ICFM Magazine, March-April 2006
Many cemeteries and funeral homes have at least one minority ethnic or religious group to which they want to appeal. St. Michael's Cemetery in Queens, New York, has them all. Well, maybe not all, but as the most diverse community in the United States, Queens presents the sales staff with a special challenge—and opportunity.
When St. Michael's Cemetery was established in 1852, Queens had plenty of farmland that could be turned into cemeteries as the island of Manhattan became more crowded. It was a different era, and the names on the memorials reflect a homogeneity long since gone.
The cemetery is part of St. Michael's Episcopal Church, but is open to people of all faiths. It began its life as a potter's field. As the population of Queens grew, it welcomed the burial of those who wanted and could afford the memorials and statuary that marked the Victorian era.
At one point not long ago, St. Michael's had become dependent on an Italian market that was shrinking due to age and an increasingly transient population. Today, St. Michael's tries to reach out to all the ethnic, cultural and religious communities that now make up Queens, determined by the U.S. Census to be our nation's most diverse community.
A sampling of whom we serve: Hindus, Buddhists, Italians, Romanians, Bulgarians, Albanians, Greeks, Croats, Irish, German, English, French, Spanish, every South and Central American country you can name, Chinese, Koreans, a few Russians. Some speak English; others do not.
As head of community relations and sales, I must reach out to as many groups as possible. I accomplish this in a number of ways. My advice:
1. Read newspapers aimed at specific groups. Some of them are published in English, some are not. For those that are not, find someone in that community who will translate for you, or will look through them and tell you about events taking place that are important to that community.
2. Advertise in these newspapers. For example, I advertise constantly in the Greek Herald and the other Greek newspaper, the Hellas. In addition, every year at Christmas we run a full-page ad celebrating life in the Greek community and we do the same thing when the community celebrates Easter.
3. Meet the leaders of these groups; invite them to your cemetery or funeral home and talk to them about their traditions and desires. When planning new facilities and services, consult with them early in the process.
For example, St. Michael's decided to build a crematorium in the 1990s. We knew the Hindu community would be an important constituency for the facility. We kept this is mind in the design. In fact, if you take a look at the stained glass that Pickel Studios created for us, you'll see that for the most part it is devoid of religious symbolism. But at the very center is a Hindu symbol.
After doing some research, we ended up meeting with the head of the Hindu Association of America. She spent several hours with us, educating us about what a Hindu family looks for in a cremation facility. She explained that the eldest son or eldest male in the family has to initiate the cremation process, and the family must view it. The family wants to be right where the retort is. We had not been aware of this, an important consideration for planning the design of the building.
Also, Hindus park the hearse away from where the casket will be placed, and have to stop and place the casket on the ground five separate times while carrying it. It was intriguing to learn.
In some cases, it's important to learn about another tradition so that your staff knows what to expect. Some people in our Eastern European community, when attending a traditional grave burial, will not allow us to lower the casket until some member of the family defaces it. They actually stab it, hit it with chains and otherwise damage it.
It was a real shock the first time I saw a family do that. Then someone explained that in the "old country," it was not uncommon for cemeteries to remove the body from a casket in order to resell it. Defacing the casket was the family's way of making sure this would not happen.
The African-American community has chapel services for cremations, with the funeral director acting as the lay minister. It surprised us to learn that regardless of what kind of service has already been held at the funeral home, before the casket is moved from the crematorium chapel to the retort, the funeral director is expected to deliver a sermon for those in attendance. We included a podium at the front of the chapel to make it easier for the speaker.
Another thing we heard from several groups is that they felt rushed when they wanted to use the chapel in connection with cremations. We therefore decided that one of the things that would differentiate St. Michael's All Soul's Chapel and Crematorium was that we would extend the typical chapel time scheduled to half an hour (the norm in the area was 10 to 15 minutes). We try our best to allow families to remain in the chapel as long as they wish.
In fact, as a result of the input we got from different groups as we planned the crematorium, we went from envisioning the crematorium as the focus with the chapel as an adjunct to the exact opposite view, with the chapel as the focus.
4. Invite religious leaders from all faiths to participate in events as appropriate. We have an annual service in honor of the Queens firefighters who lost their lives on September 11, 2001. We offer everyone from our community representation. We've had Buddhist, Muslim, Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Jewish religious leaders participate.
5. Hire counselors from key communities. Everybody knows to do this, right? But you need to go beyond that initial step to fully reap the benefits.
Like most urban cemeteries, St. Michael's has limited land and is counting on mausoleum space to extend its active life. Part of my job is to sell out a new building every two years, at the rate of about 600 preneed mausoleum spaces annually.
We have a very large Greek community in the Astoria area of Queens, which is not far from our front door. The members of this community have historically been traditional grave purchasers, reluctant to even look at spaces in a community mausoleum, fearful of cemeteries and never preplanning.
I wanted to hire a Greek counselor, so I attended a lot of Greek churches and met a lot of people. Eventually I met the person I wanted to hire, Nicholas Papamichael, a young man who was running a food business but had a great personality.
After he was on board, I invited the local Greek newspaper to come down to St. Michael's and do a story on him. They wrote what turned out to be a four-page story on the advantages of preplanning and about how community mausoleums are a great advance over traditional ground burial.
In the past, the Greek community would have been responsible for maybe 2 to 3 percent of our mausoleum sales, purchased at-need. Since that article, close to 18 percent of our pre-need mausoleum sales are in the Greek community.
6. Look for ways to be a community facilitator. The past few years, we've managed to reach out to every elected official in Queens, partly through our Queens 9/11 memorial and service. We know them; they know us.
As I keep tabs on what's going on in different communities by reading their newspapers and talking to their leaders, I look for opportunities for St. Michael's to help out.
If there's a group trying to place a bench in a park, clean up a neighborhood, get a traffic light or stop sign installed or secure an increased police presence, it's not uncommon for us to get a phone call requesting help in getting the attention of the appropriate elected official. But we don't wait for the call. If we learn of a need, we offer to help.
It also works in reverse-our Congressional representatives view St. Michael's as a community resource and will come to us for help in reaching out to constituents.
7. Make your facilities available for use by community groups. Organizations need places to meet. A local Kiwanas group uses our chapel for meetings; so does a Queens Library committee. Sometimes Rep. Carolyn Maloney holds meetings on local issues there. A local businesswomen's group meets there.
8. If you're a cemeterian, think of funeral directors as a group you should cultivate as you would any other. This is crucial for stand-alone cemeteries. I belong to the Metropolitan Funeral Directors Association and the Long Island Funeral Directors Association. I participate in their events; I advertise in their journals. St. Michael's sends a newsletter to 224 funeral directors.
I do whatever is required to make sure that every funeral director in the area has a positive view of St. Michael's. Funeral directors know that if they need something they can call me and most likely my answer will be "yes."
When All Souls Chapel was complete, the first thing we did was notify the funeral directors that it was available-free of charge-for any need they might have. Some of them are members of fraternal organizations that require a place to meet; others want a place for their own special events.
Each year Farenga & Sons funeral director Gus Antonopolous observes All Souls Day with a candle-lighting service in our chapel. He's also used the chapel for Greek Easter, New Year's and other occasions.
No business can be all things to all people, but as communities become increasingly diverse, we need to find ways to reach out to more people. At St. Michael's, we try to reach beyond the cemetery's gates and become a partner in the lives of our c1ients and potential clients.