“When someone dies, I believe it can be one of the most pivotal moments in our life,” says Stephanie Garry, Executive Vice President of Communal Partnerships at Plaza Jewish Community Chapel. “To know that I can be a real resource in that moment, that I can be of support in that moment, is an amazing gift.”
Garry’s career trajectory has been wonderfully unconventional. Though she grew up in Kansas City, Garry came to New York over four decades ago to pursue acting. For twenty years, she made her living in the city as an actor starring in commercials. That came to an unexpected end when her actors’ union went on strike. “All of a sudden I was unemployed. [I thought], ‘I don’t know how to do anything other than make commercials.’”
Then a friend offered her an unusual opportunity—would she like to work at a nonprofit funeral home? Twenty-one years later, she says, “I was totally meant to be here.”
The community shows its appreciation; Garry says she frequently receives thank-you notes from people who are grateful for her comforting words and levelheadedness during their most difficult periods.
Garry is a member of three congregations, including the Upper West Side’s Rodeph Sholom. “I’ve always been a fan of synagogue life, and my parents gave that to me,” she explains. “Especially growing up in the Midwest, you had to be engaged to be Jewish.”
Garry’s father, a traveling salesman, sometimes sold products to funeral homes. She recalls him mentioning once when she was a child, “‘Working in a funeral chapel is one of the best jobs you can have.’ I was like, ‘What are you talking about?!’” When she accepted the job at Plaza Jewish, Garry’s father was still alive.
“He was so excited,” she recalls. “I said, ‘Dad, you’re not going to see me on TV anymore.’ He said, ‘Who cares? This is the best job in the whole world!’” Today, she is inclined to agree.
Garry is passionate about end-of-life conversations, and maintains that it’s unhealthy to shy away from the topic of death. “We don’t talk about [end-of-life] enough. We tend to talk about when a baby’s born and when a marriage takes place, but our culture is not focused on the full life cycle. As a result, we don’t talk about end of life, and that’s why it’s so hard to deal with it when it comes our way. It’s hard enough anyway, but when you don’t talk it’s doubly as hard.”
Unlike many funeral chapels, Plaza Jewish is a nonprofit. Garry says this important distinction helps them focus on what’s really important.
“When you take the profit motive out of the equation, it becomes a different experience, I think. We’re not concerned with the bottom line at the end of the day. We’re going to have enough to pay our bills. Nobody cares what casket is bought. Our goal is to truly meet people where they’re at.”
“I know that when clergy recommend us...there’s a different gestalt here, because we’re not concerned with the bottom line,” she concludes.