Death is the new black: a lively interview with funeral director Amy Cunningham
Interview by Jamie Yuenger
Amy Cunningham is a licensed funeral director in New York City and owner of Fitting Tribute Funeral Services. She specializes in green burial, home vigils, and personalized cremation services at Green-Wood Cemetery’s crematory chapels in Brooklyn. Her creative work with affordable funerals has gained her the notice of the NYTimes, and she was recently named one of the “Nine Most Innovative Funeral Professionals” in the country by FuneralOne, a leading voice for change in the funeral industry. Amy has trained as a funeral celebrant, completed home vigil and end-of-life doula training, and studied Jewish Tahara ritual. In her previous life, Amy was a magazine writer and blogger, covering healthy living, holistic spirituality, yoga and meditation for the award-winning website Beliefnet.com. Her current blog is called “The Inspired Funeral.”
You’re a female funeral director in Brooklyn, New York. You were recently named one of “The 9 Most Innovative Funeral Professionals” by FuneralOne. What’s your angle on the funeral business?
When I started mortuary school in 2009, I sensed that we, as a society, had mastered the wedding — we’ve got wedding websites, magazines, glorious nuptial how-to’s— while the funeral is neglected and desperately in need of help. I’m not the only one hip to this. My work now as a funeral director is supported by all my experiences as a magazine journalist, a yoga-practicing nut-and-berry person, wife and mother of sons in a mixed-faith family. I personally am representative of several dramatic changes in today’s end-of-life industry. First, yes, I’m a woman coming into a field that was quite male-dominated, and I believe that the future of the funeral will be female-informed. It will be planned more collaboratively with grieving family members, and it will place considerably less emphasis on the chemical preservation of the body, which is all well and good for those demanding it, but not at all necessary for everybody.
Newer, fresher funeral options might include a casket-decorating service before a cremation takes place, or a green burial in a biodegradable willow or pine casket with clever ways to memorialize the deceased that might include unusual gestures, poems, flowers or pieces of music. My mantra seems to be, “Yes, you can do that!” I know that a memorable experience with a personal stamp is apt to make grieving people feel better, and I’ve had success with that strategy.
What custom (from the past or present) do you wish you could incorporate into more funerals?
I think I’d start with the death itself. While this is not strictly my domain as a funeral director, I try to guide caretakers of the dying toward hospice care, which allows the terminally ill to die at home and opens doors to home vigils and family-centered funeral services. The old-fashioned wake with the deceased resting in a place of honor is perfectly legal, and it’s healing. No blinking lights, uniformed nurses, or hospital hallways. The moment of death can then revolve around family photos, cups of tea, friends offering food and hugs. A vigil like this can last thirty minutes or longer with dry ice on hand to keep the body cool, which is pretty close to what they used to do in the old days. This isn’t for every family, but it helps the people who opt for it to relax around the reality of death.
Bereavement experts are now thinking that the Victorians weren’t so crazy with all their mourning customs. So I’d also like to see the memorial wreath with black ribbon on the front door make a comeback, a more formal announcement of, “Hey, things are different around here, and we don’t mind announcing it.”
Can you recall a time when a grieving person gave you some insight on how to do your job better?
Five years of experience have enlightened me to the sweeping range of reactions people have as a loved one departs forever, never to be viewed in precisely that form again. People in the throes of tremendous, painful loss behave unpredictably. I’ve felt I’ve known what they wanted. I’ve mostly been right, but then I’ve been wrong, too. Or I’ve offered them tenderness when they actually wanted precision and better funeral marching orders.
I hope to evolve with every funeral. You’ve got to be mindful, receptive, creative, and a careful listener if you want to stay helpful and relevant in this business.
You try to weave people’s stories into their funeral services. What’s your process?
Oh, that’s where my experience as a journalist aids me tremendously. I’ll just ask the family members to tell me more about the dying or deceased person because a funeral is all about paying tribute. What sort of music did he or she enjoy? What adversity played a role in the person’s life? I mine the “faith story” too. You can’t manage someone’s funeral well if you’re not sure what their view of death and the afterlife was.
Then I spread “the news” of the deceased’s life story to everyone I work with from funeral-home staff to casket purveyors and the florist. Fonda Sara, the founder and designer behind Zuzu’s Petals in Park Slope, listens carefully to the life story of every deceased person we serve so that she can create floral arrangements that declare the narrative. A recent casket spray arrangement for a woman who wrote books about trees looked like a wooded landscape with a path along the side of it. On my blog, I feature a floral arrangement that incorporates knitting needles and balls of yarn for an elderly woman who loved to knit.
Well, yes, I’ve had to learn, and it’s a tricky car to drive, not so much because of its length, but due to the absence of any rear view. That back window is tiny even when not obscured by a casket. So you’re entirely reliant on your side mirrors, which makes a three-point turn at the loading bay of a crematory no day at the beach! Last month, one of Green-Wood Cemetery’s crematory workers cupped his hand to his mouth and shouted, “You’re getting better!” as I was parking, so that felt good.
An increasing number of customers are requesting smart SUVs or vans instead of hearses. So I’m wondering if the funeral hearse will one day become obsolete. A cemetery in England uses an eco-friendly casket carriage pulled by a bicycle. And at some green cemeteries (where rural property is being preserved by the placement of bodies in it), they’re using old-fashioned casket carts pulled to the open grave by family members who welcome the opportunity to be more fully involved.
Some people say that everything humans do – from making art, practicing religion, studying science – is an effort toward immortality. What do you say to this??
One path to immortality could be our death process. We don’t get to crawl off like a cat and die under the deck. Our final days will be witnessed by our caretakers and those closest to us. I don’t want to have performance anxiety about it, but I hope my quest to have a healthy outlook and approach to death will favorably shape my two sons’ outlook. On it goes. Can we express gratitude, say goodbye, and yield to the inevitable with grace? My father was ninety-three when he said, “I’ve had a great life, and I don’t want to do all the fancy things these doctors are telling me to do. I’m tired. I love you. I’m ready. I’ve had it.” That was painful to hear, but it also made sense to me. He stopped taking his heart medication two weeks later, and died of a stroke in the care of hospice at home not long after that.
Can you tell me about your dad’s memorial service in South Carolina?
He had one of those terrific celebrations of life befitting a nice old man who’d traveled widely, loved his wife and kids, and served his community. His funeral program contained eight pages of his newspaper columns and deathbed scribblings. Our eulogies were tightly edited and well-rehearsed. Even the grandkids spoke. Then we closed with his favorite piece of Dixieland music.
For more information about Amy Cunningham, check out her website.