Arts and CultureCOVID

I’m Pivoting My Career from Theater to Funerals Because of the Pandemic

Updated: Mar 08, 2021 18:37
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In 2020 I lost my job as an event manager at a major performing arts institution due to the unfortunate cancellation of all live performances and events. Now at 50 years old, I’m trying to discover another career for myself, at least until we are all able to enjoy live performances again.

The skills I have learned and crafted from working in theaters over the years and through my event management position have given me a unique set of tools that I think could be applied towards an industry that one might say could never ‘die’ (pun intended), even during a pandemic: Funerals and Memorial Services! Granted there are fewer people attending even these types of events nowadays, but there still seems to be at least small gatherings of very close relatives taking place. There is still some type of “event” happening.

Having attended many funerals when I was a child and young adult, I was always somewhat drawn to the “event” of a funeral, the social aspect of the gathering. It was kind of exciting: getting dressed up, driving with my family to the funeral home for the “wake” or “viewing” on one evening, and the church service and burial at the cemetery the next day, and getting the chance to see a lot of people that I would know. The most memorable funerals were those of my grandparents and I remember how excited I would get to see all of my cousins, aunts, uncles, and friends. These were social events, even if very sad. I took comfort in being with others to help with my own grieving, but I also felt a bit of a thrill above the sadness, like going to a party. I recall learning about an “Irish Wake” upon the passing of my great-grandmother. I was 11 years old and after the wake at the funeral home, I got to stay up late with all of my newly introduced older second cousins who drank a lot of Irish whiskey and laughed and partied into the wee hours of the night.

The author working backstage at a performance.

When my grandfather passed away, I helped my mom and her brothers plan the services at the funeral home, which also happened to be owned by friends of my parents. It felt good to help them with the plans, so they didn’t have to worry about all the little details of the arrangements while grieving the loss of their father. I enjoyed representing our family at the funeral services, as I was also the oldest grandchild, and I kind of distracted myself by working alongside the funeral home staff. I liked helping with certain tasks like making and setting up the photo displays, placing and moving flowers around, brewing coffee, keeping the tissues supplied, staying busy.

Eventually when I became an event manager, it was a dream come true for my career aspirations, which has always involved working onstage and backstage with performing artists of all kinds: actors, dancers, singers, musicians, poets, circus artists, acrobats, you name it. Over the years, I developed an affinity for these performers as extraordinary human beings and I made it my underlying life’s mission to ensure their comfort and safety within the venues and deeper inside the private spaces we designated for them (i.e., greenrooms and dressing rooms). I had also developed an acute awareness of the performers’ production and hospitality needs as well as a sensitivity to giving them the space and time they needed to focus and prepare themselves for their performances.

A concert at the Greek Theatre in Berkeley. Photo by Amy P. Ferrara

I have come to understand that, at the most basic level of what I enjoy doing in life and in my work, is making people feel welcome and comfortable in a safe, private space so they can be free to express their thoughts and feelings in a non-judgmental environment.

Upon thinking of other event-related careers and industries where I could apply my basic mission, I realized that funerals and memorial services are kind of similar to performances. Essentially, the audiences show up to honor a very special person or persons on a specific date and time and at a particular place. Isn’t the funeral home kind of like a theater?

Based on my experience working backstage in a theater, for a funeral home I could arrange the spaces with furniture, flowers, tissues and prayer cards. I could provide refreshments and beverages. I could help move the casket (one such requirement from a recent job posting: “must be able to push or pull up to 300 pounds on a wheeled cart.”) and I could set up the room for optimal viewing and proper crowd traffic flow. I can set up parking cones and direct vehicle traffic. I could be a “people wrangler” to help them get from their cars to the entrance of the funeral home. I could hand out prayer cards and have people sign a guest book. I could coordinate the funeral car procession to the cemetery after the service and handle the distribution of those little “Funeral” signs for people to put in their cars. And I would remind everyone to turn on their headlights.

Through my event management career, I have also learned to be a strong improviser for when “the shit hits the fan.” During performances and events that I had just spent weeks or months planning, all of the plans could just fly out the window at a moment’s notice. I have learned to adapt all of my work into a theme of “expect the best but plan for the worst.” Over the years, I have experienced some of the most extraordinary situations that could occur during an event, such as earthquakes, power outages, lightning threats, fire alarms, mobs rushing the stage, stages collapsing, and sick performers. Some of these occurrences resulted in cancellations and some in crowd evacuations. I’m the right type of person to handle almost anything that could happen at a funeral as well, but I also think the most difficult thing for me to handle would be holding back my own tears and sobs from the grieving families. I would need to work on that.

I had never before thought of all the similarities that exist between theater and funerals and am really excited to explore this further for a temporary (or not?) career pivot. I think I’m going to apply for that Funeral Event Planner job right now!

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A.P. Ferrara

A.P. Ferrara