At 21 years old, Elizabeth Meyer was living the life, partying at the hottest Manhattan clubs and flying to Europe on the weekends. But when she was a junior in college, her father suddenly passed away, leaving her not only grieving his death but also unsure about what to do next. Bored with traditional funeral services, Meyer jumped into what she knew well — party planning — and threw a large celebration of her father’s life, including Rolling Stones music and thousands of dollars’ worth of her mother’s favorite flowers.
A year later, Meyer went back to that same funeral home and asked for a job. She ended up working there for three years, and in her new memoir, Good Mourning, she offers a behind-the-scenes look into one of the most legendary funeral homes in the country. Meyer talked to Cosmopolitan.com about why she chose this unexpected career path, the pressures of planning high-end funerals, and how her work completely changed her outlook on life.
Many people experience death and have different methods of coping. But what you did was a really unique response to grief. Why take it this far? I was told in high school that you only fear that what you don’t know. After my father passed away, I realized that I didn’t know death, and the only way to be comfortable with it was to immerse myself in it. So I took the job in the funeral home. Death is such a taboo topic. I realized if I could open doors to the funeral industry, perhaps more people would become comfortable with death and start a real conversation about grieving.
You joined the funeral home a year after your father’s death. Why the wait?I made the move after I graduated from NYU so going to work before then wasn’t an option. I think a lot of people were under the impression this decision was just out of grief. They feared that I’d become morbid and that I was trying to stay with death rather than move away from it. I attempted to go back to all the things I loved before my dad passed away. I tried to go back to public relations, nonprofit work, and I just didn’t feel complete in any of those jobs.
Your mother asked you repeatedly why you were doing this. Was there a part of you was rebelling?Sure. In retrospect, perhaps that was the case, but that was certainly not the main reason. I was rebelling, but it wasn’t just as a daughter rebelling against her mother; it was that I had a gut feeling that I had to be there. I wish she could have understood then, but I realize now that she had the best intentions for me. She thought I had so many opportunities that I should take advantage of instead. But now it’s a completely different conversation. When my mother realized that I wasn’t going to lose my smile and that I was really helping people, she accepted it.
What was your day-to-day at the funeral home like?It’s a business, like any other. Your day starts off with a cup of coffee, obviously. You go about your day seeing what funerals are scheduled, what wakes are happening that night, how late people will be in the building, who is going to be there. You make sure the carpets are clean, that the mints are in their trays. And then at the drop of a dime, you can have a funeral come in and your day completely changes. A big part for me was learning to adapt. I love to prepare for things and I love schedules. But funerals happen 24/7 and plans change. Everything has to be perfect. The family in the funeral home has to be taken care of, the limos have to arrive on time, and the pallbearers are there. It’s event planning. And what I think may surprise lots of people is that it’s just like any other job. There just happens to be dead bodies everywhere.
You wore $600 Gucci heels on your first day only to have them ruined by corpse fluid. How did your wardrobe change during your time at the funeral home?There is a dirty aspect to this job. For one, I had no idea that bodies leaked. I’ve learned to live in Aerosoles — I could become the spokesperson for Aerosoles if they’d hire me! I also didn’t realize how much manual labor I would be doing. I learned not to wear skirts because you’re constantly bending over and lifting things. Suddenly my wardrobe became all black suits. And I had to do lots of dry cleaning. A big flower in the funeral industry is the stargazer lily and that orange pollen will get all over you and your clothes.
Was there ever a moment you regretted your decision to work in the funeral industry?I never regretted my decision. No matter what came about, it was an honor and thrill to be there. I will say though, every “first” came with a bit of throwup in the back of your mouth. I didn’t necessary have the stomach for it. There were a lot of moments of “Is this really what I’m doing?” I hated giving up being with my friends and family on the weekends. That wasn’t something I was prepared for, and I think that’s something that’s quite common for many people out of college. There’s this shock factor of “Wait a second, I’m an adult!” All of a sudden, you have a lot of responsibilities that don’t involve enjoying the weekend.
What kind of pressure goes into planning funerals for the rich and famous? This kind of clientele is a group of people who are used to having things done the way they want them done. Rarely are they in a position where they don’t know what they want. And that was really interesting to me, to see people who were always on the top of their game suddenly not knowing the answers to their own questions. And I would also say things are on a much bigger scale than the average funeral. New York City is not a small town where you can throw a funeral the next day easily and have everyone attend. It’s a matter of organizing people around the world, and that’s a challenge. I grew up with people who are used to having things done really well, so you really want to make sure, no matter how particular they are, you meet their expectations.
What do most people not know about planning funerals? That you can plan them in advance! If I can get one message out, it’s that it’s really important to realize this. Just because you plan your own funeral doesn’t mean you’re going to drop dead the next day. You can help your family out so much if you give them an idea of what you want. Write things down. It alleviates the burden on them so they can just grieve and not question their decisions they made like I do with my dad.
In your book you share stories of some of your experiences at the funeral home: Two women found out their deceased husband was living a double life. A famous corpse arrived without a brain. You almost lost a UN ambassador’s body in airport security. At a certain point do you get used to this sort of thing?You never get used to these things. You get used to the fact that you’re only there to make the bad better. It’s challenge that you get excited about, and you get used to saying, “What’s next?” I think it’s like any other industry.
You went from being a socialite to a funeral planner. How did this dramatic career shift change you as a person? Do you think your values have changed?I’ve changed so much. I look at the old me and wonder who that person was sometimes. As cliché as it is, I absolutely cherish every day. I appreciate all relationships, friendships, and family so much more. You realize every day could be the end. I used to be standoffish with emotions, and I was that person people always talked about as “the queen of repression.” Now I run around and tell everyone how much I appreciate them. I accept my emotions. I travel to see the world. I don’t put things off. I have a newfound respect for people who do what their heart tells them to.
You left the funeral home three years ago. What ultimately made you leave? Do you miss it?Every day I miss working in a funeral home. I miss helping families. I actually left to get my MBA because I’m interested in helping families beyond the Upper East Side. I’ve started my own consulting business. I think everyone deserves a wonderful funeral regardless of your socioeconomic background. I want to make sure that everyone can have a celebration of their loved one’s life and be able to afford it.