Alexandra Kathryn Mosca and Doris V. Amen, ‘The Morte Girls’: “Proper Planning Prevents Poor Performance”

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The Five P’s: Proper Planning Prevents Poor Performance. A lot of planning goes into a funeral, and failure to plan can result in a disappointing outcome. There’s only one opportunity to do a funeral right.


As a part of our series about women who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Alexandra Kathryn Mosca and Doris V. Amen, who are two high-profile New York City funeral directors. Alexandra is the author of three books and writes regularly about funeral service. Doris has been the subject of numerous documentaries. In 2015 she self-published a compendium of some of her lighter moments spent in funeral service. Together, they’re known as “The Morte Girls,” and they’ve made it their mission to keep dignity in funeral service. Here Alexandra tells her own story as well as Doris’s.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

Growing up to be a funeral director is not something most young girls aspire to. For me, it was an after-school job in a funeral home that changed my career plans. Doris came to the field in a different way. She was helping her fiancé study for his exams to become a funeral director. As they may their way through the course material, her interest was piqued. We both attended American Academy –McAllister Institute in Manhattan, dubbed the Harvard of Mortuary Schools.” At the time, female faces in funeral service were rare, and it was difficult to find employment. But we stayed the course, and Doris heeded her family’s advice to “be your own boss.” and bought a funeral home in Brooklyn, New York. After a number of years of working for the funeral homes of others, I began my own small business.

Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?

We are disrupting the notion that funerals no longer matter.

In America today, funerals are often perceived as a thing of the past, replaced by a holy host of outlandish alternatives. From our long careers as funeral directors, we know that funerals matter as much now as ever. The COVID crisis has underscored that reality. In the face of grievous losses, funerals, and the ability to participate in funeral rituals, became essential.

At the height of the pandemic in New York City, the news was filled with reports of the grieving families of those lost to COVID being unable to hold wakes, religious services, or be present for burials. Families were devastated at being deprived of the ability to say a final farewell. No one was asking about green burials, or turning their loved one into a tree pod. What they were asking was to see the face of the one they loved one last time.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Early in my career, on what had been a very busy workday, I was embalming my last body of the day. Physically and emotionally spent, I somehow sewed my hand to a corpse, and ended up in the emergency room, convinced I was a goner myself. Luckily, all I needed was a tetanus shot. Of course, it wasn’t funny at the time, but it taught me to pay close attention when working on remains, knowing that the consequences could be deadly serious.

When Doris was an apprentice funeral director, she was working at a busy funeral home where, one morning, several funerals were going out. As she made herself comfortable in the passenger seat of one of the hearses in the parking lot, she turned to see a stranger on the driver’s side. “You’re not my driver,” she said in alarm. In time, she bought her own hearse so that she’d never make that mistake again.

We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?

My mentor was my first female boss, Rae Migliore. She was a tough-talking woman who cursed like a longshoreman, and a stern taskmaster, but she was the best teacher I could have had. She taught me to not only do things right, but better than right — to strive for excellence — because in funeral service there are no do-overs. “Good enough” was not a phrase in her vocabulary, nor is it in mine. In large part, she helped to make me the funeral director I am today.

After some lessons in how to cosmetize a deceased, she decided I was ready to do it on my own. I wasn’t so sure. “You can do it,” she assured me, as she left the reposing room. Just before she closed the door behind her she added, “And don’t come out until you’re finished.” It was her version of tough love, and it made me think of when I was a child taking swimming lessons, and the instructor said it was time to jump into the pool for the first time without a buoyancy aid. It was sink or swim. In both instances, I chose to swim.

Doris was mentored by a 5th generation funeral director named John Orofino. He came from an Italian family of undertakers, with roots in the furniture trade, and they made caskets. He had a plethora of knowledge, says Doris, who observed him at work, gleaning tricks of the trade from him that weren’t taught in mortuary school. She was particularly impressed by how he handled his grief-stricken family, when he handled the funeral of his young nephew. Although John died in 2014, Doris still follows his suggestions. “What would Johnny do?” she asks herself in tough situations, or when dealing with demanding families.

In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?

Funeral service is the best example of a structure that has “withstood the test of time.” Funerals and their attendant rites and rituals have been with us in some form since time immemorial, and have served people well. Now, we’re subjected to a fringe element, as well as unlicensed individuals acting as so-called spokespeople, trying to co-opt funeral service with faddish nonsense. Unfortunately, some in the press are partly at fault as they play into the notions that are being presented.

When people lose a loved one, they are devastated and are seeking some sort of closure in a dignified and supportive environment. Most people are not thinking of shooting their loved ones cremated remains into space, turning them into a diamond ring, or oil painting. That is what we have cemeteries for. We have both walked endless miles through cemeteries and come across graves from as far back as the 17th Century. Stopping to read the inscriptions, we’ve pondered what their lives were like. Cemeteries keep a person’s memory alive. And being remembered is important to people. As the Greeks say at the end of their funeral service, “May his memory be eternal.” With what some propose today, green burial with no headstone, and the scattering of cremated remains, how would anyone even know you ever existed? Society may be, sadly, disposable, but people are not.

Perhaps those who eschew funerals don’t want to accept the reality of death, so they package it instead as entertainment, or ignore it completely, like the man who sent a check to “take care of my father.” “Just cremate him, he said, “and scatter his ashes somewhere — as long as I don’t have to see it.”

Certainly, change can be a positive thing when it comes to speed and efficiency. We now file death certificates electronically, saving ourselves lots of travel time. But funerals are not about getting them over and done quicker. Open-casket visitation goes a long way in eradicating the visual pain of seeing someone in a hospital bed, attached to tubes and wasting away.

Essentially, we see ourselves as disrupting the disruptors with knowledge borne of experience and compassion. If something’s not broken, there’s no need to fix it.

Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.

One word is “Team,” an acronym for “together everyone achieves more.” This has been borne out to us again and again, as we work in conjunction with our adjunct funeral home staff, embalmers, casket company, and livery to make a funeral seamless and memorable.

You can do it fast, or you can do it right. Without everyone being on the same page, things have, and will, go wrong. And there’s no room for error in funeral service. Doris’s mentor, John, was accidentally dressed in the suit of another deceased by the funeral home that handled his preparation.

The Five P’s: Proper Planning Prevents Poor Performance. A lot of planning goes into a funeral, and failure to plan can result in a disappointing outcome. There’s only one opportunity to do a funeral right.

We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?

You’ve got that right! We aren’t done by a long shot. There is a lot more work to be done to keep the sanctity, dignity, and tradition in funeral service, and to keep it from becoming played for entertainment.

We will continue to call out nonsense news about our funeral service when we see it and stand united with our colleagues. We do this on behalf of the families we serve, who are sometimes made to feel marginalized by choosing embalming and burial. We want to reassure the public that this sacred and important ritual is not going anywhere soon.

Beyond that, we will keep doing what we’ve done for the past 40 years. Each year, more families seek us out for our experience and expertise to handle the funerals of their loved ones. So, we must be doing something right. Why would anyone want to change what’s working?

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by ‘women disruptors’ that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?

Strong, successful, and outspoken women are often perceived as bitches.

Do you have a book/podcast/talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us?

The work of Dr. Alan Wolfelt comes immediately to mind. He is one of the country’s leading

death educators and grief counselors and has done tremendous work on behalf of

funeral service. In one of his papers he writes that he is “deeply concerned that individuals, families and ultimately society as a whole will suffer if we do not reinvest ourselves in the funeral ritual.” In that paper he “explores the grief-healing benefits of meaningful funerals –benefits we are losing to the de-ritualization trend.” We couldn’t agree more.

We return to his extensive body of work — talks, papers, podcasts, and continuing education seminars — again and again.

You are people of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

An annual Christmas tradition of ours is to get the names of nursing home residents without families, and to not only make gift bags for them, but to deliver them in person. We’d love to expand this gift-giving far and wide. We don’t mention what we do for a living. This isn’t about looking for business. We do it because of all the lonely elderly people we have met.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

There are actually three that have impacted us greatly and they all have to do with the preciousness of time, and the tenuous hold we have on life.

“Time isn’t the main thing. It’s the only thing.” -Miles Davis.

“We shall never have more time. We have, and always had, all the time there is. No object is served in waiting until next week or even until tomorrow. Keep going …” -Arnold Bennett

“In the end we only regret the chances we didn’t take, the relationships we were afraid to have, and the decisions we waited too long to make.” -Lewis Carroll.

That life is ephemeral and limited is a point driven home to us each and every day in the work that we do. One day we will all run out of time, so use yours wisely.

How can our readers follow you online?

Our website: www.themortegirls.com

Twitter: @themortegirls

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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