HACKENSACK, N.J. — As a young funeral director, Michael Mittenzwei won Elizabeth Parow's heart by presenting her with bouquets of roses.
Liz knew exactly where they came from: the cemetery.
Plucking flowers from discarded memorial arrangements and delivering them by hearse may seem an odd way to woo someone. But the gesture always made Liz laugh. After all, she's a funeral director, too.
Two decades and two kids later, Michael and Liz are a rarity: husband-and-wife owners of separate funeral homes. Liz, 46, is at Parow Funeral Home in North Arlington, N.J., which she runs with her sister. Michael, 45, is newly in charge of Boulevard Funeral Home in New Milford, N.J. Their life together is dictated by what they can't anticipate — people dying.
His-and-her funeral homes are virtually unheard of. While husband-and-wife funeral directors are not that unusual, those husbands and wives work together under one roof. Edward Defort, publications editor of the National Funeral Directors Association, says he knows of no other spouses who own separate funeral homes.
That could change, Defort says, as the funeral industry casts off the remnants of its old-boy's image. Lured by the stability of funeral work, women enrolled in mortuary-science schools outnumbered men for the first time in 2000, and in 2011, 58.6 percent of mortuary science students were women, according to the national association.
Liz and Michael met in 1988 at the McAllister Institute, a mortuary-science school in Manhattan. It was in the hallway, said Michael, 45. I remember Liz was wearing a leopard-print shirt. I guess that was fashionable at the time.
The two followed different paths to embalming school, where students also take classes in anatomy, grief and restorative art, among other subjects. Liz grew up over the funeral home her father, Henry, opened in 1957. Beginning as a teenager, Michael worked odd jobs, then apprenticed at a mortuary in his native Bayonne, N.J. It was there that a freelance funeral-home hairdresser who fancied herself a psychic told young Michael that one day he would marry a girl whose dad ran a funeral home in North Arlington — a girl named Elizabeth Parow.
But even after crossing paths in embalming school and traveling in the same social circle, Liz and Michael didn't start dating till 1991, once their careers were under way.
Holy Cross Cemetery, up the street from Parow Funeral Home, was a backdrop to the budding relationship.
Most burials happen in the morning, and quite often I'd pull up with my procession and bump into Liz in the office, or see her at the side of her hearse, Michael said. It kept happening more and more, like it was meant to be.
Liz says her mother wasn't thrilled about her marrying a funeral director.
Go marry a dentist, Eleanor Parow told her daughter. They can tell people, ‘Take two aspirin and call me in the morning.'
Funeral directors, always on call, don't have that luxury.
Growing up, when the phone rang in the house, everyone was quiet — because you never knew who was on the other end of the line, Liz said.
For the first dozen years of their marriage, Michael was employed by family- and corporate-owned funeral homes, while Liz carried on her family's tradition alongside sister Denise. Then Michael went to the New Jersey State Funeral Directors Association, as liaison to its more than 900 members.
It was a Monday-to-Friday job that had him home in North Arlington by early evening, when Liz was likely to be at her funeral home presiding over a wake.
I was comfortable with the way our lives were going, Liz said. I could depend on him to be home with the kids. He had a steady paycheck. He had every weekend off. It was great.
Her husband had a different view. He missed the 24/7 life of a working funeral director: of never knowing what each day would bring, of serving people at their time of greatest need. If you're the kind of person with a cubicle mentality, you'll never survive in this business, he said.
So he looked for an opportunity where he could be the boss. It had to be within reasonable distance of North Arlington, but not so close to Parow Funeral Home that competition would be an issue. When the decades-long owner of Boulevard Funeral Home decided to retire, Michael made his move.
It was his dream; it made him happy, Liz said, her weary voice reflecting the immediate tradeoff: The million-dollar deal, which required Liz to be listed as a co-owner, emptied their savings.
In the nine months since the acquisition, Michael has launched renovations at Boulevard Funeral Home, housed in a century-old building that used to be a veterinary hospital. He is planning a casket showroom, something Parow Funeral Home has. He's even promoting Jewish funerals, which by custom do not involve the embalming of the body or cremation.
And for now, he's getting by without staff. When he needs someone to cover for him — at a graveside service, for instance, while he presides over a simultaneous wake — he turns to friends in the tight circle of licensed funeral directors. Or Liz travels up from North Arlington, if she can break away from the funeral home that bears her name.
But when Michael gets called in the wee hours about a New Jersey death 15 miles away in New Milford or Bergenfield or River Edge, he's the one who hops into the shiny black minivan to pick up the body.
Death is not convenient for us, he said, and certainly isn't convenient for the people we serve.
Although Liz and Michael rely on the same technical and psychological skills, their work lives are quite different. Liz has a personal connection to many of the people from North Arlington and surrounding towns whom she lays to rest; Michael, a newcomer to New Milford, is meeting his customers — living and otherwise — for the first time.
Being new to business ownership, Michael has his wife for guidance. He always worked for others and saw the business through the eyes of an employee, Liz said. Now he's finding out he has to pay attention to the everyday workings of a business — even things like remembering to take the garbage out.
Or the color of Boulevard Funeral Home's new curtains. Michael chose burgundy.
I'm not thrilled about burgundy; they remind me of the old-fashioned funeral homes in Jersey City, Liz said. But it's his domain, and as long as he doesn't embezzle, I don't care.
Patience and listening, Michael and Liz say, are important attributes in a funeral director, and now that they're running separate funeral homes, patience and listening have risen to the fore in their personal lives.
They speak a half-dozen times a day. The conversations are, ‘What's going on at her place, and what's going at my place, and how to make it all work with the kids, Michael said. Who's going to take Grace to soccer? Who's going to take Mikey to football? This is the only way we can pull this craziness off.
The demands on the two-funeral-home family are felt most keenly at dinner hour. While wakes are traditionally held from 2 to 4 p.m. and 7 to 9 p.m., other time frames, such as 4 to 8 p.m., are becoming more common.
With four to six funerals a week between both businesses, there's a good chance that on any given evening, either Mom or Dad, or perhaps both, can't sit down for dinner with 11-year-old Grace and 4-year-old Mikey.
But more than being home for dinner or getting roses, Elizabeth Parow wants the same things a lot of other hardworking moms and dads desire — the chance to get away on a family vacation. She'll take Disney World.