While today's fashion shoot showcases our pal Brandy McDonald's ability to transform lively, living live models into several-days-old cadavers via the power of makeup, it got us thinking about the men and women who do the reverse for a living. Morticians.
Toronto’s Humber College is the only school in Ontario that offers a full Funeral Service Education course in English, so we figured it was the best place to find out about the funeral-director scene. That’s what they like to be called, BTW. Not “undertaker” or “mortician.” Oh, crap. Sorry.
Vice: So why did you want to become a funeral director?
Jess Hanlon, Funeral Service student: Because it's different from any other job out there, and way more rewarding than most people think.
So it's not just your latent obsession with death and dying?
No, there's usually more interaction with the families involved than with the person who's actually died. We're informal grief counselors, who also prepare a person so their family can view them for the last time in a dignified way.
How do people generally react when you tell them that you’re a funeral director?
It depends, most people just change the subject once I tell them what I do. Obviously there's a general discomfort surrounding death in our culture. But recently people have become warmer to the subject. I only ever tell people as much as they actually ask about, and if they're uncomfortable I change the subject
And you’re OK with the discomfort?
It comes with the territory.
Tell me about your program, what kind of courses do you take?
The program is pretty intense actually, it's basically a two-year course packed into one, followed by a year-long apprenticeship at a funeral home. In class we take anatomy, embalming lab, embalming theory, orientation to funeral services, ethical actions in funeral services, and English and humanities. The courses mainly deal with all practical and legislative concerns we'd have with being a funeral director.
What are these practical and legislative concerns?
Well the practical aspect refers to things like what specific chemicals to use when dealing with certain types of death, and legislation covers stuff like what advertising we're allowed to do, the layout of the prep rooms, and so on. We're one of the most heavily legislated programs out there
Where do you work?
I work for a transfer service that services both funeral homes and the city coroner's office, so any coroner's call in the city we'll handle, as well as any funeral homes needing help.
When you get a call, do you go to the actual site of the death and bring them to the morgue or funeral home?
Creepy. What were the other people in your program like?
This year there were 140 of us. Some were better students than others, and some were clearly better off with the embalming part than working with families, or vice versa. There's a diversity that you'd find in any large program--we're all pretty laid back and like to party though.
Well I obviously wouldn't call anyone in my program or profession "weirdo". That's generally a misconception that the media has given us, unfairly
I mean they tend to capture the gory and creepy side to our profession. They don't focus on the men and women who work 14 hours on an embalming, and then agree to stay on an extra two to set up a room right for a family. That part isn't sensational enough. The perspective has been changing though, which is good. As for funeral directors in general, we're all pretty normal people. Nobody wants to entrust their departed loved ones to a creep.
What about the embalming aspect of your job, do girls fare better in that regard? I have long assumed it would be more a boys' domain, on account of girls finding it "icky."
Girls are tougher than you think. We're also pretty good with cosmetics, although I've seen some men that are amazing too--my program director being one of them. I know many women trade embalmers, as well as female directors who deal with family directly. Women have recently started coming in to our profession in great numbers. I don't know why, but we seem to do well.
What was it like the first time you embalmed a body? That would give me the boo-boo-jeebies something awful.
The first time was when I was doing the 40-hour observance that's required to get into the program. I was a little nervous going in, but everyone was really professional, and it made it easier
I imagine you saw some pretty difficult things, do they teach you any tips or give you advice on how to not get overwhelmed?
Not really, if you can handle what you see, then great, if you can't then you're in the wrong profession.
What’s the grossest thing you’ve ever seen?
I can’t comment on that.
Besides the actual embalming process, you have to dress them up and make them up, how much input do you usually get from the families on that?
Families bring in a suit or a favorite article of clothing, and usually a recent picture so we can try and match cosmetics as closely as possible. If mom had a particular shade of lipstick she was fond of we'll get the family to bring it in. That sort of stuff.
Was there ever an instance where a family asked you do something odd or out of the ordinary?
Well we make an effort to personalize funerals, so while we have a lot of traditional services, sometimes family members will bring in memorabilia specific to their loved one. We've had four wheelers, porcelain cows, canoes--really, anything goes. It's their funeral
A porcelain cow coffin?
Ha ha, no a big cow set up as a display in the corner. The deceased was in a regular casket on the other side of the visitation room
So what are the best and worst things about being a funeral director?
The best thing I would say is obvious, and that's the feeling you get from doing a job right, and helping the family in any way that you can. The worst thing is probably when you drop the ball in any way--you just feel awful when that happens. And parking lot duty, that sucks.
Parking lot duty?
Yeah, we have to direct cars when they're coming for a visitation. It's extremely important because it's a person's first impression of the funeral home. A lot of times it’s cold, or raining, or both, but we have to be out there looking dignified and composed, no matter what.
Interview by Fabio Kim