Death Styles of the Rich and Famous: Stories From an Upper East Side Funeral Home
The author of a new memoir tells us what it was like to work at the place that gave John Lennon, Jackie Onassis, and Philip Seymour Hoffman their final sendoffs.
The casket of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis is carried in New York in May 1994. Photo by Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images
The lives of the one percent—the richest of the rich—have always been a subject of fascination for Americans. There's something oddly satisfying about peering into the sumptuous, sometimes hard-to-believe lifestyles of the ultra-wealthy. But what happens when they die?
In her newly released memoir Good Mourning, Elizabeth Meyer chronicles her career at an Upper East Side funeral home, serving clientele in the one percent. (Her publisher describes the book as "Gossip Girl meets Six Feet Under.") Meyer's father was a wealthy Manhattan lawyer who died from cancer while she was in college, and rather than leaving the funeral arrangements to older family members, she capitalized on her event-planning experience to plan his final send-off. Not long after, she decided to seek a career in death care.
In the book, Meyer speaks frankly about the challenges of working in the funeral industry, especially in a place geared toward lavish, expensive, and over-the-top funerals. Meyer's familiarity with Manhattan high society came in handy when interacting with the high-powered clientele, and she got a crash course in navigating some very tricky situations, like making final arrangements for a man with two widows who only found out about each other after he died.
I spoke with Meyer to see what it was like working in the place where John Lennon, Jackie Onassis, Heath Ledger, and Philip Seymour Hoffman all had their funerals.
VICE: Your first exposure to working with death was volunteering to plan your father's fairly high profile funeral while still in college. What was that like?
Elizabeth Meyer: I planned his funeral, yes. My dad died when I was a junior in college on spring break. It was jazz music going in, and rock-n-roll at the end. There was an after party and people came up to me and said, 'This is going to sound completely strange, and I can't believe these words are coming out of my mouth, but could you plan my funeral when the time comes?'
I wasn't fully lucid because it was a difficult time, but in the back of my mind I thought, 'Hold on. I want to be able to do this for people.' At first it didn't start as a business, but then I thought if these people want it, then surely others want it too.
Some people might be surprised to find out that the place you worked sold a $90,000 casket. And for one of the funerals you worked on, the total bill came out to $150,000. Was that one the most expensive?
I believe so. It's hard to keep track of numbers. I just remember constantly being in shock. The average funeral in America costs between $7,000 and $10,000. Even that, to me, is a lot of money. And multiplied tenfold? I think what always took me is the amount of money that was spent. Because if you say to someone they're going to spend $70,000, [they'd say], 'Hold on a second, that's exorbitant.' So to do that [for] a funeral was surprising.
People spend a lot on weddings, though, no?
There's always the comparison with weddings to funerals. To me, I'm almost more understanding of spending on a funeral because you only get one funeral. Nowadays, unfortunately, [the] divorce [rate] is about 50 percent.
I like to think of funerals as a celebration of life. I know a lot of people are against that term, but I think it depends on the person. Weddings are a joyous occasion, but they're about celebrating a union, they're not about celebrating a person like funerals are. So I understand the desire to celebrate, I really do. I know that not everybody agrees with that, and that's OK.
In the book you talk about an elderly widow who asks that her dead husband's surgically-implanted penis pump be returned to her. You also mention some 'pretty weird nonreligious requests.' Care to elaborate?
There were times when piercings were done, and they didn't want the body buried with them. So families, or boyfriends, or girlfriends would call and say, 'Would so and so remove that jewelry in that piercing...and make sure the family never finds out that it's there?'
I know many people see the industry as a factory, but when a girlfriend my own age calls about something so personal, it really brings to light how human this is and how it could be you [in that situation.]
You worked a lot of celebrity funerals. Are there any special considerations in these affairs?
I always found it interesting that if you have a celebrity, it's an event. It's on TV. I'm a runner, so I'm at the gym super early in the morning, so I'd see on NY1 that so and so's funeral is on this day, knowing that I was going to work that funeral. It was always interesting to me, that gap that was created when [someone] becomes a celebrity. I don't read tabloids, but what's interesting is the idea that if it's someone famous, it's less 'real,' and yet at the same time there are complete strangers crying for that person.
As far as the day-to-day, I think the number one thing is secrecy. All I saw was dignity. People were really good about taking care of the families. But with celebrities... Look, if something were to happen to me and my mom called and said, 'This is Mrs. Meyer,' nobody would doubt that it's Mrs. Meyer. But if I were an A-list celebrity and someone called, you don't know. And it's the world we live in, that you have to take that extra step to confirm.
Have you had someone call and impersonate a celebrity's next-of-kin with a fake death report?
Unfortunately, that happens. And I will say that funeral homes—especially the ones that I saw—are amazing at dealing with that. I guess over the years you just learn. But that was another sort of, 'Really? You're going to sink that low?'
But in general, it's more spotlight, more people looking, more people judging. And there's also the juxtaposition that a funeral is the time to gather, and there's something more personal about it. But at the same time there's the whole question of the guest list: Who gets in? That always had me wondering. Where's that person's childhood best friend? Who in that audience really was with them that last week? Who was there for them, versus who is showing up?
Did you ever have fans try to sneak their way in?
Yeah. But you can't blame them. On the one hand, it's horrible. On the other, they're trying to grieve. Can you really get upset because they want to be there? I personally never understood the feeling of attachment towards someone you don't know, but I actually got into major debates at work about this.
I have a certificate in thanatology [the study of death, dying, and bereavement] and it's some thinkers' philosophy that you can't physically grieve someone you didn't know. The juxtaposition of that school of thought versus these people who were wailing in pain over a singer or a musician. Is that pain really for that person, or are they grieving someone else that they forgot to grieve?
Did you ever have any Whitney Houston-type incidents where open casket pictures of the deceased ended up being sold to the highest bidder?
No. But I understand a family wanting pictures [for themselves]. If you have approval and you don't have anyone opposing it, then it's just a life stage.
Did you have families that requested a photographer?
We did, actually. We had a large international clientele. I was working before video conferencing was as easy as it is today. You couldn't Facetime a casket back then. A lot of Filipinos would take pictures for family that couldn't make it. It was just the last picture, and they would send it to family members. It was completely respectful. Why not? For me, it's a level of comfort with death that I'm game for.
Having worked in a high-end funeral home and also consulting with other funeral homes around the country, do you have any advice to give the general public?
Everybody should pre-arrange. And depending on what state you live in, you should pre-pay. If you live in New York state, it's one of the top three protected states. If you go about it correctly, it's a fabulous investment. Funerals can double in cost in ten years, and if you pre-pay you can lock in the price. I'm a big believer in pre-paying in New York, but I just warn people to make sure their money is safe. But definitely, get your wishes known. There is no harm in that whatsoever.
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