Alexandra Mosca and Doris Amen: They Told Me It Was Impossible And I Did It Anyway
An Interview With Candice Georgiadis
Do it now. Otherwise, all hell may break loose. No matter how busy, take care of things in a timely manner. Otherwise, you may become overwhelmed, and miss an important opportunity.
As a part of our series about “dreamers who ignored the naysayers and did what others said was impossible”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Alexandra Kathryn Mosca and Doris V. Amen.
Known as the Morte Girls, Alexandra Kathryn Mosca and Doris V. Amen are two of the best-known names in funeral service. Having achieved success in a formerly male-dominated field, they are role models for women aspiring to similar careers. The women are sought after for commentary about the state of the industry.
Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to ‘get to know you’ a bit better. Can you tell us your ‘backstory’?
We grew up in New York City’s outer boroughs, Doris in Brooklyn and me in Queens, at a time when women were embarking on traditional careers, like teaching or nursing. We, too, felt strongly about aspiring to careers that would serve our communities, and help others. We just weren’t sure in what capacity. But I can tell you that becoming funeral directors was the furthest thing from our minds. For Doris, it was becoming engaged to a mortuary student, who was following in the footsteps of his uncle and cousin, and helping him study, which proved decisive. Until then, the only reference she had to funeral service was the local funeral home’s ad on her school’s book covers, which to her seemed a little curious. For me, it was an after-school job in a funeral home that changed the course of my life.
Are you working on any new or exciting projects now? How do you think that will help people?
I am almost finished putting my first book, Grave Undertakings, a memoir about my entrée into funeral service, into ebook form. It is a project a long time in the making. The hardcover edition has been out of print for a while and the remaining copies are prohibitively expensive. I want to make it available as a reference for young women so they can see how far we’ve come and won’t feel they are alone on their journey. We wholeheartedly subscribe to the message in the ad campaign: “If you can see her, you can be her.” That’s another reason, despite our busy schedules, that we keep a public presence. Being seen as role models is something that is important to us.
Doris endured a prolonged battle with New York City’s Department of Buildings after it claimed her funeral home was not a funeral home at all (though it has been in existence since 1950). The DOB claimed it was a cabaret restaurant (which it had been in the 1920s) and threatened to shut her business down. It took 2 1/2 years, and lots of red tape, to clear the matter up. All the while she feared that the funeral home she had poured so much love into could be taken away from her. Doris has written an account of that — a cautionary tale for others — which she hopes to publish in the new year
Doris endured a prolonged battle with New York City’s Department of Buildings after it claimed her funeral home was not a funeral home at all (though it has been in existence since 1950). The DOB claimed it was a cabaret restaurant (which it had been in the 1920s) and threatened to shut her business down. It took 2 1/2 years, and lots of red tape, to clear the matter up. All the while she feared that the funeral home she had poured so much love into could be taken away from her. Doris has written an account of that — a cautionary tale for others — which she hopes to publish in the new year.
In your opinion, what do you think makes your company or organization stand out from the crowd?
In the funeral business, personal service is everything and that’s what we offer the families we serve. Such service goes a long way in setting us apart. What’s more, we are there for families during –and after — the service.
Making funeral arrangements for a loved one is not something anyone wants to be doing. It can be dauting and overwhelming. We try to look at it from the survivors’s perspective, treating them as we would wish to be treated if we lost someone we loved. In mortuary school, one instructor explained that people often felt more comfortable making funeral arrangements in the comfort of their own home. To this day, I continue that practice for those who prefer it.
Ok, thank you for that. I’d like to jump to the main focus of this interview. Has there ever been a time that someone told you something was impossible, but you did it anyway? Can you share the story with us? What was your idea? What was the reaction of the naysayers? And how did you overcome that?
People were literally in shock when we told them we wanted to pursue careers as funeral directors. You want to be what!? They gasped; eyes wide with surprise. Some thought it morbid, or just plain weird. Since women were, for the most part, not generally visible in the field, it was not an idea people could wrap their heads around.
“You will never make it in the funeral industry!” we were told time and again. as we embarked on what was a most nontraditional field for women. “You can’t do it,” they said. But as Doris likes to say, “Can’t means: can try.” She positively fumes when someone says something is impossible.
The naysayers were wrong. In fact, their dire predictions for our failure only strengthened our resolve.
“All those guys are six feet under now,” Doris said with a laugh.
Today, our success has exceeded our expectations, and we are gratified by the doors we helped open for other women entering funeral service. We’d like to pass along what we learned, so that these women will not be discouraged on their career journey. Resiliency and tenacity truly will get you where you want to go.
In the end, how were all the naysayers proven wrong? :-)
Doris owns one of the busiest funeral homes in Brooklyn. She is also the face of funeral service in many documentaries and newspaper articles. During the height of the Covid crisis in New York City, swamped with work as she was, Doris made herself available to the press so that they could fully grasp the horror of what was happening. What’s more, she is a fixture in her community. She always says that being appreciated and acknowledged by her neighbors fuels her. The letters, notes, and cards she gets are some of her most precious possessions.
As for me, I run my own funeral service in Queens and also have a career as a writer. I chronicle the funeral industry, and profile my noteworthy fellow professionals. A colleague recently gave me the best compliment. He said, “You really haven’t made it in funeral service until you’ve been interviewed by Alexandra.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I am grateful to my sixth-grade teacher, Mrs. Clara Silverman. She recognized in me my love for the written word and both challenged and encouraged me to keep writing. When I would struggle with my writing projects, she would not allow me to quit until it met with her satisfaction. Those assignments become life lessons in perseverance. Sometimes when I’m writing, I remember Mrs. Silverman telling me, Keep at it. I know you can do this.
Despite a difficult relationship with her father, Doris still credits him with encouraging her to pursue her dreams. Though he wanted her to follow in his footsteps and become a dentist, she would have none of it. Despite his disappointment, when she chose funeral service, he supported her career goal.
It must not have been easy to ignore all the naysayers. Did you have any experiences growing up that have contributed to building your resiliency? Can you share the story with us?
We both came from dysfunctional families. Our respective parents were demanding, strict disciplinarians, and emotionally withholding. By college, we had to fend for ourselves. Despite the difficulties, coming from such backgrounds was good training ground for what we’d have to face down the line early on in our careers when dealing with some very unpleasant people.
Doris was also the victim of bullying in her Catholic grammar school. Ethnic slurs were often hurled at the students of Italian heritage. She learned to stand up for herself at an early age.
Based on your experience, can you share 5 strategies that people can use to harness the sense of tenacity and do what naysayers think is impossible? (Please share a story or an example for each)
- Work hard and stay focused. It’s that simple. Funeral service is a 24/ 7 commitment. You can’t tell a potential employer, “I don’t work nights or weekends.”
- Refuse to take “no” for an answer. If not for that, we wouldn’t be where we are today. When we were job- hunting and facing rejection after rejection, rather than make waves (we knew that strategy was a bad one) we remained stoic and cautiously optimistic as we followed up on any and every lead until we found funeral homes willing to take a chance on us.
- Have a sense of humor. That goes a long way in defusing a situation. We often find humor in the strangest situations.
- Make it happen. That sometimes calls for creative thinking. If someone asks for something special at a funeral — an accordion player, red casket interior, a horse-drawn carriage — some funeral directors might say they can’t do that. We are both willing to, as the saying goes, move heaven and hell to make things happen.
- Do it now. Otherwise, all hell may break loose. No matter how busy, take care of things in a timely manner. Otherwise, you may become overwhelmed, and miss an important opportunity.
What is your favorite quote or personal philosophy that relates to the concept of resilience?
Doris’s favorite quote is by author Napoleon Hill, who famously wrote, “A quitter never wins and a winner never quits.” And she more than lives up to that spirit. Mine is from philosopher Freidrich Nietzsche: “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.” We share a third from poet Maya Angelou: “I can be changed by what happens to me. But I refuse to be reduced by it.” This resonated mightily given some of the unfortunate negativity we’ve seen around us.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
We would enlist our colleagues around the country in our mission to keep dignity in funeral service. Somewhere along the line, it began to be played for laughs, losing the reverence it deserves. We are dismayed at the portrayal of funeral service in popular media. To hear reporters tell it, solemn rituals have been replaced by a host of outrageous alternatives. These stories bear no resemblance to what we see daily but have convinced some consumers that traditional funerals are no longer part of the American culture. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Can our readers follow you on social media?
Absolutely! You can follow us on Instagram and on Twitter @themortegirls
Thank you for these great stories. We wish you only continued success!