Wednesday, August 26, 2015

How This Woman Went From Socialite to Funeral Planner

woman funeral director

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 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.

Article Via.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Just how easy is it to digitally fake a death?

Killing someone is easier than you might think, or at least getting them legally declared dead might be.

With just a few easy steps, most of them online, a bad guy could "kill off" someone for fun — or profit, according to one researcher.

"The process is quite lax in terms of security in the U.S." says Chris Rock — an Australian hacker, not the comedian — who has been studying security flaws in what he calls "the death industry" for the past year.

Rock said his curiosity was piqued when an Australian hospital accidentally sent out 200 death notices instead of 200 discharge notices last year. "Since then, I've found out that nearly all Western countries have moved to online systems," he said.

In the United States, most states use electronic death registration (EDR) systems to help certify that someone has died. For someone to be declared dead, a medical professional needs to fill out a form affirming the cause of death and a funeral director must fill out another explaining what happened to their remains.

"Universal implementation of EDR has the potential to virtually eliminate death-reporting errors and would ensure that our death records — whether pertaining to current beneficiaries or other persons — include the most accurate and most current information," Social Security Administration spokesman William Jarrett told The Washington Post. The agency has been advocating for a switch to such systems since 2002, he said.

Electronic systems are much faster than the traditional manual certification processes and are "highly accurate" because state officials verify the names and Social Security numbers of a deceased person against the government records before a death certificate is issued, according to Jarrett.

But Rock worries people may be able to fake their way into the EDR systems by hijacking the identities of people normally involved in submitting the death-certificate applications. In some cases, there appears to be nothing stopping someone from finding a doctor's name, medical practice and license number online. Rock's concern is that someone could take the legitimate information about medical professionals and combine it with contact information like a burner phone and an anonymous e-mail address to submit fraudulent applications for access to the systems.

There appear to be similarly weak checks on the sign-up process for funeral directors, he said.

But states run their EDR systems themselves, so there is a lot of variation from state to state and it is difficult to test their security without potentially breaking the law, Rock acknowledged, so it's hard to say just how real the threat from that kind of fraud might be.

Idaho verifies license numbers and will ask for a copy of the license if something about the application raises additional concerns, said Idaho Department of Health & Welfare public information officer Niki Forbing-Orr. The agency's staff also looks into the contact information and may take additional measures if there are questions about an application, she said.

But Idaho has an advantage: The state's small population means the agency's staff basically knows everyone who is involved in the process, she said.

But the process may be less personal in larger states. Washington's system verifies an applicant's name and license status, but not their contact information, according to Jean Remsbecker, a vital records manager with the state's Department of Health. "I'm not sure we have access to that information," she said.

But if Rock is right, the risks for victims of a digitally faked death may be severe. With a death certificate in hand, a person could potentially collect life insurance on someone who is still alive or get control over a person's financial accounts if they take the extra step of faking them a will, according to Rock. It may also create problems for the still living when it comes to collect things like Social Security benefits, he said.

Plus, it's actually pretty hard to "come back to life" after being declared legally dead — and people may not necessarily know if the government thinks they're dead until it's too late.

Take the example of Donald E. Miller, an Ohio man who was declared legally dead in 1994 — years after disappearing on his family. He showed up alive around a decade later and went to court to try to get the decision reversed in 2013. But the judge ruled he was still legally dead because the legally deceased only have three years to contest the decision under Ohio law.

However, it's not clear anyone's actually doing this right now — although Rock figures if he can think it up, someone else probably already has.

But digitally faking a death may just be the start. Rock claims there are similar issues in the way births are registered in the U.S. and elsewhere — leaving open the possibility that someone could essentially "harvest" identities by making up fake babies.

"I call them shell babies," he said. "You could use them to hide your identity, to get a new Social Security number, for money laundering — or kill it off for life insurance."

Rock has a new book exploring the topic, called the "Baby Harvest," and gave a talk about the issue at DEF CON, a recent hacker conference held in Las Vegas.

Article VIA.

Monday, August 3, 2015


(Photo: jojo nicdao/Flickr)
Death could take you at any time, so it is always a good idea to have some instructions in place for how you would like to be buried. But why settle for a boring underground burial when you could have your body stored for its eternal rest in all sorts of interesting places? In fact, all over the world, people have been burying the dead in unexpected locales. To help inspire you, here are eight weird places around the world where people have been interred.


The New Lucky Restaurant(Photo: India's New Lucky Restaurant brings new meaning to a place people are dying to eat at. Owner Krishnan Kutti had already purchased the land where his eatery was to be built when he discovered that it was in fact a cemetery. Undeterred, Kutti leaned into the problem and simply built his restaurant around the graves and headstones, making them a selling point for his unique establishment. The green sarcophagi can be seen resting in the floor behind a small white fence. Diners don't seem to mind the graves, which seem to drive sales as much as it might drive them away.


(Photo: Matt Paish/Flickr) 

The Toraja people of Indonesia are known for their elaborate and involved funeral rites which often include mummy parades and graves built into the side of a cliff, but one of the stranger aspects of their traditions are the grave of children and babies. When tragedy takes the life of a young child, the Toraja often inter the little body in a tree hollow, building a crude wooden door over the burial site. It is a sad thing to be sure, but it also ends up creating some evocative imagery, and ultimately a grave to remember.


Burial Spirit Houses(Photo: Raymond Bucko, SJ/Flickr)

At the intersection of Russian Orthodox religious tradition and Native Alaskan funeral rites, are the Burial Spirit Houses standing outside of St. Nicholas Orthodox Church in Eklutna, Alaska. According to tradition, when someone dies their body is buried and a blanket is placed over the grave. After the blanket has been there for a while, a little wooden house, about the size of large dollhouse, is placed over the grave, and is painted in the family colors. Unlike more traditional burial sites, the little houses are not kept up or restored, and are simply allowed to disintegrate back into the ground. In fact this decay is part of the tradition.


(Photo: Rick McCharles/Flickr)

 The people of the Sagada region of the Philippines aren't afraid to show off their dead. In fact they are known for their tradition of hanging exposed coffins from a cliffside. In a practice that dates back thousands of years, the Sagada carve their own coffins before they die (or a family member does it for them), and then they are hoisted up to literally hang around with their ancestors. Many of their hanging coffins are hundreds of years old, and they all have a unique look and feel since they were made by the person inside of them. It almost looks like a cross-section of a traditional in-ground cemetery.