Funeral Business Advisor sat down with Petra Orloff to learn more about her life, inspirations, and her company, Beloved. Beloved specializes in custom, personalized, handcrafted obituaries and eulogies. No templates. No recycling. Every piece written is as wonderful, unique, and special as the life being celebrated.

Tell me a little bit about yourself and how you got into the industry.

I was teaching literature and American studies at Wayne State University in Detroit and working on my PhD when I realized that the academic industry was changing very dramatically in terms of hiring and tenured positions. Basically, tenure had disappeared for those specializing in the arts and humanities. So, I left the academic world and became a freelance writer. As I was going through that transition, my father was diagnosed with brain cancer and given only six weeks to live. I helped take care of him during that time and those last weeks of his life were some of the best we had together. My father’s death was a truly remarkable experience for me and I’m very glad I was able to take what I learned from him and use that knowledge productively.

After he died, I made the funeral arrangements and decided to write the obituary myself. I have been a professional writer for nearly 30 years and had my first work published when I was just 14, so even at that time, I had a ton of experience. Also, my father was quite a character and I was excited to write an obituary that would really bring him to life.

When his story was done, I demanded that the Cheboygan Tribune in northern Michigan publish it in its entirety, without edits. And they did! Actually, I don’t think there was any news in Cheboygan that week, so my Dad’s story gave them something to put in the paper. However, his story took on a life of its own and became kind of famous in Cheboygan.

Two weeks after it was published, I was at the grocery store buying food for my father’s memorial, and I heard two women in front of me talking and referencing my father’s obituary. One of the women pulled a tattered Cheboygan Tribune out of her purse right in front of me and it was folded open to my Dad’s obituary. She gave it to her friend to read. I thought to myself, “Oh wow, I can’t believe strangers are talking about my father and laughing.” I was ecstatic. It was a wonderful feeling. I knew I had created something which had an impact and which was memorable. I was proud that the story gave my father legacy.

Throughout my freelance career, I wrote other obituaries and eulogies here and there, but then it occurred to me that perhaps there was a full-time opportunity in helping others realize the legacies of their loved one in print. That’s how Beloved came to be. And now that’s all we do – we write personal and customized obituaries and eulogies. But I only use those words on first reference. They are truly creative life stories. I officially started Beloved in 2016 and it’s been such an incredible experience. The business has taken off in just a few short years and has grown to include 12 contracted writers that help me on a regular basis.

Petra at the NFDA convention in Salt Lake City, with a Day of Dead Edgar Allan Poe calacas on her shoulder.

With Beloved, do you work with the general public or do you work solely in partnership with funeral homes?

We do. However, funeral directors who sell our memorials provide a unique service for their families, and our stories also become marketing pieces for the funeral home. In fact, we often act as representatives of a funeral home when interacting with families. In essence, we are the funeral home’s staff writers.

Petra in the Rosary Garden at Fairview Memorial Park, in New Mexico.

What part of writing obituaries comes naturally to you? What do you find to be most challenging?

What comes easiest to me is immediately establishing a rapport and being able to tap into emotion very quickly. That’s something that is hard to teach my writers because everyone is different, and they all have their own way of approaching people. For this reason, we work with a grief therapist to learn how to engage with people and to understand the best way to communicate with people while they are actively grieving. I really wish we could do more preneed, because it’s a lot more fun. People get so much joy out of creating a story about their life, especially when they are able to see themselves on paper. And people love to be the star of their own story. I think there is a certain satisfaction in knowing how people are remembering you.

I enjoy listening to people and I love hearing and sharing stories. When people tell me stories about their loved ones, it’s wonderful. You never know what you’re going to hear. Sometimes it’s really fascinating and at other times it’s mundane, but you get a sense of just how precious each person’s life is. What’s most interesting is that you aren’t just getting a story about the deceased, you are learning more about the loved one who is telling you about the deceased. I like that.

The most difficult part is that the loss the family is experiencing sometimes leaves them at a loss for words as well. Most people love to speak about their loved ones and tell me about their favorite memories, what their loved one used to say, the songs they sang, the movies they enjoyed. But, sometimes we have families that say they want to talk, and when the time comes, find they can’t because the emotions are too much. For them, you are just the voice on the other end of the phone, but it’s your job to gently lead them into discussion and sometimes that can be so difficult. I usually laugh with these families, but at times, I grieve with them too. Also, any time children die it’s even more difficult because families are in shock, and grief has completely overwhelmed them – those are the hardest obituaries to write and are usually based solely on funeral directors’ notes.

Petra at the NFDA Convention and Expo in Salt Lake City, helping the vendor next to her demonstrate his body lift.

You also recently started Detroit Death Talk, what drove you to organize this event series?

Over the last few years, I have spoken to many funeral directors and I quickly realized that few people were publicly talking about death in a conversational manner. As a society, we talk about nearly everything else, but death is still off limits. So, just this past January, I started Death Talk and we had our first series of events here in Detroit.

At Death Talk events, we encourage healthy conversation about death and dying. We lead open, sincere, honest conversations about death and host public discussion. We also create an environment in which speaking about death is natural and comfortable. It’s not just talking about the practical side of death and preplanning or making arrangements, but it’s also talking about the emotional burden as well. Additionally, we emphasize that people create a personal legacy and think hard about memorialization because it’s so important and helpful for the people we leave behind.

The Death Talk events are different from a Death Café or similar conversations, because we frame each discussion with a topic important to the funeral home which hosts the event. It’s a community outreach that not only encourages people to invest in preneed, but also to tie up loose ends, practical and emotional. But it’s also completely tailored for each individual home. Death Talk works with funeral home owners to present a conversation based on their personal interests and the interests of their community. We’re tackling everything from Green Burial, for environmentally-conscious clients, to a public discussion at the Wayne State University School of Mortuary Science, explaining how future funeral directors are educated. We’re really removing the mystery and showing people what goes on in the funeral industry, as well as providing each funeral home a service which ties directly into their business plan. Death Talk allows funeral directors to present unique and engaging programs without all the work. We’re the resource. Death Talk takes care of everything, from creating the event and finding speakers to publicity.

Death Talk was able to co-host one event before the COVID-19 pandemic and it went incredibly well. Admittedly, it was a rather long event, but it was well received and well attended. The discussion was fantastic and the feedback was fabulous. I am looking forward to resuming our schedule when we are able.

Petra with the mariachi band she hired to play at her Day of the Dead booth at the NFDA convention in Salt Lake City, 2018.

Looking forward to the future, what are you most excited about?

I am most excited about the prospect of growing Beloved. I think that, particularly with the technology that is out there these days, our service is something that could easily be used by every client that a funeral home serves. The time of death notices being published in papers is sadly coming to an end. I am a huge advocate of the publishing and print industry, but to keep it alive in a world where content is generated and shared so quickly online, print is becoming irrelevant. Instead of churning out content, we have to produce high quality stories worth printing – which is what we do at Beloved.

I am also really excited to grow the Death Talks because America needs it. We need to continue to promote healthy discussion and urge people to think about death in more positive terms because it’s a natural part of life that everyone experiences. By creating a space for people to have honest and open conversation, people start looking for ways to memorialize and build a personal legacy, and they look to funeral homes for help. When people come to these talks, they begin to see how important it is to build a plan for themselves and for the loved ones they will someday leave behind; many people realize they want and need so much more than just a direct cremation. It’s also great that we present these talks as a series, so people can attend the ones they feel they need to round out their thinking and interests, or they can come to them all.

Petra at the NFDA in Salt Lake City, reading one of Beloved’s obituaries for a documentary that the NFDA was producing.

What is your favorite part about working in this industry?

My favorite part about my work is that I get to talk about my father all the time. His death changed the course of my life, for the better, and he is behind everything that I am doing. When I sat down to write his obituary, I realized that most funeral homes were just preparing elongated death notices from a template, and my father was more than that. Every life is more than a death notice. I love referencing him in conversation. The grief I hold for him is always just under the surface, so speaking about him, bringing him into my life, keeping him alive and well, all of these things make me very happy. FBA