For me, mortuaries have always been a subject of fascination. Fortunately, I haven’t yet been put into the situation where I’ve had to familiarize myself with the industry or its inner workings. I have no post-mortem mindfulness and zero funeral knowledge. The prospect of entering into a frightening realm of quick decisions in a moment of weakness leaves me unsettled. What am I required to do when the inevitable day of loss arrives? Who are the people trained to help walk me through those undoubtedly surreal moments? These aren’t exactly things that get brought up over coffee, so I decided to go straight to the source for some after-life advice.

I interviewed a director at a local funeral home. To my relief, it wasn’t as cold and eerie as I had expected. In fact, I was immediately impressed by a tidy, wonderfully furnished environment. Stained-glass windows complimented beautiful hardwood floors, and I was given a warm welcome from the staff. They even gave me coffee and a cookie. Jim, who’s name has been changed for privacy, sat down with me to answer my questions about—well, corpses.

Q: So, let’s get right to it. Why have a funeral?

A: We all have inherited as part of our makeup, an inherent sense of loss whenever we lose a friend, associate, or someone we love. We laugh, cry, and tell jokes about the individual who passed away and to remember them. That’s why there are many tags you can use, whether it’s “celebration of life,” “gathering,” or even “barbeque.”

Q: Barbecue?

A: We’ve had beer and barbecue nights right here in the chapel. The funeral is not for the deceased, but rather for those who are still living.

Q: So, there are different types of funerals then.

A: Yes. The most important component to the service is the reflection of the individual. If the person was, say, a regular at a pub, enjoyed wings and a beer every Thursday night, and that’s where his social network was—then why not have the service there? My comment to families quite often is “I want you to own this. This is your memory.”

Q: It sounds a lot less formal and strict than I imagined it to be. So people can create their own custom services then?

A: Yes. For example, an individual who spent over 50 years in Scouts, we set up a campsite in the chapel, with a tent, trees, and everything. We provide options for families, and they put together what they want. 10 years from now, that family will be telling their grandchild about their loved ones, and hopefully it will be a positive memory.

It was remarkable to hear the lengths that Jim and his company will go to for a memorable experience. As it turns out, many funeral homes provide themes that a family can choose from. Was the deceased a traveller? Go with a service featuring maps, postcards, and vacation photos. Musician? There’s a service that provides everyone with a CD or DVD of their live performances. Whether the individual was a food lover or sports fan, there are options to make the service meaningful and appropriate.

I wouldn’t have felt like a true investigative journalist if I didn’t ask Jim about the odd requests he had surely encountered. He told me that they happen all the time: “Could you put a smile on dad? Can you have dad with thumbs up in his casket?” Both were requests that his funeral home had accommodated.

Being so wrapped up in our conversation, I completely missed the opportunity to quench my coffin curiosities. I set up another interview right away. This time, I spoke with Brent, Funeral Director at Telford’s Cremation and Burial Centre in Nanaimo.

He showed me a variety of caskets, urns, and coffins. Having never been up close to one before, I marvelled at the obvious craftsmanship that went into their construction. He showed me his favorite: the glossy black Hercules, a dazzling vessel to chariot the deceased into the afterlife.

Q: Take me through the process of what happens when someone passes away.

A: It all depends on the cause, place, and nature of the death. If it’s unexpected, the body will usually be taken to a morgue. Once the coroner’s office and police have satisfied their investigation, the family or next of kin would be asked which funeral home the body should be released to.  

Q: You have a solid selection of urns and coffins here. How does a family decide on one?

A: It’s all about connection with a family. First Nations families come in and we actually have what we call a Paddle Handle Cedar, which connects them to their culture and what they believe in. We try to keep our costs down to avoid hardships on a family. It’s not about how much the casket is, but about the value to the family.

Q: So there’s definitely a custom element in making a decision.

A: It sounds weird, but it’s kind of like buying a car. You have a conversation with the families about the deceased. Was there a connection to a color? A type of material? For a gentleman who was a welder, we had a metal casket with a special welded design on it that represented him. Or maybe someone would see a rose on an urn, and they love it because their mother had roses in their garden.

Q: How did you become interested in your profession?

A: I was terrified of death when I was a kid. Even empty caskets freaked me out. I wasn’t able to cope with death, but the gentlemen who originally started our company asked me to help him with transferring a young deceased person into our care. When we arrived at the home, the mother wouldn’t let us take the deceased, and she actually lunged at me. I gave her a big hug for about 15 minutes. She looked at me and said, “Okay, you can take my son.” It helped her, and it helped me. It made me overcome my fears because I realized I could help people.

I felt inspired after Brent told me his story of self-actualization. This was truly a calling for him, and we talked a bit more about the types of personalities you encounter in the industry. He told me that outside of his work as a funeral director, he actually works as both a magician and a comedic public speaker for events.

Both Brent and Jim had an unbelievably calming presence. I felt safe and comfortable talking to them as they answered my inquiries and dispelled my misconceptions. Regrettably, I still have countless questions for morticians, but was unable to find any to speak with—I wasn’t granted access to the morgue in either of the funeral homes I visited. Turns out it’s not easy making a cold-call to a cold-room, and there is certification required to even enter one.

In the end, my experience wasn’t grey, grim, or cold at all. While the original intent of my research was to satisfy my own morbid curiosities, I hope that the information I gathered will shed light for anyone still in the dark on what happens after the death of someone we love and care about. While I don’t necessarily have any inherent fear to meet my maker, this undertaking has brought me comfort in knowing that I’ll be in good hands when I check out.