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An Undertaker’s Life:
Photographer views the funeral industry
through the eyes of his father
The life of a small town funeral director is unlike any other job. Literally, the job is your life; 24 hours a day, 365 days of the year. When you’re not actively engaged in funeral service you are on call; you are planning what you have to do or thinking about what you’ve just been through. It’s relentless.
Funeral director Richard Paul’s early years were spent growing up in an apartment above the business; a funeral home that was owned by his father and his father before him. The work, the life, is bred in his bones.
There was a transition from just being the son of a small town undertaker to Paul becoming conscious that the business dominated their family life in general. In an instant, family meals, family events, family vacations could be changed by a phone call – an area resident died and there was nothing to be done, but for his father to get up from the table, or cancel the activity, and attend to that family’s needs.
It was not the way he wanted to live his life.
While in university, studying to become a teacher, a Psych 101 course introduced him to the concept of grief psychology. He experienced a 180 degree turn in his appreciation of the work his father and grandfather did for their community.
Paul’s career as a school teacher was interrupted in the middle of his second year by the news that his father, at age 49, had terminal cancer. He had to decide whether he would continue teaching or, at his father’s request, carry on the family tradition.
Paul chose the latter and completed two more years of education at Humber College to become a licensed funeral director. Two years after his father’s death, Paul returned to his hometown to take over as the third generation serving the area’s bereavement needs.
There is so much a funeral director does that the public doesn’t see. Normally they see the funeral director in a black suit, coordinating the services in a clean, calm, controlled environment. What they don’t see are the calls in the middle of the night; the summons to the scene of a death – sometimes peaceful and expected, sometimes gruesomely violent – but always immediate, without delay. They don’t see the hours in the embalming room trying to stitch together the pieces of a head blown to pieces by a shotgun so that the deceased’s young daughter can say goodbye to her daddy. They don’t see the sleep deprivation, the missed meals and the personal sacrifice.
It’s not just Paul’s ‘job’, it’s his identity and his life’s purpose to help people in their most difficult times. He sees it as a very important and sacred responsibility. And it takes a toll. Constant exposure to death, often of people you know, friends and acquaintances you’ve grown up with, is emotionally draining. You’re there to deal with your client’s needs; their grief rubs off and accumulates deep in your soul. There is an element of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. It is simultaneously the most satisfying of work, helping people to walk through their loss, and the hardest of work, demanding great deal of physical and emotional stamina. It wears the undertaker down.
Over the decades the funeral profession has changed, but fundamentally the purpose remains the same. While Paul can no longer predict what his clients will request, his part will always be to assist them to his best ability and ease the transition they are experiencing.