A few weeks ago we blogged about the woman who went from socialite to funeral planner. Take an in depth look at her book “Good Mourning.”
It’s the place New York City’s elite are dying to get into: Frank E. Campbell, the illustrious funeral home that has waked everyone from Rudolph Valentino to Biggie Smalls, John Lennon to Joan Rivers, Walter Cronkite to Heath Ledger.
At Campbell, confidentiality is key, and even in death — that great equalizer — celebrities are supposed to go out with more elegance and style than the rest of us. Jackie O, for example, was embalmed in her apartment so that the press wouldn’t get a photo of her in a body bag. Instead, she was removed from her Fifth Avenue apartment building in a casket.
“High-five figure services were regular,” says Elizabeth Meyer, a 30-year-old socialite who spent five years working at Campbell. “But we had some six-figure funerals as well. There’s no right or wrong — it’s what you want to spend.”
In her new memoir, “Good Mourning” (Gallery Books), Meyer writes about the strangest services and corpses she pulled together — and things at Campbell, or “Crawford,” as it’s called in the book, aren’t as chic as you might think.
There was the room she converted into a replica of Bungalow 8, replete with palm trees and a DJ, so mourners could properly send off an infamous party boy. His family buried him in his favorite things: a Snoopy T-shirt and bright green sneakers, a bottle of absinthe in his hand.
On the guest list: royalty and rockers, socialites and designers. “It all felt a little empty,” Meyer writes. “My fears were confirmed when I saw guests coming out of the bathroom with red noses. Suddenly it made sense why the family had asked if the upstairs bathroom had marble countertops.”
There was the tour bus parked outside for guitarist Les Paul; the $100,000 Ferrari placed next to the casket of a millionaire car collector, who was buried with a black Ferrari jacket and a gold chain. (Names have been changed, but identifying details remain.)
There were the two women who called for the same husband, each completely unaware of the other. Meyer was at a loss; her boss, on the other hand, had seen just about everything. He called one widow, then the other, explaining that two identical phone calls had come in about the same man.
“These people, I tell ya,” Meyers’ boss said. She asked if the widows were surprised. “Even when they don’t know, they know,” he said.
He had two wakes for two families, though the widows rode to the cemetery in the same car.
Then there was the phone call from the son of a socialite who had just passed away and was about to be embalmed at Campbell. Meyer didn’t know she was there.
“I have a favor to ask,” he said. “I need . . . my sister and I . . . we need . . . Can you tell me that my mother’s brain is in her head?”
Meyer ran downstairs to check the autopsy report. The brain had been listed as still in the body. She raced back to the phone.
“Yes,” she told him. “The autopsy report says that the brain is —”
“No, no, no. Not the autopsy report . . . I need you to physically see the brain. I’ll hold.”
Meyer ran back down to the embalming room, where she flipped through the file and realized who this corpse was: the infamous Sunny von Bulow, whose husband, Claus, had been tried twice for her attempted murder and had since fled the country.
“The only way to see what, exactly, was left was to cut open her skull,” Meyer writes. The embalmer “started to cut with extreme precision while I braced myself for an eyeful of brains.”
Instead, balled-up pieces of Bounty paper towels fell out. Meyer freaked.
“Take it easy,” the embalmer said. “It might be in her stomach.”
“Her stomach? Why would her brain be in her stomach?”
“Sometimes after an autopsy, they take all the organs and stick ’em in a bag, then sew it up in the stomach. It’s just what they do.”
The bag was there, but the brain wasn’t. Her son took the news remarkably well, and Meyer never heard about it again.
“Before working there, I’d probably seen three dead bodies in my life, all at wakes,” Meyer says. “And they all looked like they were supposed to in America — beautiful and sleeping. Which is ridiculous.”
Meyer grew up in wealth and privilege on the Upper East Side. She went to school at Trinity (current yearly tuition averages $45,000), where she met her best friend, Ali Hilfiger, daughter of designer Tommy. After graduation, Meyer attended NYU while partying all over the world.
Then her beloved father died. He’d been sick for five years with lymphoma, but Meyer never believed he wouldn’t make it. She threw herself into planning his funeral and walked a few blocks from the family’s apartment to Campbell, where someone immediately tried to sell her a $90,000 bronze casket.
Meyer declined. “But I did buy a beautiful and costly mahogany casket for my dad,” she says — and then had him cremated. She refuses to blame the funeral industry for taking advantage of those overwhelmed by grief, though she herself fell prey.
“Would my dad have preferred a clean, non-ornate casket, and that I donate the rest of the money to charity? Yes. But at the time I thought: This is the last thing I can ever buy him.”
Her father was an entertainment lawyer, and famous people packed the room at Campbell. At that moment, she realized that unlike most of her friends in attendance, she’d actually been raised and loved by her parents — not nannies or sundry household staff.
“It should have been my father,” one friend told Meyer at the wake. “It’s not fair.”
Meyer spent much of the next year lost, mourning her father and thinking constantly about working at Campbell. She’d never had an interest in death or the funeral industry until he died, and her mother was horrified: “But Elizabeth,” she said, “you could work in fashion!”
So Meyer did what girls in her circle do: “I took a job at a PR company,” she says. “I did a nonprofit in South Africa — one of my passions had always been doing charity work in Africa — and then one of my friends said, ‘You know what? The funeral home makes complete sense. It’s charity work, and it’s on the Upper East Side.’ ”
Meyer walked herself over and asked for a job; she pitched herself as a party planner with social connections no one at Campbell had, and she was hired. On one of her first days, she showed up in designer clothes and $600 Gucci shoes, and jumped at the chance to help with removing a body from a luxury co-op.
No sooner was the body on the gurney than it excreted waste all over Meyer’s new shoes.
“I definitely had a throw-up-in-your-mouth moment,” Meyer says, laughing. Before that, she didn’t know that most dead bodies leak. “I tried really hard to wash those shoes — I was too embarrassed to take them to shoe repair.”
She threw them out and bought a pair of Aerosoles.
“No matter how much you read about dead bodies, it’s about going in and smelling,” Meyer says. At Campbell, smelling salts were used in the embalming room only some of the time — “like if a body came in and had gangrene,” she says. “That smell is just beyond.”
Yet there were perks and quirks. Families would spend tens of thousands on floral arrangements and leave them behind; Meyer would take them home. Summers were blissfully slow: “I guess parties in the Hamptons and trips to Martha’s Vineyard were enough to keep the clientele living it up,” Meyer writes. “Winter? We were booked solid.”
As her boss explained, “it was the total opposite in lower-income areas, where the heat seemed to stir up trouble on the street and could be dangerous for the elderly. But [we] didn’t get that kind of business.”
At Campbell, Meyer was both in and out of her element: The clientele were people she knew, who lived very similar lives and had similar tastes, while the employees were largely working-class and outer-borough.
Despite her obvious empathy, Meyer can seem tone-deaf when it comes to how the other half lives: After the crash in 2008, Campbell took a hit and tried to incentivize their employees by offering expensive dinners and trips to Cancun. “Cheap perks felt desperate,” she writes. She was really put off when the company treated the staff to a retreat in Montauk.
“I had never been a fan of the Hamptons — the two-hour drive through traffic just to see the same people I ran into on Fifth Avenue was not appealing,” she writes. “I was much happier to hole up in my family’s house in the Berkshires . . . Montauk was even farther east that the Hamptons, and not worth it, in my opinion.”
Yet Meyer was so good at her job that she was promoted, and even when the funeral home lost a cadaver — a UN ambassador’s body had gone missing while in transit from New York to Africa — Meyer writes that it was she who tracked it down, in the middle of the night, sitting in storage at Charles de Gaulle.
Here, she was an asset: She’d been through that airport enough times to know where they could be keeping a body. But at the funeral home, tensions were mounting, and rumors began spreading that Meyer was having an affair with her boss, who had mentored her and defended her.
“Even he knew it was ridiculous,” Meyer writes. ‘The guys I went out with were twenty years younger, ten times richer, and a hundred times more attractive . . . an overweight, graying family man was hardly the guy I was trying to bag. Mom had suffered enough already.”
So she quit.
Today, Meyer has started her own private consulting firm and has things she’d like to share, things the industry doesn’t typically publicize. For example: You can buy a casket online at Costco, and in New York you can bring your own casket into any funeral home and they’re not allowed to charge you.
You don’t have to embalm a body unless you’re having an open-casket wake, and you don’t have to pay for drainage, either. The idea that a funeral is at least a $15,000 affair is untrue; it can be done for much, much less, and cremation — which is on the rise — is often the cheapest option.
“Especially with cremation — you don’t have to do a funeral home,” Meyer says. “You can just do dinner in a restaurant and Mom’s in the urn — she can come along.”
Most importantly: “If I could give one piece of advice, especially to people in New York, it’s to look into prearranging a funeral for yourself or your loved one,” she says. Fifty percent of people who are planning a funeral are doing so for the first time, hobbled by grief and trauma.
“I always compare it to weddings,” Meyer says. “Funerals are the ultimate celebration. You can have more than one wedding, but you’ll only have one funeral.”