Funeral Business Advisor sat down with Nora Pavone, funeral director with Marine Park Funeral Home in Brooklyn, New York to learn more about her career, experience in the funeral industry, and adorable sidekick Fiona the Funeral Dog.

What brought you into the industry? Was this a profession you were interested in from a young age?
My family has been serving our community for 40 years and I am a fourth-generation funeral director myself. My parents never forced me into the family business, but I have always felt like it was a calling. I went to St. John’s University and enrolled in a program they offer, where you can get your funeral directors license at the same time you get a four-year degree. I graduated in 2014 and started right away.

What is your favorite part about working in this industry?
Seeing the positive impact we can have on a family in such a difficult time in their lives. It is a very hard job to have every day and I go above and beyond for our families because I care about them so much. Getting that recognition that we’ve helped make a dark time a little bit brighter for our families makes all the hard work totally worth it. This isn’t an easy profession, but I can’t imagine doing anything else.

What makes your funeral home stand out from others?
Our family has been serving the community for 40 years and it was something that my grandfather had a vision for from the start. Following his lead, we all poured our blood, sweat, and tears into making our funeral home what it is today. We are very passionate when it comes to serving our families and I think that is something that really shines through.

Are you a member of any community group or organization?
In addition to groups such as the New York State Funeral Directors Association and similar organizations, we recently started to branch out and get involved in other community programs. This year we held a 9/11 community event with a local 9/11 survivor group that organized a tribute to those who had passed. We are also about to join the New York Therapy Animal Group and are in the process of joining them now with our grief therapy dog Fiona. We are really excited to be able to give even more back to the community and have her going into different locations and contribute more to community service with her along for the ride.

When did Fiona join the funeral home? What is it like having a grief support animal onsite?
Fiona is a Bernese Mountain Dog. We got her when she was nine weeks old and she has been with us for almost 2 years. We started bringing her into the office right away when she was a puppy just to get her acclimated to the environment and the team and she fit in so perfectly. She has definitely been a highlight of my time here, she makes it a little bit easier every day for our families, and team moral. We love having her be part of our funeral home team.

If she’s not lounging somewhere or sleeping under a desk, she’s meeting with a family and having a big impact on those she sees. She is the first Berner I have ever owned and prior to that the largest dog I had ever owned was a Cocker Spaniel, so I was kind of nervous to take on such a big dog, but the more research I did, the more I realized how perfect the breed was for our funeral home. I did almost 2 years of research before deciding on a Bernese Mountain Dog, and I am so glad we did. She’s big, she’s cuddly, she’s adorable, she’s got a soft gorgeous coat, and she’s got a calm temperament that doesn’t take anyone by surprise. We found a great breeder in Colorado and when I told her we looking to have Fiona come to the funeral home every day, she told us about how when she lost her husband to cancer her dogs helped her so much – so that reassured us a Berner would be a perfect fit.

Fiona was recently recognized by the AKC as the one millionth Canine Good Citizen. What does this program entail?
When we decided to take on the task of having her be a part of the funeral home, there were not any guidelines for how to do so in terms of what is required in terms of the state. I didn’t know much about training dogs and I felt a little overwhelmed when I began reading training books. All my research began to point me in the direction of the AKC Good Citizen Program.

It’s a program that trains your dog to be a well-behaved citizen of your community and to always behave very politely. Which is exactly what we needed if we were going to have a dog in the funeral home. I found a trainer that helped me get Fiona to the point where she would be able to pass the exam and then we followed the program through and got her certified as a Canine Good Citizen. All together it probably took about a year of training. The process started with puppy classes and then moved on to basic obedience. With her being a 100lb dog we needed her to be very well behaved and not pulling us around the funeral home or jumping on anyone. When we took the test, I was so nervous even though Fiona had no idea what was even going on, but we passed on the first try and I was so proud of her and our work together.

Then we found out she was the one millionth dog to pass this exam and receive that certification so that was pretty cool. I would highly recommend the program to anyone because it made me so confident to have her as a part of our team and our bond became so much stronger.

Looking forward to the future, what are you most excited about?
I really look forward to having Fiona more involved with our funeral home. Her presence has been received so well and I want her to be more involved with the services going forward. She eases tension and helps our families take their mind off the difficult time they are going through. Having a dog has really helped our families feel more comfortable in the funeral home and has really helped change the image of what a funeral home is expected to be like. It’s called a funeral home and it should represent that completely. We want our families to feel at ease when they walk through our doors and I am excited to continue to work on ways we can do that.

Do you have any advice for other funeral directors, especially those just now entering the profession?
Don’t get discouraged and stay genuine. A lot of times when I have conversations with other people in the industry, they seem very caught up on how the industry is changing and how it’s not like it used to be. Don’t get me wrong, change can be intimidating, but it is all about your mindset. You can’t stop the industry from modernizing. We are here to witness the industry blossom into something new and I think that is something we need to embrace. The changes don’t mean the funeral business won’t have a place in our communities, our profession is a necessity and our compassion will always be needed. FBA