After two decades in video production, where her clients included fashion and cosmetics brands, Erica Hill did something radical in November 2021: She opened a funeral home in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.
It wasn’t just a career-180 for Hill; it was an unusual move, period. Funeral homes have been declining in numbers in New York and nationwide for decades.
“If you had told me 10 years ago that this is what I’d be doing, I’d tell you you were absolutely insane,” said Hill, one morning last month in her funeral home, called Sparrow.
“I have no interest in dying,” she said, “but I've had enough loss in my life that it's just unfortunately a reality and every single person on this earth is gonna die.”
Also, she said, she’s “very squeamish” around dead bodies.
And yet, there she was among the wood floors, skylights, and walls painted in various soothing shades of Pink Damask or Narragansett Green. The place smelled like pine, or like a boutique fitness class, thanks to the P.F. soy candles everywhere, which are for sale in the gift shop, along with chocolates, books on grief and artisanal urns.
And in the basement, four dead bodies were stored in a temperature-controlled room, awaiting their next and final move.
With Sparrow — which took over the space of the Stobierski-Lucas Gardenview Funeral Home —Hill is aiming big. She says she’s trying to elevate the funeral experience and make it a little better for the living, play a part in changing the conversation around death, and scale her concept across the country.
Hill can connect the dots between her previous career and her new one as a funeral home owner.
“I love telling stories and I’m a producer at heart,” Hill said. “I look at it now as I help families tell the story of their loved ones.”
Sparrow was not born in a vacuum. It arrived in Greenpoint amid several death trends led by women, including the death positivity movement, which is an attempt to encourage open and honest conversations about death. Women have driven the rise in death doulas and death influencers, and they are even graduating from funeral director programs at higher numbers than men, representing 72% of enrolled students in 2022 according to Robert Smith, the executive director of the American Board of Funeral Service Education.
In another room at Sparrow, a table was set up for the funeral of a 60-year-old woman. The family didn’t want a casket; instead they had arranged for her to be displayed on pillows, like a princess, amid an installation of cherry blossom trees.
“We allow them to bring their full selves here,” said Hill, noting that typically clients opt for caskets.
In New York, Hill is not legally allowed to handle bodies, or consult with families, because she is not a licensed funeral director. She said she won’t ever become one here, because of the embalming requirement at mortuary school.
Sparrow’s funeral director, Alexander Agard, runs day-to-day operations. He’s worked in the industry for more than a decade, in Manhattan, the Bronx and Brooklyn.
“Most funeral homes are literally stuck in 1972,” Agard said. “From the carpet to the drapery, to the scent to the dirty, decrepit bathrooms, to the mismatched furniture. You'll never have that here.”
Hill’s new approach to the death care industry may be a much-needed boost. Traditional brick-and-mortar funeral homes are, well, dying.
In 2022, just 11 new funeral homes opened in New York state, according to data from the Department of Health. That same year, 13 funeral homes closed. In the past 20 years, the number of funeral homes has shrunk 18% across New York, mirroring a national decline – even though more people are dying, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“I don't think I've seen a new funeral home open in the state of Delaware in 10 years,” said Jack Schmidt of the National Directory of Morticians, which produces a guidebook of licensed funeral homes in the U.S., Mexico, Canada and elsewhere.
Hill’s interest in the funeral world was sparked years ago, after attending funerals for friends and feeling like the events weren’t what they would have chosen or wanted. But her ideas only became a reality after connecting with Jennifer Herman-Feldman, a fellow parent she’d known from when their children were in grade school together. Herman-Feldman read an early draft of her business plan and became an investor; today, they are business partners.
Hill sees her own mother’s death as a reminder of how funeral care should not go.
“The funeral home sent two young women to come pick up my mom and they stunk of smoke. They were really uncomfortable. One of them didn’t speak,” said Hill. “They didn’t do anything wrong, it was just so not what I would have wanted that experience to be.”
There are only so many legal and feasible ways to dispose of bodies in New York state, and the options at Sparrow are, for the most part, standard: cremations, funerals, memorials.
A funeral at Sparrow costs about $13,000; the national average is $7,848, according to the National Funeral Directors Association. Hill said Sparrow has worked on a sliding scale with families who could not otherwise afford their services, as part of her mission to be inclusive.
Sparrow also offers to produce an “exit party,” a celebration for someone who is living with a terminal illness, but so far no one has taken her up on it. This idea was lightly mocked in early news coverage of Sparrow. Hill understands the derision, but defends the concept.
“Everybody jokes about, I wonder who'd show up at my funeral?” she said. “Well, why wait for that? Like if your Aunt Sally's gonna fly across the country for your funeral, why not have your Aunt Sally come while you're still alive and spend a little time with you?”
The idea is also personal: Right before her friend Michelle MacNaught died in 2011 from ovarian cancer at age 21, Hill produced an art show of her works, which several hundred people attended.
“It was so clear how loved she felt, and how seen she felt, and she died the next morning,” said Hill, tearing up.
“When people are snarky about having a celebration before you die, I get it, it sounds weird,” said Hill. “But I really cannot stress how beautiful that was for her and for all of us.”
When Sparrow opened, one commenter on the Greenpointers’ Instagram called it “the Wing but for dead people,” referencing the women-only co-working space that had pastel tones, chichi furniture, and progressive branding, and closed in 2022 amid accusations of racism and a toxic workplace.
Both The Wing and Sparrow took something that few people think about joyfully – office space and death care – and tried to make it a little bit cooler.
“I’m not sure if that’s a compliment or an insult,” said Hill, when asked about the comparison.
But, she said, she could speak to the idea of “taking something that's existed for a really long time, looking at it in a different way and executing it in a different way.”
“I often talk about Soul Cycle,” she said. “Stationary cycling in a group existed at gyms before SoulCycle came along, but it wasn't sexy,” she said. “It’s no different than Sweetgreen,” she said. “Restaurants offered salad, but never in the way that they chose to repackage it.”
Beatrice Lewanduski, who has been a funeral director on Long Island for over 40 years, said the industry has evolved in recent decades.
“When I started in the business back in the ‘70s, the traditional funeral director was a man who wore black suits. We had three-day wakes. Everybody had a limousine. Everybody bought metal caskets, people wore black,” she said, adding that “everything was very sad.”
Now, she said, the typical consumer is “getting away from the mourning of a death to celebrating a person's life.” Things that were unheard of at funerals when she started — food, party favors — are commonplace.
She has not been to Sparrow, but said their offerings struck her as “services that today’s families are seeking.”
In April, Hill said Sparrow was on track to do 120 funerals for the year, though her goal is 150.
“What I have learned is, it takes a while for people to trust a funeral home because most people go to where their families have gone for the last however many years,” Hill said.
Earlier this year, she bought a second funeral home in Burbank, California, and is now eyeing a space in Manhattan. She has dreams to open a dozen more in the next three to five years, and is working on a deck to show investors. What keeps her up at night is “figuring out the best way to raise money to do what I want to do.”
“And then there's lots of nights where I'm not kept up at all,” she said. “Because I feel really solid about what I'm doing and excited.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated Beatrice Lewanduski's role in the industry.
What happens to a body when taken to a funeral home? ›
Once a funeral home has picked up the body and brought it to their facility, they will then clean and dress and/or shroud the body. Afterward, the body will be placed in refrigeration to keep it cool until the day of burial, at which point the body will be transported to the burial site.What is the oldest funeral home? ›
Bucktrout of Williamsburg is the oldest funeral home in America. Opened in 1759, Bucktrout began as cabinetmakers in Colonial Williamsburg. When neighbors and friends passed away, Benjamin Bucktrout and Anthony Hay would generously make wooden caskets and provide burial on the Bucktrout farm.How long does it take for a body to turn into a skeleton in a coffin? ›
Generally speaking, a body takes 10 or 15 years to decompose to a skeleton. Some of the old Victorian graves hold families of up to eight people. As those coffins decompose, the remains will gradually sink to the bottom of the grave and merge.How long can a body last in a funeral home? ›
As you can see most funeral homes can hold a body indefinitely – but there will likely be holding fees. So, if you can you should speed the process up by finding a reliable funeral home that can deal with the paperwork.Which is older a coffin or a casket? ›
3. The word “coffin” is older than the word “casket” We learned earlier that the word coffin was used as early as 1525.Who are most funeral homes owned by? ›
While some smaller funeral homes may be family-owned and operated, most funeral homes today are part of large corporations. As a result, funeral home operators must have excellent customer service skills and be able to maintain a professional demeanor at all times.What was the most popular funeral? ›
|Funeral||Date||No. of attendees|
|Funeral of Mahatma Gandhi||February 6, 1948||at least 2,000,000|
|State funeral of Eva Perón||August 9, 1952||3,000,000|
|Funeral of Carmen Miranda||August 12, 1955||500,000|
|Funeral of B. R. Ambedkar||December 6, 1956||at least 500,000|
We think this is an urban legend. We've witnessed many cremations and never heard a scream. But then again, cremation retorts aren't silent either. Now, bodies do make all kinds of gnarly noises.How long does a body last in a casket? ›
The body takes between ten to fifteen years to decay to a point where you may just find bones, teeth and hair remaining in the casket. There may also be some excess tissue and clothing fibers that withstood the ten years of decay.What does a dead body look like after 2 weeks in a coffin? ›
After two weeks, the body starts to bloat and change its color to red after the blood present in the body starts to decompose. Once the corpse surpasses the fourth week, you can witness liquefaction in the rest of the remains. The teeth and nails also begin to fall during this time frame.
Can a body be viewed without embalming? ›
Many funeral homes will not allow a public viewing unless embalming is performed. It is not a state or federal law that embalming be required. It is only a regulation by certain funeral homes. The regulation exists for many reasons including health safety, liability, and other undesired effects of decomposition.Can you touch a body in a funeral home? ›
If you have an adult with you at the funeral home, it is ok to touch a dead body, and you will not get in trouble. You are naturally curious, and sometimes when you see and touch a dead body it helps you answer your questions. Remember to be gentle and have an adult help you.Why do bodies look different at funerals? ›
A body may be different in death to life because:
a mortician or funeral director has changed a body's appearance through clothing, or hair arrangement, or cosmetics. Such “dressing” of the body may be very different to how the person in life would have done it. the body smells different.
White stands for simplicity, purity, innocence, peace, calmness and is the color of perfection. The color white represents new beginnings. In some cultures, white is associated with mourning the deceased, which also means ending one's life and beginning a new life.
You can still have a traditional viewing at the service, but renting a casket can save you money as the funeral home will reuse it for another viewing. The caskets, equipped with a removable interior, provide a sanitary solution, and after the service or cremation, the wooden box removes easily.What is difference between coffin and casket? ›
Coffins get tapered to conform to the shape of a human form. A coffin also has a removable lid while caskets have lids with hinges. Coffins are usually made out of wood and lined with cloth interiors. Unlike caskets, they do not have rails that make transportation easier.Why do funeral homes make so much money? ›
Funeral homes generate income by providing services to bereaved families and friends of the recently deceased. These services vary depending on the funeral home and location, as some funeral homes prefer not to offer certain services, and others are legally unable to provide new services.Do you make a lot of money owning a funeral home? ›
Top-earning owners are said to make over $92,000, according to Career Trend. To start your own funeral home, you'll need between $150,000 and $300,000 to open a small-scale and intimate mortuary, according to Small Business Chron.What is the largest funeral company in the US? ›
Service Corporation International is proud to be North America's leading provider of funeral, cremation and cemetery services. Since 1962, SCI has been serving families during their most difficult, personal and challenging times.What is a very sad song for a funeral? ›
Top 21 Sad Funeral Songs
Candle In the Wind by Elton John. If You're Reading This by Tim McGraw. I'll Be Missing You by Puff Daddy. In the Arms of an Angel by Sarah McLachlan.
What is a happy song to leave a funeral? ›
Examples of happy and uplifting songs to play at a funeral include: Three Little Birds – Bob Marley and the Wailers. Somewhere Over The Rainbow - Israel Kamakawiwo'ole. What a Wonderful World – Louis Armstrong.What happens when a body goes to the funeral directors? ›
The funeral director will then collect the body
Medical staff place a tag on the person who's died, either around their toe or their ankle, so the funeral directors can check their identity. The funeral directors will take the body to the crematorium and place it into a very cool storage space.
But if we were to talk about what happens to the body after embalming, well after three – four months, the yellow-green complexion would have turned to a brownish-black colour because of the blood vessels that have deteriorated to the point that the iron inside of them spills out.Why do they cover face before closing casket? ›
Over time, coffins underground will decompose and eventually collapse. Covering the face before closing the casket adds an extra layer of protection and dignity for the deceased's face and can act as a symbolic final goodbye.Who removes the body when someone dies at home? ›
Make Arrangements for After Death
Arrangements should be made to pick up the body as soon as the family is ready and according to local laws. This can be done by a funeral home or by the family themselves in most states.
What does the Bible say about cremation? According to most Biblical study websites, there is no explicit scriptural command for or against cremation. There are no passages that forbid cremation, according to most Biblical scholars.What are three of the responsibilities of a funeral director? ›
Provide information on funeral service options. Arrange for removal of the deceased's body. Prepare the remains (the deceased's body) for the funeral. File death certificates and other legal documents with appropriate authorities.How long does a casket last in the ground? ›
How long does a coffin last? There is no coffin or casket that will last forever. Bronze or copper caskets will tend to last longer but they will also break down over time, bronze will last the longest though. On average, the casket will last to about as little as 5 to 20 years or as long as 80 till 125 years.Why are bodies hard after embalming? ›
First, the body is drained of blood and preserved with gallons of ethanol and formaldehyde, which makes it feel hard to the touch.How long does it take for a body to break down after embalming? ›
The embalming process typically takes two hours to complete and includes washing and drying the hair and body of the deceased. This time may increase if the cause of death has affected the body in any way. With embalming, decomposition will begin after about a week.
Why do they cross your hands in a casket? ›
It has been used to prevent the odor of decay, to give family members closure and prevent them from witnessing the decomposition of their loved ones, and in many cultures it has been seen as a necessary step for the deceased to enter the afterlife or to give back to the cycle of life.Why do you put your feet first at a funeral? ›
Carrying a coffin with the feet first helps keep it balanced and also means the deceased is being handled with great care. The funeral director will provide instructions on how to take the coffin.Can you touch the body in an open casket? ›
OPEN-CASKET FUNERAL ETIQUETTE
If they have an open casket viewing, make sure you follow proper funeral etiquette: DON'T touch the body under any circumstances. Sometimes the casket has a glass to prevent this from happening.
- 1 – DO NOT tell their bank. ...
- 2 – DO NOT wait to call Social Security. ...
- 3 – DO NOT wait to call their Pension. ...
- 4 – DO NOT tell the utility companies. ...
- 5 – DO NOT give away or promise any items to loved ones. ...
- 6 – DO NOT sell any of their personal assets. ...
- 7 – DO NOT drive their vehicles.
- Getting a legal pronouncement of death. ...
- Arranging for the body to be transported. ...
- Making arrangements for the care of dependents and pets.
- Contacting others including:
- Making final arrangements. ...
- Getting copies of the death certificate.
If your partner dies of natural causes or in their sleep: If there is no medical professional with you, call 911. This will start the process of getting a legal death pronouncement, whether it's given in your home by a paramedic or at the hospital by a doctor or nurse.