They may be known as “The Morte Girls,” but make no mistake: Doris Amen and Alexandra Mosca are very much alive. Their respective careers have spanned four decades and continue to thrive. They became licensed funeral directors in a day and age when a female face was rare, and their careers paralleled one another in New York City, even intersecting at times.
“We would run into one another at a cemetery now and then. It was great to see another female funeral director,” said Mosca.
But it wasn’t until about a dozen years ago that the friendship between the gregarious, and sometimes sassy, tall blonde, Amen, and the more reserved, soft-spoken, petite brunette, Mosca, blossomed. The women were brought together through a mutual friend, and a mutual interest in Brooklyn’s historic Green-Wood Cemetery.
Initially discouraged from becoming funeral directors, both women persevered. “At the time, funeral homes were reluctant to hire women. We were told that we wouldn’t be able to do the physical work, and that we’d be a distraction to the men,” recalled Mosca.
Amen recalls feeling hopeful after acing an interview with one firm. But she never heard back. “That spoke volumes,” she remarked.
Ultimately, they found funeral homes willing to take a chance on a female apprentice.
The Making of Media Personalities
In the early 1980s, there was a dearth of females in funeral service, and both women quickly caught the attention of the media. Amen was one of the first female funeral directors to be featured in a documentary, long before social media and YouTube videos made everyone a so-called star.
A film crew stopped into her funeral home on a June day in 2002, as she and her staff celebrated a friend’s birthday.
“We were slicing the birthday cake in the lobby when the production crew walked in and explained that they were looking to do a documentary about funeral service,” remembered Amen. “I didn’t expect to hear back from them.”
However, four months later, they called. Amen was on her way to make a removal at the New York Medical Examiner’s. When she arrived at the facility, the film crew was already there.
In 2003, “Dearly Departed” made its debut on The Learning Channel.
It turned her into an unlikely celebrity. She remembers learning that some “gravediggers from Green-Wood Cemetery, returning from a trip to Puerto Rico, saw it on the plane.”
For Amen, ‘Dearly Departed’ was the spark for future interviews and documentaries. Since that time, her larger-than-life personality has captured the attention of the national media. She has also tried her hand at writing, self-publishing, “I’m Dying To Tell Ya!!!”
In 2011, she was profiled by The New York Times. The photographs and video that ran with the article were stark and gritty. They captured Amen in action as she made her rounds: driving her hearse through dark Brooklyn streets, moving a body late at night, and cosmetizing a deceased — doing it all in high heels. Soon the international media took notice of Amen, and she became a particular favorite of German filmmakers.
Early in her career, Mosca appeared on the cover of a national trade magazine in an article titled ‘Mortician, Model.’ The magazine is a publication she writes for today. Articles about her in the New York Daily News, Newsday, and newspapers around the country, followed. She has worked as a model, actress, and writer. But next to her role as a funeral director, she is most gratified by being the author of three books.
Her first book, Grave Undertakings, was one of the first of its kind to tell what it’s really like to be a female funeral director. The book was a forerunner to the many subsequent books by funeral directors now on the market. Through such writing projects, Mosca found a way to incorporate her love of the printed word with her career as a funeral director. Today, Mosca prefers turning the spotlight on her notable colleagues.
“There are so many outstanding and accomplished funeral directors around the country, and I love telling their stories,” she said.
Over their four decades in funeral service, Amen and Mosca have seen a lot of changes.
They are heartened by some, such as the emphasis on personalization, and dismayed by others, like the increasing number of direct cremations.
“Years ago, in the Catholic realm, a direct cremation was unheard of. We were afraid to even mention it to a family,” said Amen.
“In fact, for my first five or six years in business, I don’t remember having one,” she added.
What troubles them most is the portrayal of funeral service in the media. They strongly believe that the spate of articles about green burial, home funerals, and such esoteric subjects as recompose (commonly known as composting) are not the reality of funeral service, but fads.
“The families who come to me want some type of service. And certainly, I never got anyone in 41 years who wanted to make their mother into a tomato plant,” said Amen.
“Ten years ago, I thought that turning ashes into a diamond, or an oil painting, was ridiculous. This goes way beyond that,” she added.
Mosca concurs, offering an anecdote about a woman who asked about a wicker casket she had seen in a casket selection room. Explaining that it was used for something called a green burial the woman scrunched up her nose and laughed, “I’d put my laundry in that but never my mother.”
“We have respectful dispositions for our departed. We just don’t throw them in a compost heap. That’s your mother, father, husband, wife,” Amen declared. The women post how absurd it would seem if a deceased president were thrown into a compost heap after a state funeral replete with all its pomp and circumstance.
To push back against such misleading portrayals, Mosca and Amen created the Morte Girls, a platform for addressing inaccuracies and superficial characterizations. Their mission is clear: to keep sanctity and dignity in funeral service. Their social media hashtag is #funeralsmatter.
“We call out nonsense when we see it, through our words, deeds and public personalities,” said Mosca.
The enduring importance of funeral traditionals, rites and rituals, is a recurring theme in many of Mosca’s articles. “Let’s Keep the Funeral Traditional Alive” an article she wrote in 2018 for The Saturday Evening Post, makes a persuasive case for its importance.
“It’s deeply troubling that some in society are now judging those who opt for a traditional funeral as not being ecologically responsible. Some of the same people have called cemeteries a “waste of space,” lamented Mosca.
“Funerals commemorate a life. That body lived, cried, laughed, and loved. We just don’t throw it away. Look at nature. Even elephants bury their dead. It is innate behavior,” noted Amen.
What’s more, they believe that those who see the body as merely a shell are woefully missing the point. “The body is sacred. It is not just an empty vessel. Their face is one you looked at lovingly for years; their hands held yours,” Mosca observed.
Amen, who serves a primarily low-income community, believes that a lot of the increase in direct services has to do with price. “A lot of this is based on cost. I do one day wakes for less than a lot of funeral homes do direct cremations.”
Albums filled with thank you notes, in the lobby of Amen’s funeral home, attest to her clientele’s appreciation.
“That people take the time to write these notes is quite encouraging. In fact, I recently received a birthday card from a man whose parents I buried a couple of years ago. Tucked into the card was a note thanking me for caring for them.”
The Future of Funeral Service
With funeral homes closing up in some areas (often the real estate is worth more than the business), and less emphasis in some parts of the country on traditional services, like embalming and visitation, they wonder what sort of careers the younger generation of aspiring funeral directors can expect, and they are concerned. “There’s opportunity in corporate America if you want to go that route. But for those who want to open up a funeral home, go into rural areas or small towns. They’re not going to be able to do it in big cities.”
They also urge young people to find a mentor. Mentors played a big role in their lives, they say.
But they caution aspiring funeral directors not to emulate the YouTube celebrity, or the person who has the most Instagram followers. They may paint an unrealistic picture of funeral service, the women say. Instead, they suggest you learn from an experienced, successful individual who is committed to funeral service.
The women are still very much hands on: Amen drives her own hearse, while Mosca embalms by request (the most memorable of those requests was to embalm the mother of a reputed organized crime member). They continue to be sought-after to share their views and expertise. In June, Amen was the subject of another documentary—”Dying Business”—which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival, and Mosca was featured in Newsday’s Faces of Long Island series talking about the difficulties funeral directors faced during the Covid -19 pandemic.
Despite their jam-packed schedules, both women find time for fun, sometimes mixing fun with fundraising, as they support causes near and dear to them such as Green-Wood Cemetery’s Historic Fund.
And when time allows, they take long walks together in Green-Wood Cemetery, the place where their friendship began. FBA