In April 1986, a New York-based funeral director named Alexandra Mosca was featured in a pictorial that balanced smoldering physical beauty with the black implication of mortality. Mosca wanted to show that even the industry of death can be a home for sensuality and allure. Just because someone is around death all day doesn’t mean they can’t feel alive, right?

Mosca continues to work in the funeral business to this day. She has written a memoir about her career in deadly affairs (and her experience posing for Playboy, in a chapter entitled “Death Takes a Holiday”), and last month saw the release of her book Gardens of Stone, about New York’s most notable gravesites. Here, she shares some anecdotes from the shoot (including a cautionary tale about camera-shy cats) and muses on the surprising lessons and connections that have resulted from her Playboy experience.

How did you come across the opportunity to pose for Playboy magazine?
I had often seen the magazine (in fact, it came to the funeral home where I worked at the time) and thought the photographs were glamorous and beautiful, but I had not considered posing. I did, however, query them about writing an article about my work. They nixed the article but asked if I’d be interested in sending some photos to gauge my Playmate potential. I was not interested as I had just begun my career as a funeral director. A few years later Playboy began featuring women in pictorials who had out-of-the-ordinary careers. My dear friend Peter Provenzano, a local New York City artist, suggested I submit a few photographs to Playboy. Peter believed I had a natural ability to pose in front of the camera. For a number of years I had served as his portrait model and I also belonged to a modeling agency in New York. I was reluctant to contact Playboy because the funeral industry is very conservative and tradition-bound. But Peter took it upon himself to write them and send along some of his photos of me. Frankly, I didn’t expect a response and was quite surprised when Playboy contacted me. Before I knew it, I was on my way to Chicago for some test shots. After a few weeks, photo editor Jeff Cohen called to tell me the magazine was interested in doing a photo spread. I was thrilled and at the same time apprehensive.

Any good anecdotes from the shoot?
There’s an expression that you can’t herd cats. That was certainly the case during my shoot. Playboy brought in a few black cats as props for the set. However, the cats had minds of their own and wouldn’t take direction from photographer Pompeo Posar no matter how hard he tried. They scampered all over the room while we laughed.

How did Playboy benefit your business?
Some of my colleagues who initially encouraged me to “go for it” feigned shock and wouldn’t have business dealings with me for a time. A few even spread the word to clergy in a mean-spirited way. Once after a funeral, a priest told me that some funeral directors had disparaged me because of my posing for Playboy. He thought their gossip was unkind and assured me he would still work with me. In time, the negative reaction receded and things returned to normal. After all, the majority of the families I served were not Playboy readers and even if they had been, I doubt they would have recognized me in my professional attire. Two sisters who did know—who I eventually became close friends with—thought it was something their late father would have chuckled at. “Look who we got to bury you, Dad,” they joked after the funeral. Despite dire predictions that my career in such a conservative industry would be over because of my posing for Playboy, my career thrived. Not only did I continue to serve families; I also embarked upon a second career as a writer, producing three books and numerous articles. In my first book, Grave Undertakings, a memoir about my career as a funeral director, I devoted an entire chapter to my experience with Playboy, titled “Death Takes a Holiday.” Over time, I developed a niche, profiling notable cemeteries and the funerals of famous people. My latest book Gardens of Stone [about the cemeteries of New York City] was published in October.

Would you agree that to be truly alive you have to be close to death?
There’s nothing like feeling one’s own mortality to make a person feel exhilaratingly alive. In my life I am literally close to death each and every day. That vantage point compels me to live life boldly and to the fullest.

Had you always been comfortable enough in your body to be nude in a public forum, or did you discover that about yourself?
While I had modeled some in New York and worked as a portrait model, I had never posed nude. Still, I had a certain comfort in front of camera because of my previous posing experiences. Only after arriving in Chicago for the test shots and experiencing the level of comfort in the photo sessions did I begin to feel at ease with posing in the nude. I cannot stress enough how professional everyone associated with the photoshoot was. The nudity became secondary to getting an artistic shoot.

What advice would you have to anyone who might be interested in a shoot such as this?
I would advise them to go for it. The experience can be life-changing and fulfilling. There were many life lessons I learned from my Playboy experience. It gave me the confidence to face challenges, to not shy away from controversy, and not to be afraid of being judged. Let’s face it: We’re all judged throughout life—good or bad—in some way. If you put yourself out there and take risks by doing something out of the ordinary, you may be criticized. On the other hand, you may reap rewards. Being involved with Playboy has made me feel to this day that I will always be part of an exclusive club of women. A colleague of mine who handled a funeral for a Rockette said, “Once a Rockette, always a Rockette.” He went on to say to me that I would always be known as a Playboy model. That part of my life will likely find its way into my obituary and in that sense make me an indelible part of pop culture.

In the interview, you remarked that you weren’t too fond of feminism. Is this still how you feel?
To this day I still don’t consider myself a feminist. However, people have pointed out that I am in fact a true feminist because I forged a career path in what was at the time a male–dominated field and have always been independent and self-sufficient. But despite posing nude I remain an old-fashioned and traditional woman.

Which of the featured pictures was your favorite?
The one that was backlit was my favorite. For a start I loved the way my hair looked and how perfect the makeup was. My gaze showed a directness and confidence. The entire composition of the photo emphasized a subtle sensuality.

How has your perspective on your career evolved over time? 
My lengthy career as a funeral director is what has always given me perspective and direction. When one sees what I see on a daily basis, it is easy to count your blessings. I am keenly aware of the passage of time because as a funeral director I care for those who have run out of time. That heightened awareness of time being finite is what makes me try to make the most of every fabulous and fun opportunity that presents itself—like posing for Playboy.

Find Alexandra’s complete pictorial on iPlayboy.