Career Reinvention: From Photo Shoots to Funerals
How one woman went from coordinating photo shoots to disrupting the funeral industry.
Career reinvention can happen in any space — take the funeral industry, for example...
Doctor, artist, astronaut … you know, the sorts of jobs one aspires to be as a kid. How about funeral director?
Not exactly something one dreams of becoming. Caroline Schrank didn’t either.
For decades, the death business was sort of like a manhole — something you just fell into. However, in recent years, it has been trending into more of a calling than a profession passed down through generations as a family business. In fact, according to the American Board of Funeral Service Education, 83% of mortuary college graduates in 2018 had no family history in the business.
Once a production coordinator tasked with setting up photo shoots for magazines like Real Simple, Maxim and Men’s Health, Schrank, 55, is now part of this 83%.
But what motivates someone in their 50s to go back to school to work with dead people?
“I had two kids two years apart. During that time, my then-husband’s mother and father passed away, and my father got Alzheimer’s and died from complications. There was a lot of sadness and a lot of struggle, and basically our marriage couldn’t withstand it,” explains Shrank.
Finding herself divorced with a two- and four-year-old, Schrank weighed her options.
“As a divorced mom, my choices were to become a real estate agent or barista,” she jokes. “I didn’t like real estate — too cutthroat. And I know people love their coffee, but I needed something that could pay the rent.”
She felt drawn to the aging community and wanted to pursue a role that allowed her to put her naturally empathetic nature to use. She was looking at starting a home health care agency, but then stumbled upon an article about “Death Ritual Disruptor” Amy Cunningham, green burial specialist and a leading voice for change in the funeral industry. Having recently lost her own father, Schrank was inspired.
And, so, at the age of 50, she went back to school: The American Academy McAllister Institute of Funeral Service in New York City. She graduated in 2015 and completed a one-year residency in Manhattan.
On being a funeral industry disruptor
Since then, she has built and launched her own funeral business, Down to Earth Funerals, based in Brooklyn, NY. An industry disruptor in her own right, Schrank made the tagline of her company “Funerals for the Living.” This may sound creepy, but it makes complete sense once you talk to Schrank.
“The experience you have the first five days after a death sets the tone for moving forward,” says Schrank. “My business is to have a funeral that honors the people who are left behind and in turmoil. I want it to be more of a healing experience, not so much ‘This is just what we do … we have a funeral, everyone’s on Xanax and $10,000 later, it’s over.’ I want to provide an experience that’s meaningful.”
To that end, Schrank has incorporated things like yoga classes, hikes and other activities designed to make those first five days a bit more manageable, all while offering the classic funeral home services like disposing of the body.
What it was like to go back to school at 50
“I was in temple once when I was in my 20s and the Rabbi told a story about a woman who came to him who was deciding whether to go to law school at age 47,” recounts Schrank. “She said to him, ‘But when I’m done in three years, I’ll be 50,’ to which he replied, ‘In three years you’ll be 50 anyway. Go for it.’”
Schrank also talks about her years back in school as a period of closeness with her kids, which gave her a better sense of what they were going through at the time. And it seems the feeling was mutual.
“When my kids saw me pursuing something, it fueled all of us. And they loved and became part of the process. The first day of school, they asked, ‘Did you make any friends?’” Schrank remembers. “I said to myself, ‘I’m 50 years old. I’m not making any friends. Meanwhile, I made SO many friends from so many walks of life, and I love that my kids saw the world I was in.”
The advantages of a later-in-life career change
Despite her initial concerns that that the only choice she had was whether to sling duplexes or lattes, Schrank often felt her age was actually an advantage as she embarked on this new chapter in her life. She laughs about how her approach to communications was a breath of fresh air to those in the industry, in particular as she was applying to various funeral homes to fulfill her one-year residency requirement.
“I would tell people my age and it was like, ‘Perfect!’ because I was actually on the young side,” she explains. “If I had been calling, say, an ad agency, they’d be like, ‘First of all, why are you using a phone? And, second of all, you’re way too old.”
She firmly believes that the funeral business is suited to those with more living under their belts.
“It’s a job that I can do forever, essentially, and it does get better with age because – unfortunately – we suffer more loss, and we have more life experience.”