Brooke Benjamin, Funeral Director

By Stephanie Sack | Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Brooke Benjamin, outside Beans & Bagels on Leland Ave. Credit: Stephanie Sack

A resident of Lincoln Square, with childhood memories of participating in talent shows and eating strips of taffy in her now home neighborhood, Brooke Benjamin has had a colorful professional career that encompasses advertising, catering, and, currently, directing funerals with the Cremation Society of Illinois.

While some might think it is an unusual vocation, Brooke’s diverse background, composed demeanor, and genuine compassion for others all come together to ensure that she is there to assist others with grace and discretion during a profoundly difficult time in their life.

1. You are a native of Chicago and an expert on many neighborhoods. How and why did you choose Lincoln Square as your current place of residence?

Well, it should be noted that this native Chicago girl knows mostly about North Side neighborhoods. What I know of the south, west, and southeast sides I’ve learned primarily from directing funerals.

I grew up not terribly far away, on Virginia Avenue near Peterson Ave. We’d come to Lincoln Square to buy bird seed and fish food at the Fishing Schooner, now an eyeglass frame store. For a special treat we’d get these tart, chewy, colorfully-wrapped, colorful taffy strips from Meyer’s Deli, now Gene’s Sausage Shop. My dad took us to the Hild Library, now Old Town School of Folk Music, and I have memories of stacks and stacks of books.

At age ten, I won fifth place at the Welles Park talent show by pounding out The Bolero on the piano. Lost to a younger kid who performed a breakdance to “She Blinded Me with Science” and an older, gangly accordionist. My mom is of Greek descent and used to drag me to Adinamis Funeral Home on Lincoln and Leland.

A few years ago, my partner and I outgrew my little Andersonville condo and tentatively began condo-shopping. We found the perfect place on Leland. Rockwell Gardens is a good mix of young white and Latino families, aging hipsters like myself, Greek old-timers, a few African-American families, and some creative upstarts who’ve tired of Wicker Park. It’s not completely gentrified over here. Two days before our move-in date I received a death call for a Filipino family literally three buildings west of our new home. I took it as a sign.

The yuppie in me loves that we’re so close to cafes, bars, a movie theatre, the ‘L’, and an awesome CD store, Laurie’s Planet of Sound. When my parents visit, all the way from Evanston, we stroll around and my dad can lose himself at Ravenswood Books. Welles Park is awesome and we’re still close enough to Winnemac Park. I just cannot get enough of those willow trees, even though I went to Mather High School and our sworn enemy was Amundsen.

The only thing that’s really lacking in Lincoln Square is a grassy, secure dog park.

2. Professionally, your path has taken a very unique trajectory, from selling advertising to catering to artists’ model to funerals.  How did you come to work for the Cremation Society of Illinois?

After dropping out of Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism I fumbled around for a few years. A stereotypical solipsistic Gen-X slacker, with uncertain skills or talents. So I had some fun.

Amidst all this callowness, something real happened when my uncle Corky died. I was 21 and it was a life-changing event. A few years later my parents introduced me to the funeral director at my godmother’s service. I gathered that he was someone to be respected within her ethnic community, yet to me he came off as cagey and insincere. And this was when I was selling classified ads to ladies of the evening!

A friend’s mother, after years as a secretary at a Jewish funeral home, was being sent to Worsham College of Mortuary Science – aka “The Harvard of Mortuary Schools”. I was intrigued that she was learning to embalm and when she said, “Honey, if I can go down to the Cook County Medical Examiner’s office, unzip a body bag not knowing what’s inside, what level of damage and decomposition, I can do anything!”  I knew what I wanted to do.

Initial eagerness to learn about human physiology and the changes our bodies endure after we’ve vacated them, morphed into the realization that the job requires integrity, presence, and discretion. It is a tremendous honor and responsibility to help people through the absolute worst time in their lives.

I apprenticed at an old-school funeral home in Northcenter, serving a mostly Catholic clientele. The very day I was hired, a bizarre string of events occurred. Playing Scrabble with my friend Rachel, my rack bore the tiles F, U, N, R, L and S. On the way home from her house in Andersonville to Roscoe Village, I literally had to stop my car in the middle of Ashland to avoid running over a body. The hit-and-run had occurred seconds earlier. The blood was just beginning to pool from underneath his jacket, which was flipped over his head. A bunch of Iraqi guys (my father is Assyrian) came out from bible study to pray over his body. The caucasian police officer lifted up the jacket and to my horror said: “Oh, it’s Swifty,” or whatever his nickname was, “No great loss to humanity. He’s been in and out of jail 50 times in the last year.”

A Mexican woman hung her head out of her second-story window and hollered, “Oh my God! Is that a BODY?” Two African-American women jumped out of a minivan. They’d witnessed the hit-and-run and chased the white Trans Am for blocks until they got the license plate. I stuck around for a while, stunned and aghast, and then went home to watch the 1997 version of Lolita, which ends in violent flames. The next morning I woke up to the porch of the building next door on fire. I took it as a sign. Bearing witness to all of this reinforced my identity as a Chicagoan and I knew it was the beginning of my professional journey.

After my apprenticeship, I went to a Jewish outfit in the suburbs. I learned a lot about tradition, attention to detail, and the importance of a good eulogy. But, like anything in life, you have to find the right and perfect fit, so I took some time off from the funeral industry. I worked for a high-end catering company, experience that has helped me tremendously as a funeral director. As a waiter at a wedding with the Rev. Al Green as the hired entertainment or bartending at a political fundraiser in someone’s home where Bill Clinton is the guest of honor, you’d better believe that attention to detail is high. Lift up my hair, you’ll find eyes in the back of my head.

Ten years ago I was on a road trip to a friend’s wedding in Vegas with my dear friend Penny, who has since passed away. This was before my fifth limb was a cell phone. After waking up at 3:00 p.m. the day after the wedding, I phoned my voicemail to find a message from Cremation Society of Illinois. It was worth the $4.25 a minute call from Caesar’s Palace to find my right and perfect job.

Cremation Society of Illinois makes the most sense to me as a potential consumer. We are the state leader in the field. Our services are not limited to cremation, but our goal is to perform efficient, affordable cremations without sacrificing dignity or respect. We own and operate our own cremation facility, so our clients have more control over the process.

The funeral industry is changing, based on the needs of savvy consumers and the ethnic make-up of our cities. 125 years ago, Chicago was 80% European immigrant. Add the early-to-mid 20th Century African-American and more recent Latino influxes, and we are still quite connected to our ethnic traditions. Out west, the cremation rates are much higher. But things are changing. In the 12 years since I’ve been licensed, the cremation rate in Illinois has increased by 10% and is now over 35%.

Chicago is such a segregated city and historically, ethnicities have tended to hire funeral professionals within their own community. Not so at Cremation Society of Illinois! We see an incredible array of humanity; ethnically, racially, economically, socially. From incredibly wealthy people, to those who don’t have two dimes to rub together, and all of those of us in between. We’ve cremated very well-known Chicagoans and regular joes.

Having attended Chicago Public Schools with a lot of different people from a lot of different backgrounds, I’ve received Facebook messages from people when their parents, grandparents, and even pets die. We do have a pet crematory.

3.  You are, as well as a funeral director, a celebrant. Can you explain a bit more about who celebrants are and what they do?

It’s not always appropriate for a clergy person to officiate at memorial service. Every one of us has a life story worth telling. As a celebrant, I research people’s lives and present those stories at memorial services, interspersed with poetry, music, multi-media presentations, other scheduled eulogists or open mics, and also scripture, as it’s appropriate. My services don’t shy away from metaphysical issues, while attempting to remain loyal to the decedent’s truth, as it is explained to me. It’s especially important to coordinate talking points with family members. A son may relate a cherished memory to me about his dad, but I’d better not share it if he plans to. It’s his story.

Coordinating memorial services as a celebrant is the most rewarding part of the job, as it is the most opportunity for creativity. It can also be the most challenging, if a decedent did not treat his family well or if a mother was emotionally distant from her children, but close with and compassionate towards everyone else in the world. People are endlessly and boundlessly fascinating.

For four years, as an adult, I lived with my paternal grandmother on Virginia Ave., so I’m used to talking with older people. Also, I’ve seen military honors maybe 200 times and it never fails to make the hair on my arms stand up.

4.  You are known for your fun and funky personal style.  What shops and boutiques in the area appeal to your sense of street chic?

Why thank you! Truthfully, I used to be able to take more chances with fashion. Given my profession, I’m always in the market for a sharp, well-fitted black suit. At the risk of sounding snobby, clothing needs to be well-made to do a woman over 40 justice. Solid seams and a lining, indeed!

I abhor paying full price and tend to scour sale racks and consignment shops. I can always find something at A Secret Closet on Lincoln Avenue. Great window displays and cute, random stuff. Traipse has shoes that make me drool. Truthfully, some of my best finds have come from clothing swaps and many of the participants do live in Lincoln Square.

Today’s fashions have all started to look the same. I do most of my clothing shopping on vacation. Toronto and San Francisco are favorites. My fantasy career is proprietress of  a local boutique filled with favorite small-scale designers from around the world, all culled from Etsy. Please, someone else do this!

5. Where you would send a newbie to Lincoln Square for the best breakfast, lunch, and dinner?

On the fly, I’ll hit The Grind for a coffee and a ginger-pear scone. Also, I’ve never had a bad sammich from Beans & Bagels. Their pastry chef, Jean Yves, makes the best croissants. He gets off work just as the rest of us are starting.

Brunch is my favorite meal. You can go sweet or savory. Plus if you’re eating at noon, you’re probably not working that day, so a Bloody Mary at Fork on Lincoln Ave. is in order. The Sassy Eggs at Over Easy on Damen is a delish and beautiful plate.

When we moved into our condo, I offered to buy the skinny hipster dudes from Starving Artist Movers lunch and they taught me of the wonders of Nhu Lan Bakery’s pork banh mi. They’ve got a variety of exotic dessert treats and it’s fun to just grab the prettiest one. It’s super-cheap, too.

I love the chicharrones from HarvesTime Grocery’s deli and thuringers w/sauerkraut are an annual GermanFest tradition.

We took my parents to Bistro Campagne for their 40th anniversary. We are a carnivorous family and my dad had never tried osso buco before. He still talks about it. I often find myself eating escargot their little bar. Plus they’ve always got an interesting bourbon cocktail.

My partner Bob is a chef and on the rare occasion that we are able to host a dinner party, I assure you we are eating the best meal in the greater Lincoln Square neighborhood.

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  • Audrey Smilgys

    Thanks so much for this article.  But where is “Rockwell Gardens”? I used to live on Winnemac and Rockwell, but never heard of that name before.  Also, one quick “correction”, Fork is not open for lunch during the week. :(

    • http://twitter.com/vouchey Mike Fourcher

      Rockwell Gardens is an old subdivision between Montrose and Lawrence, and between Rockwell and the river. You can find occasional masonry markers on corners with the name on it. Not an “official” neighborhood, but a name some developers from the 1920′s picked and managed to stick.

      • Audrey Smilgys

        Thanks for the info, I have seen those markers on the corners.

  • Pingback: Brooke Benjamin, Funeral Director – Center Square Journal | Euro Pastry

  • Regina Peixoto Vasquez

    I enjoyed this immensely. Brooke is a unique kind of person – she makes not just dying better, but living better!

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