On the Upper East Side, we all know how the other half lives: Limos waiting in front of apartment buildings on Fifth, Madison and Park; invites to galas at the Met; dinners at Sant Ambroeus; and shopping at Ralph Lauren.
Now, thanks to a memoir by Elizabeth Meyer, a former employee of Frank E. Campbell Funeral Home, Good Mourning (Gallery Books), we also know how the other half dies.
The Madison Avenue chapel to the rich and famous is renowned for laying to rest Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, John Lennon and Joan Rivers, whose one-year anniversary of her untimely and tragic death is in early September.
It also turned out to be Meyer’s first job out of NYU.
Currently, the 30-year-old is a consultant to the bereaved. She has an MBA, a certification in thanatology (the scientific study of death and its practices) and is a licensed funeral director. Good Mourning is the story of how she paid her dues.
Still grieving the loss of her beloved father, the socialite decided she wanted to do more than use connections to get a typical rich girl job in PR. She combined her newfound skill for dealing with death and her well-honed one for party planning, then pitched herself to the funeral home’s director.
And so, the well-heeled world traveller, who was used to slipping easily past velvet ropes, took a job as a receptionist; much to the horror of her affluent family and friends, as well as the chagrin of her non-debutante co-workers.
I never thought I’d feel sorry for someone who scoffed at her entry-level salary as the equivalent of nothing more than “a trip to Europe and a designer bag,” but the bullying she was subjected to at the hands of her colleagues made me ashamed of my outer borough brethren.
Meyer never retaliated, but stayed focused planning services and consoling the bereft. The documented travails of her day-to-day range from comical to heartbreaking.
On her first day she learned two interesting lessons: 1) dead bodies leak; 2) Prada pumps that get leaked on cannot be saved.
After that her job required her to search for Sunny Von Bulow’s brain, track down a misplaced body, escort Richard Gere to the restroom, line Madison Avenue with Lamborghinis as a tribute to a car collector, give the chapel a Bungalow 8 vibe for the wake of a billionaire party boy, and plan two different wakes for one man who left behind a pair of wives.
Then there are the stories that don’t make the cut for cocktail party fodder. Because Meyer was raised on the Upper East Side, she knew personally many of the anguished clients: Acquaintances from the fundraiser circuit, neighbors, and classmates, two of whom came in looking to bury their younger sister. The biggest shock, though, was recognizing a newly delivered body as a friend with whom she was supposed to have dinner later that evening.
You won’t die of boredom with this beach read.
Lorraine Duffy Merkl is author of the novels FAT CHICK and BACK TO WORK SHE GOES.