amy, you’ve talked about people coming from a whole diversity of backgrounds and positions of faith or ways of looking at the world and what some of the common factors in a good funeral might be. So have you thought about what makes a good funeral regardless of your background?
Amy: I think even folks who are secular do well to study the structure of a religious funeral, because there are keys to the high notes and the important moments there. Even the terminology and the names of things are wonderful to study. I was just looking up the “death knell.” They used to ring bells when deaths occurred. There used to be callers out on the street, centuries ago, who would notify the community of the death. Today we have Facebook. We toll the bell in a completely different way, but a good funeral involves acknowledgement of the death, an announcement, an obituary, something like that.
Tanya: An acknowledgement to the community and by the community.
Amy: Right. And then kind of separating process. You know not all deaths occur in the presence of family. But when that death has occurred in the hospital room and family members are standing there weeping…we need to figure out how to, if there’s not going to be a home funeral, preferably, it’s wonderful to advise the family, if you get them early enough and can educate them, to spend some time with that deceased person and alert them to the fact that it is perfectly legal to keep that deceased person in a hospital room for three or four hours, or if death has occurred in a home in the care of hospice, that person doesn’t need to be whisked away. We shouldn’t be afraid of the body that we can actually sit there, cry, tell stories … hold the hand of the deceased, comb the deceased’s hair, maybe dress them, wrap them in a shroud. There’s things that we can do at these moments that are very beautiful. So a good funeral I feel involves some involvement with the body. That doesn’t mean if it’s not your tradition, or not your inclination to be with a deceased person’s physical body, you can sit in a quiet chapel at the crematory or at the funeral home in the presence of the body in a closed casket, you’re still with the body, the body is still there. So I help people who are intimidated by too big an old fashioned deathbed experience to at least maybe sit in the funeral firm for a moment and have something like a visitation. So the announcement, the body, and then some kind of acknowledgement of the meaningfulness of that deceased person’s life through a eulogy, through could be a written statement, something often in the context of a service, I think is great. And just feeling like you said to that person everything you had to say and that if you loved them, you said that in the presence of their body even when life is no longer going on within it. And then I think there should be something having to do with friends and a meal or you know these are the the bits, and I divide it up and look at it. And every family does part of it differently and some families try to forego a lot of it, but if they can just have one piece of it, then I feel like they have something they can talk about later and share with their friends that we did the best we could. We gave mom a good send off … we looked through photo albums. There’s just there’s a lot to it. And the days that unfold after death in the family… we call it a liminal time and space. Sometimes I call it sacred. If someone is secular and they don’t like that word it’s a special time. It’s not every day you have a death in the family. So do whatever you can carefully try to seal yourself away from work and find activities that that will help you honor that person. It could be as a small ritual as if your grandfather washed his car every Saturday, you could start washing your car every Saturday. Some kind of little funny thing that brings that life back to you. You could change your Facebook password to have that person’s name in it. Little teeny salutes to the value of that person’s existence. I think make for a pretty good funeral.
Tanya: We’ve also talked about that you think the start of a good funeral is with the transfer process and there are improvements that the industry more generally could make to the transfer process.
Amy: Tanya, if I could make one change in the funeral business, if I could just help the industry see that that transfer from the place of death is the beginning of the funeral. This is where the healing will begin. To train the people who are coming into hospital, walking down the corridor with the rolling funeral home stretcher or cot and orchestrating a transfer from that bed where the deceased person died in and taking … it’s a changing of the guard. It’s taking a deceased person out of the hospital or the home and into the funeral home and doing that with grace and art and respect. And so many families come to me and say “oh my god my mother died and these guys came and they asked us to leave the room and then we heard the zipping of this bag and then they left as if they didn’t want to talk to us anymore. And that was that. And we felt there was a tremendous rupture and sadness and that’s when we began to grieve.” That’s an unfortunate moment. So I like to go to hospitals with flowers in my arms. I greet the family. I speak to the deceased person by name. And everybody seems to feel good about that … that they know they’re giving me permission to transfer that deceased person and take them into my care. But on a slower schedule, at a pace that they can tolerate, and including them and asking them to put music on a cellphone so that when we walk out the door and down the hospital corridor there’s some kind of ballad in the background that articulates something about their love for that person. I have a very pretty cot cover. Nothing’s ugly. I put flowers in the arms of the deceased so often. There might be flowers on the window sill that have been languishing there through the whole prolonged end of life period. So I take those flowers and I put them in the deceased’s hands and we cover with a pretty cot cover and we only cover the face when the family has told us it’s OK to cover the face. So it’s a moment and it’s a … I make it a thing. I’ve tried to bring pageantry and a kind of ecstasy back into the whole period and make people feel like home. Okay, now we can go home we can bathe we can be ourselves for a while and let’s get ready for the next phase of this thing.
Tanya: I think it’s so interesting because I’ve had a lot of conversations so far with people talking about the diminishment of the ritual as in the funeral. But you’re talking about imbuing this whole period right after death with ritual that I think we have not had more broadly speaking right. And you’re right. I mean the death of a person is such an abrupt transformation. Psychologists and sociologists have talked about, how at least in Western culture, we view human remains as unclean and that part of the funeral ritual like embalming and dressing and putting makeup on is and making a person look more alive is a way of socially transforming this unclean thing into a clean thing because it appears to be alive. Which is I think sort of, more traditionally for the past century, the way that we’ve all kind of viewed this and so if you look at it through that lens, yeah, take the unclean thing away immediately and then make it presentable again to be given to the living but you’re sort of rejecting that idea. And I don’t think you’re alone in that. I mean I think there are a number of people who are rejecting that idea and saying that it is in fact that abrupt transformation or wrenching away the body that is unhealthy right to processing grief and saying goodbye.
Amy: I think of it energetically and I feel like there’s still even after a death has occurred a life energy in the room. So I happen to feel, at least it’s very helpful to me. I don’t know if a soul exists. It’s very helpful to me as a funeral director to believe that one does because I comport myself as if the soul is watching me at all times. And it’s a mindfulness practice. You have to feel that that deceased person has their eyes on you and that’s a lovely relationship. It’s not scary. It’s a great thing. I talk to deceased people. I that kind of energy in the room. And I think people respond very positively to that. My funeral families seem to like me for that reason. None of us know. But it’s a good idea to just trust.
Tanya: So I I’ve been asking this question of a lot of people and plan to continue to do and to do so and I think your answer just sort of showed your hand on how you might answer it. But do you think that funerals are for the dead or for the living. In other words, should we be respecting the wishes of the deceased with respect to their own funerals. Or should we be focusing more on what those that they’ve left behind want out of the whole process.
Amy: This is the great mystic question. Actually, it was discussed in the first week mortuary school. And I think the technical answer is that it is for the living.
Tanya: What do you mean the technical answer, you mean the answer that funeral school…
Amy: Yeah, that you’re wanting to engage that family in in a meaningful experience and that they are paying for a meaningful experience. But the wishes of the deceased certainly have to come in there. If grandma was a strict Roman Catholic, many families come to me saying we don’t go to Mass anymore but grandma would want us to do this. This is what we’re doing. Or they might adapt it a little bit, change it slightly. But I do think sometimes the wishes of the deceased can be disobeyed. And this is my example of that. It’s not what you think. A friend of mine’s mother said “I will haunt you,” as she was dying, “if you give me any kind of funeral. I don’t want any funeral.” And they didn’t have a funeral. And months later my friend was saying you know that was like Mom’s final deprivation. We should have done something. So I think sometimes dying people may insist they don’t want much but I think we can give them more than they ask for.
Tanya: Well I think it’s interesting especially since you mentioned that in the first week of funeral school that this was something you talked about, because the position of the law, and this has been true since Roman times, is that it’s the decedent’s wishes that matter. Right now part of this I think in the Anglo-American system had to do with the established Church of England and Christian doctrine about you need to be buried in consecrated ground. You needed to have, you know, the priest or the minister preside over your funeral if you were going to be resurrected eventually. So it was so important for the deceased that there remains be treated in the correct way and their eternal salvation rested upon that. That it was like a social contract. I’ll take care of you, if you take care of me. And it was sort of an assumed baseline of what the decedents were going to want.
Amy: It’s fascinating.
Tanya: So the attitude of the funeral industry is so opposite to the tradition of the law that that’s just it’s really fascinating to me when you have these kind of incredible tensions and disconnect between two different institutions that are both sort of longstanding. No wonder people are confused, right?
Amy: And that makes the appointment of agent to control the disposition of remains that are very important for people who whose wishes run contrary to the wishes of their families and that they want to make sure that they’re protected.
Tanya: Well and you know a practical problem that I’ve heard a lot of funeral directors say is that especially if a person died and they didn’t have a spouse or their spouse predecease them and they have children where they have you know some other category of people who get to make a decision and that there’s disagreement within the category. Divorced parents making a decision for a deceased child or children making a decision on behalf of a parent that you can have real practical problems and try and sort it all out. And that’s the deceased left behind instructions then that’s going to be a lot easier for everybody.
Tanya: So what kind of conversations do you have with people on a preneed or an at-need basis in terms of what kind of goods and services that they’re looking for from you. In other words, why are families or soon to be decedents coming to you and so some other funeral establishment.
Amy: Well one thing that I offer, and I’m very clear about on my website, is that I make every effort to make the funeral eco-friendly. So my customers tend to come to me because they know I’m going to offer them a simple casket and they also are not interested in embalming. My customer almost uniformly … I think maybe I might have one or two embalmings a year. And I don’t mean to upset embalmers or be anti-embalming. It’s just interesting to note that my customer is wary of embalming and not desiring that. So they may even ask about it, “You’re not going to embalm.” And I say as you know, that’s what I say on my website, I make every every effort not to embalm. I partner, I have my registration at a Jewish firm and it has a very large refrigerated space. So all our deceased people live back there, they are kept cool and can last a long time without any chemical intervention. That’s … I’ve found that there are enough New Yorkers who find that important that they come to me and trust me.
Tanya: And so a lot of people are coming to because of environmental considerations.
Tanya: And so you have observed that their objection to embalming is part and parcel of their environmental considerations? Or is there something else going on with their objection to embalming?
Amy: That’s a great question. I think they want as little intervention as possible. And here’s the key word—they want an authentic experience. They want authenticity the whole way.
Tanya: And they’re viewing embalming as antithetical to authenticity.
Amy: Yes. And I feel that there’s a new generation of funeral customer who wants to see what death looks like. I recently had a family that even said “don’t even close Dad’s mouth.” A lot of funeral directors would find that outrageous, that of course you’re going to close the deceased’s mouth for them. But this family said he looks fine. And they want things as natural as possible. And they’re sometimes very amenable to viewing with very minimal care. They say goodbye at the hospital. They may take a glance or sit with the open casket for a time and they don’t feel that chemicals are useful to them. And this is a customer that wants to watch money. But I also feel like they might be shopping at Whole Foods where they may be paying a bit extra for an organic apple just because it’s organic.
Tanya: Right. So interest in driving down the price of the funeral is not something that you’ve observed is a primary consideration.
Amy: I tell that to other funeral directors as the good news of this thing because this customer wants it real and is willing to pay for that.
Tanya: So what does a home funeral look like in New York City? Because it’s always seemed to me that the urban areas were some of the first places where funeral homes became popular and widespread because people simply didn’t have enough space in their own parlors. They had to go to a funeral parlor. And you still have some of the space considerations and people don’t have cars. I mean you have a lot of sort of practical constraints in a city like this that you don’t have in many other places that would that would seem to complicate a home funeral. So are you looking at home funerals and for the folks that come to you, it’s like a whole range of different options?
Amy: Sometimes a home funeral in New York is a delayed transfer or pickup. I’ll get a call from a family they’ll say “we’ve just called hospice. Mom is dead. We’d like four hours.” And I say “great you know let’s set a time. Let’s send text messages to each other. You tell me when you’re ready and we’ll come over.” That’s a mini home funeral. You don’t need any dry ice for that. Sometimes it’s an overnight. We’ve done quite a few of those. Sometimes it’s a longer, more prolonged ritual. I had a Tibetan case where we kept a deceased gentleman in an apartment in Bushwick Brooklyn for almost three days.
Tanya: You used dry ice?
Amy: I left dry ice there but that particular gentleman was an advanced tantric practitioner. He visited with the Dalai Lama before his death. That gentleman was almost incorruptible. He was magnificent and knew how to die. And if ice was used, it was very little. Quite fascinating. But that was a great experience. But there have been other times where we brought deceased individuals into a brownstone in Brooklyn and laid them out in the parlor in the old fashioned way and then taken them back to the funeral home in the casket that night. So you’re right, we have smaller living spaces, I think where the family centered funeral is really inhibited in New York and only at the point of families ever using their own cars or carrying someone out onto West 57th Street. That’s not gonna happen anytime soon. I’ve had conversations with Josh Slocum about this. Much can be overcome that the city does pose some obstacles.
Tanya: You mean just the practical realities of living in the city.
Amy: I envy the Texans who can put granddad’s casket in a pickup truck and take to the cemetery themselves. That’s a tall order here in New York. We still have and that’s why part of my business is rather conventional. I still use hearses and sometimes limousines. We have old fashioned cortège going to the cemetery and cars in sequence and all the old trapping, but New Yorkers still gravitate to that and want a little bit of pomp and circumstance.
Tanya: So you mentioned witnessed cremations a couple of times. And I think that’s really interesting to talk about. Because I’ve been to … Fresh Pond Crematory and toured that and that’s a fascinating historical place that is really set up to and oriented to witnessed cremations for people from a whole bunch of different faith perspectives. I mean I think they’ve made a real effort to be to be inclusive in that way. But not every state has witnessed cremations or makes it very easy to have a witnessed cremation. So what do you think is valuable for families if anything about experiencing a witness cremation?
Amy: Witnessed cremation has gone up a lot in my practice in the last two years. I think some people want to accompany their loved one the whole way as far as they can almost as if it’s to the edge of a kind of grave they want of an experience. It’s not that … I am careful with my language … it’s not that they want it but they find benefit in the witness. What is a witness—it means that after the chapel service at the crematory or a funeral home, you can go to the area of the cremation plant or facility and witness the casket entering the cremation chamber or retort. The door is opened. Generally at Green-Wood the casket is on a lift, a hydraulic lift, it lifts up to the height of the retort and then the men gently guide that vessel into the chamber …
Tanya: I’ve been I’ve been to the crematory at Green-Wood as well, and so the family is standing in a separate room, right? And so there’s curtains…
Amy: They’ve redesigned it. We’re going into the retort room now because it’s so beautifully styled and designed. It’s so beautiful back there. The metal of the doors is a kind of bronze and they’re symbols of the world of antiquity back there that are very touching and moving. When that chamber opens you see a sort of arch of brick on the top of it and the glow of the embers. You don’t see flames but if the family opts for this they can push a button on the wall that then lowers very slowly the door of the retort. It has a kind of magnificence to it. And certainly a finality. I don’t use the word closure because there is no such thing as closure. You’re going to carry this loss with you for the rest of your life. But it does make people feel like wow I took it as far as I could. I was with her every step of the way. And I was sort of available for every emotional aspect of this experience. People’s knees buckle a little bit but they walk out of the room saying “Wow I’ve never seen anything like that before. Thank you.”
Tanya: So that really challenges the notion that people are opting for cremation primarily because of cost. I mean because it was I guess it all has to do with the ritual that surrounds it because the pushing the button and the witnessing seems very similar to a graveside service where you’re where you’re putting a handful of dirt on the casket.
Amy: Yeah. People want to do things even in a time of grief. And when I think of my male compatriots and my teachers in the industry who I love. I notice that in their lovely masculine way they’ve been depriving people of experiences because they feel that those experiences aren’t good for them. And they say we will take it off your hands. We will do it for you. We are here for you. And it’s very nice. And some families like that but increasingly families are saying “no we want to do that. We want to be there. You don’t have to take it off our hands. We want to pay you to allow us to be there and be fully present.”
Tanya: That we’re going to get more value as a family from involving ourselves in the process.
Amy: I recently had a group of people, a family, seated in the home with the deceased person present. They had on their own after death lit candles, put rose petals around her body, bathed her, brushed her hair, and then they were ready for me to come. I ended up coming with my own two man stretcher which is like a fireman’s pallet. And I didn’t call the man at the firm that I used to help me with these transfers. I went by myself and we were on the upstairs level of a two-story townhome and I said to the people assembled: “Listen, I thought about you guys, I knew that you have dressed her and cared for her and been here all this time. I thought that you might want to help me carry her out down the stairs.” Not every funeral director would be comfortable with this because there are liabilities, what if somebody stumbles. What if… it’s always gone well for me, I don’t know how to explain it any better, because it’s like this family would have paid more to have the experience of carrying their loved one out of the house. That’s an extreme example. But when we got to the bottom of the stairs we put this lovely woman, we covered her respectfully in gorgeous fabric. We put her in the back of my car. I closed the door. I turned to them and the gratitude was amazing to observe.
These are very small ways that we can include families and continuing to love the person that they are now missing and help them in their adjustment to the new reality.
Tanya: Let me ask you a final question for you but before we get to that this is sort of a mundane question. A lot of the things that you described doing do not fit with the general price list.
Tanya: So how do you try to forge this new set of services? The gorgeous fabric, the involving the family, and transporting the body, the transfer process. A lot of these things that you’re talking about—you did a direct burial not too long ago and there is a play list that you played. These are all services and incredibly important touches. But I’m just wondering how you reconcile that with a very formalized set of requirements imposed by the Funeral Rule. And then also sort of the established norms of how this industry works.
Amy: I recently found myself standing in a Bed Bath and Beyond looking for some kind of piece of fabric or throw to put over a casket in the deceased person’s favorite shade of robin’s egg blue. And I stood there asking myself “how do I get this onto the Price List?” The GPL is not working for me. In time all I can imagine is perhaps getting so well-known for this kind of lovely series of gestures that I could raise my non-negotiable…my arrangements fee. It doesn’t fit anywhere else doesn’t it well. I mean there’s no hourly wage, there’s no funeral preparation hourly fee or something like that. I’m not able to monetize it yet. All I’m doing is building my brand and getting the word out that I’m available to you to do these kinds of things right.
Tanya: Right. Because I mean the GPL is set up for … even though you still have this non-declinable fee for covering a lot of your profit and, you know, your services in the cost of goods. But if you’re not doing an embalming that’s out the door.
Amy: The caskets aren’t expensive and they’re not marked up.
Tanya: So that’s a real challenge for people who are sort of pursuing a nontraditional kind of a path. That is much more service oriented. But the question is how do you accurately communicate the cost of those services to families. And right now there’s transparency and fairness and that you’re getting fully compensated for your time and expertise right and that they know what they’re getting themselves into. That’s the challenge.
Amy: The guys at the funeral home watch me arrange rose petals in the interior of the casket where the deceased is never going to be viewed. They say, “Amy, just close the casket.” Well I want to finesse the shroud a little better. Yeah, I don’t know. I mean I don’t think I’ll ever have any feeling of … I have to learn to protect myself, I guess. But I would love to sit down with others in the industry and figure out how we can offer these kinds of things and really save the funeral industry in so many words because it’s not working the way it’s set up right now.
Tanya: So my final question is what sort of advice do you have for people who are considering following a path like you have. What have you learned? What would you do differently? Do you think that this is a path that others should follow?
Amy: I think there are so many opportunities for thoughtful people in this business. And it’s such fulfilling work. I would never discourage anyone from getting into it. However there are so many impediments and barriers to entry and hoops to jump through. My husband used to watch me studying late into the night in mortuary school and he’d say “honey this is like a hazing. I can’t believe this. You know you want to just do good funeral services why are you having to memorize every bone in the foot.”
So one thing I do say is that you really have to want to get into it, if you’re in any way unsure then maybe it’s not for you. It tends to be a business that is so hard to enter that you really have to want it more than anything else and almost see that there’s no other path for you. If that requirement is satisfied then go on, get through the school that will maybe be one of the worst years of your life. But it’s only a year you’ll get through it. You’ll be proud of yourself. Your family will be proud of you. And then try to negotiate the best residency you possibly can in those states that insist upon that yeah. And the embalming requirements are really tough and each state is different. So I was advised to just show my boss what I was good at. And I think he acknowledged after about four months of having me back there in what is known as the pit that really wasn’t my gift. So I got through that part with all the legal requirements for residency and licensing in the state of New York and it’s good to know a bit about embalming but I don’t want to say it’s going to be obsolete. There’s always going to be a call for it but I don’t know that the emphasis in the in the mortuary schools needs to be so focused on it.
Tanya: Well there’s definitely been some studies have indicated that the number of women who are interested in becoming funeral directors is artificially depressed by the embalming curriculum. Large numbers of women have said that they would be much because they’re more interested in the I guess you call “front of the house.”
Amy: Right. The suits, yes. The people who want to sell the funerals.
Tanya: Well or just be involved in the experiences and helping people have a meaningful experience and funeral but they’re not interested in the embalming side of it. And so coupling those two different professions into one. And the requirements to become both into one has cut down on a lot of people who would probably be pretty funeral directors
Amy: Yeah, yeah. I am finding that the men in the industry I’m around are very moved by what I do and don’t criticize me or make fun of me in any way at this point because they see that this is sort of why they got into the business themselves in the first place. I help remind people of the gorgeous nature of this work. And I think we all need each other and can work together and make for a new way for families to say goodbye.
Tanya: Well I think that you are an absolutely inspiring funeral director and you’re so positive. And that we could all learn a lot from the experience that you have and what you’re trying to bring to families.
Amy: Thank you thank you so much. You know by the way I have a blog that I write with Kateyanne Unullisi, a Seattle funeral celebrant, called The Inspired Funeral. And a lot of these ideas are on there. We divide the whole end of life period into nine different moments and we have readings for each of those moments and a lot of good material.
Tanya: I’ll put that in the show notes.
Amy: My life as a journalist continues.
Tanya: Awesome. Thank you so much Amy.
Amy: Thank you.