Death is something most of us dread, both for ourselves and those we love. For some, a funeral can be draining or provide closure. For others, it means facing grief in a way that might otherwise be avoided.
It’s ironic that one of the city’s oldest and most vital industries is one the general public only engages with sporadically, at the worst of times. But those who work in the industry are steeped in the climate of grief. They serve the needs of mourning families and the larger community, all while juggling the day-to-day tasks of running a business.
The number of funeral homes per capita is higher in Winnipeg than in most Canadian cities. The Funeral Board of Manitoba lists 25 licensed funeral homes in Winnipeg. By comparison, the Alberta Funeral Services Regulatory Board lists 23 licensed homes in Calgary and 21 in Edmonton, despite those cities having significantly higher populations than Winnipeg.
In addition to high numbers, some of Winnipeg’s funeral homes are among the city’s oldest, most iconic businesses. Bardal Funeral Home on Sherbrook Street, for instance, has been around since 1894 and boasts the title of “Winnipeg’s oldest family-owned funeral home.”
Thomson Funeral Home on Broadway traces its roots back to 1879, when John Thomson founded an undertaking parlour originally located at the intersection of James Street and Main. The business has operated in one form or another almost as long as the city itself, and they’ve handled the burial services of such historical Winnipeggers as Louis Riel (whose cause of death was described on his death certificate as “Hung [Rebel leader]”).
Donna Olson, the location manager for Thomson Funeral Home and Thomson in the Park, says many aspects of the funeral business have changed significantly over the course of their 137 years in operation.
“We used to have a large selection room for caskets,” Olson explains. “Caskets used to have to be brought in from out in the country, and when we started, this was the edge of the city.”
Rock Fontaine, an independent funeral director with 32 years of experience in the industry, says working with grieving individuals requires a particular demeanor and emotional sensitivity.
“There’s a lot of opportunity to become sad or depressed,” Fontaine explains. “When it comes to the person who does well in this business, it’s the person who’s not selfish. If you’re here just for the money, it’s going to show.
“Being selfless in this job gives you the opportunity to go the extra mile. When you’re selfless for people in that difficult time and you experience their gratitude, it’s not just a job. It becomes a calling.”
Olson grew up with family in the funeral business, which helped prepare her for working in the field.
“I think it helped me, growing up around what is such an uncomfortable part of life,” she says. “Being accustomed to those emotions makes you comfortable. It helps build empathy, and in this business, you need to be empathetic.”
A personal undertaking
The experience of those in the industry differs from that of the general public in other ways. Olson says that, in addition to services and burials, a huge part of her job is dealing with technology, cultural shifts and financial planning.
“We’ve done things like focus groups to find out how to make the experience relevant for families,” she explains.
“If we’re helping someone whose dad has passed away, and we’re choosing music and flowers, we need to ask, ‘What is relevant to dad’s life?’ Flowers might be less important than having apple pie or a barbecue. It’s about finding that, implementing it and executing it so it’s relevant to the family.”
Olson recalls one family who chose not to have a body or ashes at their grandmother’s funeral, opting instead to use her signature rocking chair and knitting tools as the focal point of the service. In another case, the deceased was an avid outdoorsman. The centrepiece of his service was his kayak, with an urn built into the boat itself.
Olson also places an emphasis on preparing clients while they’re still alive to ensure their families aren’t left scrambling. Guide books let clients record information about their life and plan for their death.
“It’s another form of estate planning,” she explains. “It’s similar to other forms of financial planning, like saving for a car, your kids’ education or your retirement.”
However, Fontaine and Olson both stress the importance of ensuring the family fulfills their own wishes, not just those of the deceased.
“I found that, after I lost my dad, I became a better funeral director,” Fontaine says. “I was no longer hearing what it was like to lose someone close. I was in the trenches. It gave me a little more bravery. In the past, if someone would say, ‘Mom wanted cremation, no service,’ I’d just say, ‘Fine.’ But now I’ll say, ‘Let’s talk about what the deceased wanted as well as what you want to see. Lay out all the options, then you decide.’
“I don’t want them to think of it as a sales pitch, but it’s not the deceased who feel the pain of death - it’s the living, and funerals are for them.”
Rethinking the chapel
Fontaine has taken a novel approach to his business. Rather than operating a physical funeral chapel, he bills himself as “the funeral director that comes to you.” He’s used this model since 1994 and says it arose from a practical need he saw in families.
“I worked in funeral homes from 1984 to ‘94,” he explains.
“(The funeral chapel) was always home base. That’s where we did all the planning, where many of the services were done. On many occasions, after a funeral, a family I’d been working with would be expressing their gratitude and ask if I would come to their home afterwards for their celebration lunch or dinner. I wanted to but was told by management, ‘Get the hell back here, there’s more work to do.’ The few times I did go, I was reprimanded.”
Fontaine says that institutional dis-connect was a personal wake-up call.
“I realized my service was more than bringing the family into my environment, holding their hand through the planning and executing that plan. They wanted and needed a bit more of my time, a couple of hours for me to come into their environment.”
In addition to adding a personal touch, eliminating a physical chapel was an opportunity to save families money.
“(At funeral homes) I was doing all kinds of maintenance and spending money on a building that we were only using 50 per cent of the time,” Fontaine says. With the cost of that maintenance being hoisted onto clients, Fontaine thought it better to hold funerals in families’ churches and other community gathering places.
“About half of people were already having their funerals (in their own places of worship) anyway,” he says. “It’s also a way to inject people into community. When I tell a pastor that someone in their community has passed away and they’d like to do the funeral with them, they’re grateful for the opportunity.”
Fontaine isn’t the only funeral director whose business sprung from a community need. When Tony Kozak founded Aboriginal Funeral Chapel on Selkirk Avenue in 1991, he was inspired by the particular needs of Indigenous clients from remote northern communities.
“Often when a death occurs in northern communities, the remains are flown into Winnipeg for autopsies or other services,” explains current owner Peter Kilcollins. “Other times, they’ve come here for treatment, and the death occurs in the city. In many cases, families will have a service in Winnipeg for those from the community who live in the city and can’t make it home for services.”
Before the Aboriginal Funeral Chapel opened, Indigenous mourners from northern communities had difficulty finding accommodations in Winnipeg.
“There were really no funeral homes in those days that were open past nine o’clock at night,” he says. “For Indigenous families, wakes can last long into the night. Families would have to move to community halls or other venues.”
Kilcollins has also made the already fast-moving funeral planning process move even faster.
“For people from remote communities, the longer they have to be in town making arrangements, the more they need to pay for meals and accommodations,” he explains.
Their services were of particular importance because of a long-running lack of funeral homes in northern Indigenous communities. The scarcity is so severe that the Winnipeg chapel - the first of its kind in the country - serves families from Saskatchewan and northwest Ontario as well as Manitoba.
“Up until recently, there were no other facilities (serving remote Indigenous communities),” Kilcollins says. “Norway House Cree Nation just built their own funeral home (in 2013), where they’re educating people to be embalmers and funeral directors. I’ve said for years that Island Lake needs a similar facility.”
The Winnipeg question
With so many funeral services in Winnipeg serving diverse needs, the question needs to be asked: why does Winnipeg have so many funeral homes? What about our city inspires these types of businesses to thrive?
“I think it could have something to do with the entrepreneurial spirit in Winnipeg,” Olson says. “Winnipeggers really feel like they can thrive and succeed. A lot of people feel like they can make a difference in the community.”
But Fontaine sees the situation as less sunny.
“The funeral business is stretched,” he says. “They are stressed, and I believe financially they are crunched. Not only is this little bit of business spread out among all these funeral directors, but … we’re not New York. It’s a blue collar city. People do want to have a celebration, but they don’t want to sell the farm to the funeral director.
“It is bizarre. It befuddles me why this city does have so many funeral homes, because I know the little guys are hurting.”
Published in Volume 71, Number 7 of The Uniter (October 20, 2016)