Dawn Of The Mourning Business


Economic recovery may still be elusive in most sectors, but one field appears to be enjoying a new life, so to speak: the Jewish mourning business.

In the past year, no fewer than five funeral- and shiva-related endeavors have been launched, and a few are actually profit-making ventures.

There’s ShivaConnect.com, a registry that offers easy access to funeral and shiva information, while assisting friends and family in purchasing food for the mourners.

Add to that a slew of new smartphone apps: one assists you in calculating the yahrtzeit of a loved one, while another explains the intricacies of making a shiva call, including how to greet a mourner.

Even Jewish event planners are beginning to tap into this new niche by planning post-funeral receptions and preparing the mourner’s home for shiva.
These new entrepreneurial ventures are taking their place alongside more traditional, shul-based caring committees and community-based nonprofits like Misaskim in Brooklyn as providers of shiva services.

Why the sudden interest in death?

Jewish demographics play an important role, those involved in the new ventures say.

“Baby boomers are getting older,” said Allison Moldo, co-owner of Shiva Sisters, a Los Angeles-based event-planning company that specializes in funeral receptions, memorials and shiva. “They’re going online and taking something traditional and formal and timeless and doing it in a modern way.”

Added her colleague, Danna Black, “Baby boomers want more control; they want things a certain way.”

While the aging of the baby boom generation is not limited to the Jewish community, it is a phenomenon that has the potential to shape the Jewish community in unexpected ways. That’s largely because boomers represent 50 percent of Jewish adults under the age of 75, according to David Elcott, a professor of public service and leadership at New York University’s Wagner Graduate School of Public Service. “There are more baby boomers than any other age cohort in the Jewish community,” said Elcott, who published a paper last year entitled “Baby Boomers, Public Service and Minority Communities: A Case Study of the Jewish Community in the United States.”

“Our parents are dying — and so are we — and baby boomers have long controlled what is important; menopause and erectile dysfunction never existed until boomers got involved. All of our issues demand center stage,” Elcott said. “So as we think about death, we will look for revamping the ways it has been dealt with in the past, as we have demanded changes in all that we touch.”

That was certainly the case for Sharon Rosen, a baby boomer living in South Florida who worked in interior design, when her mother passed away in July 2009. “I sat shiva for the first time; it was quite an overwhelming experience,” she said.

Several days into sitting shiva, the food platters began piling up and the phone kept ringing; friends wanted to know where to order dinner for the mourners. “It got to the point where my son had to take several platters and return them to the deli to keep them in the refrigerator overnight because we didn’t have any place to put them,” she says. “The chaos was overwhelming.”

After a year of research, Rosen launched ShivaConnect.com, a shiva registry that informs family and friends of the date and time of the funeral or memorial service, and provides interactive maps and driving directions to the home or homes where the mourners are sitting shiva.

The registry, which is free, allows people to see what food has already been ordered, how many people are expected for dinner, as well as special dietary considerations. Users can then order food for the shiva house directly from the site (currently the site offers a listing of 175 delis nationwide and plans to add more restaurants). It only takes about five minutes to input information, Rosen says. “It can be done by the mourner or someone else in their family or a friend or synagogue caring committee. Mourners can also call us and we’ll input the information for them if they are traveling and don’t have access to a computer.” The link to the registry can then be e-mailed, posted on Facebook or tweeted.

ShivaConnect.com also features several articles explaining the various customs and traditions surrounding shiva, tips for visiting a mourner and a checklist for those who are sitting shiva on how to prepare their homes.

The site, which receives 1,600 visitors a month, will bring in revenue from advertising (the delis pay to be listed on the site) and online banner ads. More than 100 people, on average, view each listing.

“It’s probably because I’m a baby boomer,” Rosen said of her decision to launch the shiva registry. “Here I am with this need and I’m thinking that other baby boomers are in the same situation; we’re losing our parents.”

One of the most frequent Jewish online searches focuses around death and mourning, says David Behrman, president of Berhman House, which publishes Jewish books and educational materials. “People want to comfort their friends and relatives and don’t know quite what to do,” he said.

To help, Berhman House recently launched iComfort ($1.99 on iTunes), an app that features a touch-and-read version of the Mourner’s Kaddish and features tips on how to greet a mourner and make a shiva call. The app also features a yahrtzeit calculator, which will tell you when the yahrtzeit falls out in future years.

The app is a modern-day, digital version of the 64-page “Jewish Mourner’s Handbook” the company published some 15 years ago. “In today’s world, instead of rabbis giving you a book, they’ll give you a URL,” Behrman said.

The app is geared to those who experienced the passing of a loved one and want to observe the event in a Jewish way. “There’s clearly an increased interest in ritual across the board of Jewish living,” he says. “You see it in all of the movements. I think this is part of the trend.”

Another app, which calculates a loved one’s Hebrew yahrtzeit, was developed recently by The Plaza Jewish Community Chapel, one of only three nonprofit Jewish funeral homes in the country. In the past, Plaza has given out 10-year yahrtzeit calendars to those who hold a service there. “Very often people forget where they put it,” said Stephanie Garry, Plaza’s marketing director.

The app, which is free and is compatible with the iPhone, Android, and BlackBerry phones, sends yearly e-mail reminders, so that you have time to go out and buy a yahrtzeit candle.

The free app also serves as a savvy marketing tool — no surprise, since Plaza has achieved name recognition by sponsoring the Shabbat candle lighting times on 1010 WINS for the past six years. More than 1,000 people downloaded the app in the first week it was live, Garry said. “As a result [of the app], we’ve had a real spike in visits to our website.”

Garry attributes entrepreneurial interest in the area of death and mourning to a growing openness to discussing matters of death. “In my parents’ generation, [death] really wasn’t something that was talked about,” she said. “Now, we have pre-arrangements. People realize the importance of talking about it and are much more able to have a conversation about death.”

The Shiva Sisters, the event-planning firm that plans after-funeral gatherings, has seen that firsthand. A growing percentage of its customers pre-plan a post-funeral reception for themselves. One woman who was dying from cancer had Moldo and Black help her secure a plot and plan a service. “She didn’t want her husband or son to have to deal with this,” Black said.

The two “shiva sisters,” who live in Los Angeles, met when their now-17-year-olds were in preschool. “We were always the two who would be called on if a sibling or parent died, to come set up the house for shiva,” Black said. “By being the ones who never got to go to the funeral or had to leave early to accept deliveries, you miss a lot of the closure yourself. Even those who do have a base they can call upon are realizing that it’s asking a lot.”

Black, an event planner, and Moldo, who worked in mortgages, got the idea for Shiva Sisters four years ago, when Black’s uncle had passed away. “My cousin is a professional; she runs a business with her husband, and she looked at me and said, ‘I wish there was someone to help me to this. I’m exhausted and overwhelmed,’” she recalled.

The two spent many months researching, meeting with clergy, and reading books and articles about grief and mourning, finally launching the business in 2009. “This is really not a business one can jump into; you’re dealing with people who are mourning and just lost a loved one,” Moldo said. At times, they have gotten to the home when the paramedics were still there, before the body had been taken away. They’ve even had to intervene to get copies of the death certificate so that the body could be buried. (The Shiva Sisters have gotten reality TV offers, but haven’t explored it. “It’s such a raw time for families,” Moldo said.)

The company targets its services to Jews in the L.A. area who are not affiliated with a temple — approximately 70 percent of the Jewish community there. Some of their services are nontraditional, since they try to accommodate special requests. One client, a big donor to the opera, wanted an opera singer to come and sing at the funeral. They’ve also created video montages of the deceased. “I thought that was really strange, but it brought the person to life on the screen,” Black said.

People often ask them how they manage such a “morbid” job, but the “sisters” don’t view it that way. “We’re helping people; they’re really, really grateful,” Black said.

On the Upper East Side, Judy Fein has launched a similar business, which grew out of a favor to a friend. Two months after her own husband passed away, Fein’s neighbor’s husband died. The neighbor’s children don’t live in New York, so Fein told her that she would prepare the home for shiva while the family was at the cemetery. She hired people to come in and organize the house. Then she set up tables for food and coffee, and ordered a platter of food.

“Everybody was so grateful; they thought I had been hired to do the job,” she said. “It occurred to me that there must be lots of people whose families are dispersed and need help.” This need is particularly acute among the elderly, whose friends tend to be elderly, as well, she said.

In December 2010, Fein, who has a background in social work, teamed up with her daughter-in-law, Alissa Sharmat, an event planner, to found Fein Shiva Services.

“What’s fascinating about it is that when I tell people what I do, they are very interested and say, ‘Can I work with you?’” Fein said. “It’s more of an emotional response.”

As Jewish baby boomers continue to age, the funeral- and shiva-related field is ripe for innovation.

“The whole funeral industry has been quiet for a number of years,” a funeral director told ShivaConnect.com’s Rosen. “In the next several years, it will explode.”