The Bartender Who Quit Cocktails to Become a Mortician

Danielle Hengge in her bartending days. Photo: Daniel Hengge

When, early last year, the pandemic caused mass layoffs in the hospitality industry, many unemployed workers found themselves with an unanticipated opportunity to shift careers or go back to school to pursue a deferred or long-held dream. One such worker was Danielle Hengge, who had helped start a liquor company called Barrow’s Intense and was bartending at Butter & Scotch before the restaurant shutdown. Now, she’s pursuing a new career helping people whose loved ones have passed away, attending the American Academy McAllister Institute, a Manhattan school focused on mortuary science. I spoke to her about why she made this change, her last days in the restaurant industry, and what motivated her to go to mortician school.

This is the most interesting career change I’ve spoken to anyone about. Before we talk about funeral homes, can you tell me about bartending?
I originally started working at Butter & Scotch because I had helped start a liquor company back in 2013. They’re still thriving, but I needed a change, and I had met Allison and Keavy through this company, and I really loved them. So I asked if I could come work for them. That was in 2018.

Honestly, it got to a point with the liquor company where the thing that we needed most was to focus on sales, and I am not a salesperson. I really hate all of that. I was originally doing all of our production, making all the booze. I had hired two employees to take over production so I could put on some more hats: run events, be the production manager, brand ambassador, you name it. It was a lot of jobs all in one.

Life is full of exciting twists in that way. You think you’re doing one thing and end up spending your time doing something you didn’t ever want to do.
Totally. It wasn’t something that made me happy at the time. Sales feels so soul-sucking to me, so I decided to part ways. I wanted to stay within the industry because I had built this community within it.

Okay, then you worked for Keavy and Allison until the restaurant shutdown?
I worked for them until the pandemic hit. My last shift was on a Sunday. Everything shut down that Tuesday, March 17, and then I think it was Wednesday night I ended up in the hospital, actually, non-COVID-related. So that was quite an experience.

Okay, yeah, that sounds like an anxiety-inducing event.
Yeah, it was crazy. The worst part, I ended up in the hospital due to internal bleeding, and I honestly thought that I was going to die that night. I literally crawled into the hospital. I didn’t have any shoes on.

That’s really scary. I’m glad you’re okay.
Thank you. This past year has been crazy. My dad died in April, you know, so life has been a little weird. He got diagnosed with pancreatic cancer a week before the pandemic hit, and then we lost him almost exactly a year later.

Was this what made you think about going to mortician school? Or did you think about the transition, pardon me, from nightlife to the afterlife before 2020?
I had been thinking about it for years, but just trying to survive in New York — you’re constantly in that rat race and just trying to make enough money to support yourself. It’s hard to make big decisions like that, especially one as financially draining as school. As much as I thought about it in the past, going back to school in your 30s also sounded scary. I wanted to apply for the fall semester of 2020, but I was still so nervous about taking that leap of faith, so I didn’t start until January.

The pandemic was the first opportunity I had to be able to have a moment to myself to say, This is something that I’m really passionate about and I think I can do a lot of good. I decided to just take the leap.

It was definitely a hard decision, because for seven to eight years I had dedicated my life to the bartending world. That was my community of people. It was tough to change to something that is not only unfamiliar to me but I think unfamiliar to everyone in our society, because no one likes to talk about death. It’s something that we avoid, and a lot of people don’t know anything about it.

You’re the first person I’ve spoken to who is going into this line of work. What made you first think about doing this?
Since I was very young, I’ve had a lot of death in my life, and I always felt comfortable around it. At some point later on, I started becoming very interested in mourning practices, and was collecting Victorian mourning things such as this hair jewelry. I also, typical New Yorker, wear all black all the time. It was something that Queen Victoria did once her husband Albert died. She wore mourning clothes until the day she died. I felt very connected to that.

For most of my life I’ve dealt with anxiety and depression and have worked through a lot of that. I felt like with so much of this darkness, and death is such a dark and scary thing, that I could be someone who could bring some light to it for other people. I think I’m generally a pretty disarming person, and that I can talk about death in a way that makes other people comfortable.

I don’t want to assume our experiences are comparable, but I had two friends who committed suicide in high school, and in 2016 I lost two of my childhood friends. I can relate to what you’re saying in the sense that I have become very comfortable talking with people about death, loss, and addiction. 
Over the last year, we’ve experienced so much loss and so much change in so many ways. It could’ve been someone you lost due to COVID. I experienced the loss of my dad, but I also gained a lot of things, as well. I think that due to all of these losses and sacrifices that we made, this was also something that I felt.

Honestly, for most of last year I had a really good year. I had a minute to breathe. It was really fucking great, but it was really hard as well. To have the opportunity to get into an industry that I’d already been interested in, that deals with so much loss — it made sense to me.

A lot of people don’t realize not only how hard it is to become a funeral director — that work is just as hard as bartending. You have so much of the psychological, emotional, and physical aspects that are very demanding, but it’s also a job that requires you to work 24/7, 365. You have to complete two to three years of school. You have to pass your national boards. You have to embalm a minimum of ten bodies before you graduate. You have to do a one-year residency. Everything about it is hard, and then add the pandemic on top of that. Funeral homes couldn’t take any more bodies in. But a big part of why I was interested is because of the shift toward more young women entering the field. Also, just changing attitudes about death and death practices in this country.

Okay, before we go any further, let’s get one important question out of the way. Growing up, one of my favorite shows was Six Feet Under. Are you already tired of being asked about that show?
I’m rewatching it now. Being so far from when it aired, I’m still like, Wow, there are so many aspects of the show that were phenomenal.

I think people might look at the leap from working in bars to going to mortician school as unusual or unconnected. I can see the link if you are motivated by wanting to take care of people.
Honesty, I think bartending is the most applicable job to any other career or job you could do. Especially this one. When you’re working in a funeral home, you’re not just doing one job. You’re not just talking with families to counsel them on services when a loved one has passed. It’s also cleaning the bathroom sometimes, the printer is jammed, the pipes flooded the basement. You have a person who is very upset and unruly. There are so many different aspects that are also very similar to bartending.

In restaurants and bars, you may find yourself dealing with difficult people. In funeral homes, you’re dealing with people going through difficult experiences.
You have to be prepared for any sort of situation. Bartending is definitely something that does this for you.

You spoke about your interest in mourning rituals. Something that stuck out to me during the pandemic is how hard it was for people who didn’t get to grieve in community, who didn’t get those rituals.
Oh, absolutely. Baseline memorial services and funerals are really important for the grieving process, and due to COVID, people couldn’t grieve in the same ways that they had previously done. They were isolated. We weren’t allowed to say good-bye to our loved ones in the way we previously had. Because I’m so interested in mourning practices, I also was considering how important it was for people to find ways to mourn and grieve but couldn’t do it with their families at a service, at a funeral. I had spoken to some friends who had lost people this year. I tried to help them or remind them that these are still important things to do. I think it’s also a beautiful way to create new rituals.

The Bartender Who Quit Cocktails to Become a Mortician