The patrons of the Frank E. Campbell funeral chapel, on Madison Avenue a block east of the Met, often don’t know what to make of Elizabeth Meyer. Steeped in tradition—it was the chosen mortuary-services provider for John Lennon, Jackie Onassis, and Jim Henson—the place is staffed mostly by middle-aged men for whom the business runs in the family. Meyer is a stunning 26-year-old brunette who went to NYU and began her professional life interning for designers and fashion-PR firms. Officially, she is Campbell’s director of family services, but it would not be inaccurate to call her its first in-house party planner. “The bane of my existence,” says Meyer, dressed in a black suit with a crisp white shirt and significant pearls, “is that I need to wear dark colors to work.”
When Meyer was 21, she lost her father, an entertainment lawyer, to lymphoma. She took it upon herself to give him a fitting send-off. “I planned it like an event. It was a success!” she says. The casket was hidden under a blanket of peonies; songs by the Stones and David Bowie were played, loudly. “Someone said, ‘I want to dance,’ and my best friend, Ali Hilfiger”—Tommy’s daughter—“said, ‘Go ahead, then, dance!’ ” Afterward: lunch for 200 at Centolire.
Meyer, realizing she was on to something, pitched her services to Campbell; Campbell bit. As a kind of orientation, the mortuary started her as a receptionist, a role that included collecting bodies from homes and morgues. “The first time they asked me to do that, I was wearing suede Gucci loafers. I was kind of concerned about them,’’ she says. “Now I keep a pair of shoes here that never go back into my apartment.”
Meyer’s mother was horrified to learn of her little fashionista’s career change. “She thinks I’ve been fixated on death since my dad passed away,” says Meyer, who wears her father’s Rolex every day. For her part, Meyer finds the job cathartic, now that she’s gotten over her initial discomfort. “It’s not glamorous, I can’t sugarcoat it. But I have high-powered executives telling me their fears and wants, and I’m honored they open up to me.”
Those wants can be highly specific: For guitarist Les Paul’s memorial service, she was asked to secure a tour bus; for an exotic-car collector, she organized a cortège of Ferraris; for a prominent Latin American, she transformed a chapel into a tropical setting, complete with palm trees and a D.J. “It reminded me of Bungalow 8,” Meyer recalls.
Thomas Parmalee, editorial director for the company that publishes American Funeral Director and American Cemetery, sees more Elizabeth Meyers in the industry’s future. “People are now demanding creative ideas; event planning ties in nicely,’’ he says. Meanwhile, Meyer recently set up a second office, at Riverside Memorial Chapel on West 76th Street, and has developed a particular interest in “prearrangements.” There are a lot of New Yorkers, she has found, who want to extend their controlling streaks into the afterlife.
“People get surprisingly into it,” she says. “They call quite a bit to change details, like what they want to wear or the location of the luncheon after.” This is understandable, of course. “They may have more than one wedding, but they know they will only have one funeral.”