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?