Garry Howdle admits to being old-school.
As president and funeral director of the not-for-profit Serenity Funeral Service, he carries out the wishes of clients — the deceased person’s family — from weeks of mourning down to simple cremation in a pine box with no ritual, no mourning, no goodbyes.
Personally, he worries. He believes the growing lack of ritual, the “sanitization of death” has become avoidance of sadness, indeed, avoidance of death itself. He worries about an absence of psychological closure for those close to the deceased, comfort once provided by religious ritual.
Few businesses have been as impacted by changes in Canadian society as funeral service providers.
Forty years ago, Mom or Dad would pass on, the adult children gathered at a funeral home for evenings of prayers and viewing, often with an open casket. After a church funeral came a solemn procession to the graveyard, burial with all present, followed by tea and sandwiches.
Today, one’s head spins with the death options: Secular, religious, cremation (reducing the body to ashes through burning), burial, funeral with casket, funeral without casket, no funeral , a memorial service with prayers, or a gathering to celebrate a life well-led without reference to God. Or nothing at all — just cremation.
Much depends on tradition, ethnicity and religious belief. Today’s funeral rites are intertwined with family complexity, with movement away from church, temple, mosque and synagogue. Many of today’s baby boomers are the first seniors never exposed, their entire lives, to organized religion.
Demographics, Howdle suggests, provide insight. In general: Those over 80 want a traditional funeral; those 60 to 80 are challenging tradition; those 40 to 60 are far less religious, less culturally oriented and oft-married — all tending to informal cremation at death. Those under 40 are almost fighting tradition, suggests Howdle, ignoring or rejecting historical family values.
Still: In Greater Edmonton, some 8,000 people die every year. Something has to be done with human remains — in keeping with the laws of the land.
Years ago, five or six funeral homes handled most of the business. Families laid successive generations to rest through one funeral home.
There’s still the “carriage trade”, i.e. full-service multi-generational family-owned funeral homes. In Edmonton, Park Memorial and Connelly-McKinley come to mind.
But today, 15 funeral companies — many with multiple locations — vie for the business. The price can range from $1,000 for a simple cremation, to $35,000. The average, suggests Howdle, is about $12,000 for a funeral and burial, $6,000 for funeral and cremation.
In the ’90s, most independents were bought by multinational funeral companies such as SCI and Arbor. But then independents grew their market share by buying up other local funeral homes.
Funeral homes differentiate themselves by price and services. There are deep-discount, no-frills funeral homes, funeral homes with their own graveyards, funeral homes catering to ethnic communities or Christian denominations, funeral homes with their own chapels, with in-house crematoriums.
Serenity Funeral Service is a not-for-profit society with 135 church members, its board made up of representatives of those churches. “We’re a hybrid,” says Garry, “middle of the pack in terms of services and costs.”
This notion of “sanitized death” intrigues and saddens many funeral home directors.
In many mainstream churches, funerals have become memorial services, the body having been cremated or buried beforehand. “To me, it’s like a wedding without the couple,” says Howdle. “Or baptism without the child.”
More and more, it’s no muss, no fuss. “It’s as if (adult) children don’t want to mourn the passing of parents. Death is an inconvenience,” says Garry.
Some seniors themselves don’t want funerals or wakes — especially when there’s no belief in an after-life. “How many times,” points out Howdle, “does an obituary say, ‘No service, by dad and the family’s request’?”
Not talked about is the weakening of family ties created by distance, fewer siblings, little contact with both immediate and extended families. “Often,” says Howdle, “the adult children have no idea where their mom was born, don’t know her maiden name.”
As societal norms keep pushing death further from reality through sanitization and in the name of sadness avoidance, you do have to wonder about societal implications.
While researching this column, I walked by one of Serenity’s two crematoriums.
In the simplest of containers, corpses were lined up, each awaiting its turn: Dust to dust, ashes to ashes. At the end, these people had no friends, no family to offer a final goodbye.
How very, very sad.