From Magazine Writing to Planning Funerals: “Going From an Industry Facing Death to One That Embraces It”

Amy Cunningham, a magazine journalist who became interested in religion, spirituality, and death, was featured in January 21 New Yorker “Talk of the Town” piece about the challenge of writing good condolence letters. Amy said, “Though I have studied condolence letters and thought about this, I struggle to sit down and write a letter myself.”

She went on to share a few condolence letters from famous literary and historical figures. “This is not a good letter, Charlie,” Ernest Hemingway wrote to Charles Scribner, the son of his late publisher. “But I still feel too sad to write a good one.” Cunningham awarded him points for completion. “Aiming for excellence is really only going to hold you up.”

For more on Amy and her move from journalism to helping people plan funerals, here’s a 2013 About Editing and Writing post about Amy and her transformation. In it she says she’s gone from an industry facing death to one that embraces it.
Amy Cunningham, a very good feature writer for The Washingtonian in the 1980s, someone who’d written for More, Glamour, Mademoiselle, and the Washington Post, is now a New York state licensed funeral director. She says she’s gone from an industry facing death to one that embraces it.

Amy grew up near  Chicago and after graduating from the University of Virginia became a journalist, joining the staff of The Washingtonian in 1981.  She was good at getting inside the heads of her subjects—cloistered nuns, an overworked probation officer, a black woman seeking entry to the DAR.

In 1999, she and her husband Steve Waldman, a former Washington Monthly editor and Newsweek political reporter, moved to New York to launch what became the Internet’s largest multi-faith religion and spirituality website, Amy was the site’s holistic living blogger, covering Buddhism, meditation, and yoga. She was on the staff when the site won a National Magazine Award in 2007.

Amy’s interest in funerals grew after her 94-year-old father’s death and his memorial service, which included Dixieland music. “I came home to Brooklyn, turned to Steve, and said, ‘This may sound strange, but I think I could be a really good funeral director.”

One year of schooling followed–including chemistry, pathology, anatomy, embalming at Bellevue Hospital, and grief counseling—then a year-long funeral home residency. She received her New York state funeral directing license in February.

The respite from writing and editing didn’t last long. Today, when she’s not making funeral arrangements, or reading prayers at graveside services, Amy blogs on end-of-life issues, sacred music, and funeral advice at her website

“In an age of rising cremation rates and minimized commemoration,” she says, “I want folks to enlarge the festivities without spending money they don’t have.” She also lectures on the greening of the $12 billion funeral business.

Why did you become a writer?
I was the daughter of a man whose face was always behind the Wall Street Journal. I saw that writers had access to the people I needed to reach.

What stories led you to be so interested in religion?

It could have been those cloistered nuns you assigned me to profile in 1982! Although at the time I was not a regular church goer, I discovered that I loved sacred language, religious literature, and contemplative practice.

What led to your interest in memorial services and funerals?
I married a Jewish man and though I never converted I drove our two sons to Hebrew school twice a week for many years and then planned two elaborate bar mitzvah celebrations, so that expanded my religious range.

Then I was with each of my parents when they died in hospice. Both of their memorial services were music-infused and joyous. After Dad’s death, I had no more commemorative life events to help plan, so I turned to the public at large. The work I’ve done organizing photo shoots with magazine art directors translates well to spiritual event planning. Each funeral is an assignment to tackle with the hope of a memorable end product.

How did Steve react to all this?
He understood my ambitions right away, supported me, and now says my life story provides his most riveting cocktail party material.

How does interviewing people for stories relate to helping them with memorial  services and funerals?
Journalists should know they’ve got a marvelous skill that travels anywhere they go. As a funeral director, I make the arrangements room comfortable. I speak to grieving families in a way that reveals I’m not on the take. I listen artistically. Who was the deceased? How does the family wish to pay tribute? I still sometimes issue questions out of order.

A lot of times, people come in so distraught they’re hardly functional. So I offer more direction and information than I ever did in journalism. People have no clue what cremation is, how things work, and what’s going to happen. So that turns the table. I show them I’m the authority on how the funeral will roll out. But I’m never out to “get” or reveal anyone’s ridiculousness anymore, as I was sometimes asked to do as a writer and was never good at anyway.

What led you to start TheInspiredFuneral website?
I found myself thinking many times during my funeral training, “Oh my God, if only the public knew.” Not that there are scandals or bits of corruption of the sort that Jessica Mitford uncovered—most funeral directors are nice guys these days– but I saw simple things people ought be pondering to prepare fitting tributes for themselves and others. I’m committed to helping people build better funerals—and the blog will help with that.

An excellent funeral service can send everyone in attendance out the door with an altered life philosophy. That’s the kind of work I’ve always wanted to do. While magazines were great to me, funeral work is a better fit, and easier too. The blogging just sends this message home. James Alan MacPherson, my fiction writing professor at Virginia, used to say, “Don’t study writing. Go out and have adventures,” but I didn’t listen. So now I’m having vivid experiences—with the dead and the families coping with their losses.

I do feel honored and, as a communicator, privileged to have a firm foot  in two businesses that are undergoing radical changes. We’re all in creative turmoil now. America’s death rate will rise from  2.6 million deaths in 2010 to 5.2 million by 2050. Too bad I’ll likely be dead by then. I’m just trying to use my remaining time well!

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