"It took three years," said Max Eisen, who bangs out press
releases on a typewriter in his office in the Sardi Building, in the heart
of the Theater District. "Shows open and close in less time."
The guide, "Planning for a Funeral," contains a supplement
that lists typical prices charged by six New York funeral chapels. There
is a cost breakdown for everything from coffin and shroud to the shomer,
a professional mourner who sits with the body until the funeral takes
place ($80 per eight-hour shift).
Eisen, whose office walls are lined with posters of shows
he has promoted over the past four decades, was inspired to draw up the
guide after an aunt died three years ago. "She hadn't made any plans," he
said. As her closest relative, Eisen made the funeral arrangements. Then,
with the help of a committee that included Balfour Brickner, the rabbi
emeritus of the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue on the upper West Side, he
began drawing up the guide.
"There were things I should've known, but didn't," said
Eisen, who at one time paid membership dues at five synagogues in the city
and on Long Island.
He found several guides, most of them published by funeral
chapels, but none was as comprehensive as he wanted, and none contained a
comparative price guide. Everybody agreed the funeral guide was a good
idea, but disagreed on publishing the price guide.
Originally, Eisen planned for Stephen Wise to distribute
the guide, but the argument about the price list led him to withdraw the
offer. Instead, he sent it to the Union of American Hebrew Congregations,
the national umbrella group of Reform synagogues, with a suggestion that
it handle the distribution.
The organization, at 633 Third Ave., New York, N.Y. 10017,
has agreed to send a free copy to anyone who asks for one.
"It's not just for the Reform movement," said Eisen. "It's
for anybody, Conservative, Orthodox and Reconstructionist."
Most of the guide is commonsensical - make plans now, put
them in writing and keep them in a safe place, think about the cost, etc.
But much of it deals with religious questions and customs
that many Jews may never have learned, starting with what to do at the
moment of death ("If you are there when a person dies and his or her eyes
are open, close them"). It ends with rules and etiquette on visiting
graves ("It is customary to place a small stone on the headstone or grave
at the time of the visit to indicate that the deceased is being remembered
and that the grave is not abandoned").
For many people, the price list touches some sensitive
"Sure, it does," Eisen said. "But to me, it's simple. If
you know what it costs to live, why not know what it costs to die?"
Prices at the six funeral chapels he surveyed, among them
Riverside, Frank E. Campbell, Andrett & Cooke-Kennedy and Gutterman's (in
Queens), ranged from a high of $8,630 to a low of $6,980. That does not
include burial costs, monuments and perpetual care, which can add several
thousand dollars more.
Cremation costs much less, and so does buying a coffin -
by tradition, plain wood with no metal parts - directly from a
manufacturer. Under New York State law, funeral homes must accept coffins
Eisen is pitching the guide the same way he pitches
theatrical productions - through a blitz of press releases and followups,
using a strategy that he adopted so many years ago after reading a book
titled "Press Agentry" by Charles Washburn.
"That's what got me into this business," said Eisen, who
has come a long way from the South Bronx, where he was born and raised and
where his father owned a candy store.
Eisen was talking up several theatrical productions this
week, among them a new hip-hop musical and an upcoming version of the
Johann Strauss opera "Die Fledermaus" set in Manhattan. All this may
account for one unfinished piece of personal business.
"No, I haven't made my funeral plans," he said, "but I've
started thinking about it."