Ever since he was a small boy in Pennington, Max Orland loved music. After graduating Hopewell Valley Central High School, he became a music major at New York University, where he concentrated on composing for musical theater.
“In music we deal with highs and lows, dynamics, and emotional intensity,” he said. “In my line of work we also deal constantly with highs and lows and emotional intensity.”
His line of work, however, is not music. Orland is director of Orland’s Ewing Memorial Chapel, representing the third generation of a family-owned business begun in 1962.
His initial aspirations were indeed focused on using his musical talents. “When I left little old New Jersey for New York with stars in my eyes, I thought for sure I would become a professional musician,” he told NJJN. “But the people I worked with didn’t have a lot of stability when they were young, and I knew that wasn’t for me. So during my last two years of college, it started to dawn on me that there was a job I had always thought I would be doing.”
That job was at the memorial chapel, his father’s business, where Max had worked part-time since he became bar mitzva 11 years ago.
After college he attended the American Academy McAllister Institute of Funeral Service in New York and is licensed both nationally and by the state of New Jersey.
But long before that he started on the bottom rung of the profession, doing what he called “small jobs at funerals, like holding doors and serving as a pallbearer. Maybe it was wearing the fancy clothes, or it was just easier to work for my dad. But I found the job suited my personality. I like working with people,” he said.
“I graduated from pallbearer to hearse driver. But I wasn’t involved in the death part of it at that early age,” said Orland.
His memory of handling bodies of the deceased “is a little hazy now. I did this in high school. Now I remind myself that to me this is a routine thing, but to the family he or she was a live person.”
He was raised as a member of the Reform Har Sinai Temple in Pennington. As a funeral director, Orland has learned the intricacies of serving the special needs and rituals of all parts of the Jewish community, and beyond.
“The vast majority of the families that come to us are Jewish, but we serve all communities,” he said. And although his funeral home has personal relationships with all of the rabbis in the area, sometimes his clients’ families may choose to deviate from standard religious practices.
“Our feeling is the service should reflect the wishes of the survivors, period. My father and I always urge families to make their wishes clear so that we are able to honor them to the fullest,” he said.
Neither Max nor his father, Joel Orland, the chapel’s senior director, know the concept of an eight-hour work day.
“The most challenging part of the job is that the work follows you wherever you go.” he said. “We are on call 24/7. There is no hope for separating your work and your private life.”
But apart from the unpredictable hours he must work, Orland said, his profession does not pose any problems for his social life.
“People aren’t weirded out by my being a funeral director,” he said. “I thought it would be an issue in meeting women. But I gotta tell you, it hasn’t been a problem. People aren’t so squeamish about the idea of what I do.”
Orland acknowledged that he sees “some very sad things in his work. People ask me if I get sad. Of course I do. I am somewhat desensitized because I am around death all the time.”
However, he added, “if it is a young person, that will really rip me up; but the truth is most of my time is spent with the survivors.”
His two older brothers have chosen far different paths. The eldest, Michael, age 32, is an emergency room physician at the University of Maryland Health System. The middle one, Brian, 29, lives in Indonesia, where he is an environmental scientist.
Their father is pleased that Max is carrying the business into its third generation.
“My dad started the firm 52 years ago and my son coming in is just wonderful,” Joel told NJJN. “People like him, he likes what he is doing, and he is very kind and compassionate.”
Might the younger Orland want his own son or daughter to follow his footsteps into the family business? “I never thought about it,” he confessed. “I’ve got to meet the right woman first.”