The Final Curtain: The 'Glam Reaper' who's on a mission to shake up the funeral industry
It's said that Irish people are "great at funerals", but death is something we tend to shy away from talking about before it happens. In a new series, Her meets the people who want to start a wider conversation about death and loss. Here, an Irish woman who founded a line of cremation jewellery shares what it's like to work in the funeral industry...
Dublin woman Jennifer Muldowney has added colour, glamour and even humour to the funeral industry – earning herself the moniker 'the Glam Reaper' in the process.
Jennifer works as the in-house Memorial Planner and Celebrant/Officiant for Frank E. Campbell’s, the famous New York funeral home. She also runs her own cremation jewellery business Celtic Ashes.
The idea for Celtic Ashes germinated when Jennifer's grandmother passed away. Before she'd left Ireland for Washington DC, her grandmother had given Jennifer a Miraculous Medal – and after her sad passing, wearing it was a way for Jennifer to feel close to her.
Later on, Jennifer was back home in Dublin her beloved family dog Roxy became very ill and had to be put down.
"I was wracked with guilt, confusion and sadness. We had Roxy cremated and her ashes sat in a little box in the kitchen. Around the same time I lost two dear friends who were not only friends of mine but brothers of my best friends. They were so young – in their 20s."
These experiences with death raised practical and philosophical issues for Jennifer.
"I found myself dealing with the grief and loss, figuring out how to help and comfort my friends and dealing with the fact that I wasn’t immortal as most 20 year olds assume. At the same time, I was logistically looking at the funerals from an 'event planning' point of view, as that was my job at the time."
As a result, Jennifer wrote a book – Say Farewell Your Way: A Funeral Planning Guide For Ireland – which was published on her 31st birthday. It led her to be open in talking about death, which in turn opened a new pathway.
"While sitting down with my Mom one day and writing up her funeral plan, she told me that she wanted Roxy's ashes thrown into her grave when she goes. Of course I objected claiming she was my dog too and I wanted some of her with me always.
"So with the experience of the Miraculous Medal from my Grandmother and now Roxy's ashes I started playing around with ideas, and my cremation jewellery line was born."
Celtic Ashes incorporates the ashes of pets and people who have died into a rage of necklaces, cufflinks and keyrings.
"The collection started with a number of colourful jewellery pieces, from pendants to charms, made from the cremated ashes of pets fused with glass. The fusion of ash with the glass creates a beautiful cloud-like effect, and it ensures that each piece will be entirely unique and individual to you and your loved one."
The company also provides a service of scattering ashes on Irish soil, which is popular with Irish-Americans.
Jennifer now lives in New York and is in the process of writing two books while running her business, working in the funeral home and working on an educational program for the industry. Americans are much more open about death, she says, and more inclined to be creative about it, so setting up her business in the US was a natural choice. "But even still it hasn’t always been the easiest or a quick trajectory. Then there’s visas and other legalities to consider when choosing to live here."
Bubbly and warm, Jennifer describes her work in the funeral industry as, "like being someone's temporary best friend or like a maid of honour for a few days".
"I like to bring empathy, warmth and compassion to what I do. When I am off the clock I am certainly a chatterbox, but when I am with a family it is all about listening and understanding their needs but being normal and a human being. Sometimes we laugh, sometimes we cry. You learn to read people and what they need from you in that moment.
"Honestly, it is so rewarding. While I cannot take away death or give back life, I can help bring a loved one’s memories to life and put their families and friends at ease."
Jennifer sees huge potential for the funeral industry. "I have some plans to expand and also change the industry three ways: personalise it, get it more eco-conscious and get people pre-planning!"
With one eye on changing up a traditionally stuffy industry, Jennifer has the other on TV. "I'd love my own chat show to talk about all this stuff – people are fascinated with it."