Fifth generation funeral director finds work to be rewarding

Emily Stein MacDonald

By Repps Hudson, Special to the Jewish Light

Emily Stein MacDonald is the fifth generation of her family to work at Berger Memorial Chapel, which has been at 4715 McPherson Avenue, in the Central West End, for the last 98 years. A 1995 graduate of American University with a B.A. in print journalism, MacDonald worked in public relations for nine years before joining her father, Richard W. Stein, as a funeral director. She and her husband, Chris MacDonald, live in Clayton and have a 7-year-old daughter. MacDonald, who grew up at Temple Emanuel, is unaffiliated.

Berger Memorial Chapel is now owned by Service Corporation International, which owns a network of nearly 2,000 funeral homes — non-Jewish as well as Jewish — in North America. Berger employs nine, including five state-licensed funeral directors. A funeral can start at $4,415 plus the cost of the casket ($695 for a pine box to more $11,000 for mahogany) and funeral home’s services. All caskets are solely wood and created according to Jewish law. The average cost, including casket, is $6,500, plus other expenses.

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When we spoke late last week at the funeral home, MacDonald, 39, wore a black pants suit over a black sweater and a light-colored necklace. She said she almost always wears somber colors, just as she did when she worked in public relations for Fleishman-Hillard and Patrick Davis Partners.

How did you prepare to become a funeral director?

I never thought about joining the family business. I always respected what my dad did, but it was not on my radar screen. He’s been in the business for 42, 43 years. I did a lot of soul searching and wanted to find a position that was rewarding, where I felt I could make a difference.

What’s rewarding about running a funeral home?

Oh, my goodness. You build amazing relationships with people over a short period of time — in times of incredible stress. It’s very emotional. They need guidance, and we can provide that guidance. We can help them handle things that in most instances they’ve never had to deal with. When someone passes away, whether it’s sudden or they have been sick for a while, it’s a loss. It’s nice to be able to provide what I hope is a sensitive atmosphere — I want to be there for those people. They don’t know what goes into planning a funeral.

You say you get to know the deceased, but that’s only after they are gone.

I like to learn about the people we are helping. The family works with the rabbi to develop the information about the loved one.

Do you ever get emotionally involved?

Sometimes. I’ve worked with friends who’ve dealt with the loss of a sibling or parent, and that’s hard. It’s always hard to handle services for individuals who are my age or younger — or children. I’ve had to learn how to take a step back. And it’s hard to see my dad work with families he’s known for a very, very long time. Every situation is difficult. It’s just that some hit you a little bit harder.

How do you handle, say, the funeral of a person in an interfaith relationship? I think your father’s generation didn’t have to deal with that as often.

Different cemeteries have different rules as to who can be buried there. For instance, at New Mount Sinai Cemetery in Affton, individuals who are not Jewish can be buried there, but the property must be purchased by someone who’s Jewish. That’s the same at United Hebrew Cemetery in University City. If someone has been converted by an Orthodox rabbi, they can be buried in the Orthodox cemeteries.

You handle services for the entire spectrum of Judaism?

Absolutely. There might be an inter-married family where the first spouse was Jewish, and that person is buried in a Jewish cemetery. The second spouse might not be Jewish, so the family might go to a non-Jewish cemetery. We could coordinate with the clergy of the non-Jewish member.

Do you carry all the rules of all the cemeteries in your head?

I try to.

Why does there need to be Jewish funeral homes?

To adhere to the Jewish burial customs and traditions. Orthodox families would like services to be within 24 hours, if possible. With any service, we do not want to unduly delay a burial. Families are spread all across the world, so it might take some a few days to get here.

What about videoing a service so family members in other parts of the world can see it?

That’s becoming part of the service, too. We have had a few services where the family has provided the technology, where they can chat or have face time.

Is that OK with the rabbi?

It is. Mostly the family will talk with the rabbi about that beforehand. At a graveside service, the family might have an iPad on the podium with the rabbi so the person at the other end, wherever they may be, can see the rabbi and listen to service.

Is that good enough? Does that take the place of attending the service for a loved one?

That depends. It’s between the rabbi and the family.

How do you build relationships in the Jewish community?

My father is a member of eight or nine congregations. He serves on many committees. He’s also a member of the Jewish Funeral Directors of America. My great uncle, Herbert [Berger] was the first president. My grandfather was a president, and my father was a president.

Do people plan for death well enough?

They often don’t make plans. What’s important is that people talk, within families. I’ve encountered many people who are very happy with the service we provided for their father, and they may ask us to start a file on their mother so we know their preferences. We do that all the time.

Does death frighten you? Do you get inured to it?

It doesn’t frighten me, but I believe in living life to its fullest. I value my family and my relationships so much more. Not that I didn’t value them before, but I have a different perspective. I don’t, for instance, know what I want done for my own funeral.

What are high school class reunions like for you?

Everyone wants to ask me questions. They are very curious.