Jessica Competiello was not even a teenager when she decided she wanted to be a funeral director. “My very first experience with a funeral was at the young age of 12 and it left an impression on me. A very positive one,” she says.
Competiello is the Managing Funeral Director at Chapel Ridge Funeral home in Markham. She does not shy away from facing grief in her community. “You can never take away their loss or their pain but just being able to extend a helping hand, guidance and clarity… It’s a privilege to be able to do that for any family,” she says.
Last week, the Toronto Star reported that many Toronto funeral directors plan to lobby the city for more funding to subsidize funerals for low-income residents. Helping families face the expense of a funeral is only one variable that funeral directors must address on a regular basis. It is not a career suited to everybody, but for many who choose to pursue funeral directing, it is more than just a vocation.
Joseph Richer, Registrar at the Board of Funeral Services, says that many people are attracted to the funeral directing because they see it “much like a calling.” He explains, “This is not a profession for the faint of heart... Do you think your bank will answer your call at 3 am? No. But your funeral director will.”
“Funeral directors as a whole are very compassionate,” says David Garvie, General Manager at Ogden Funeral Home. Garvie, who has worked in the industry for 35 years, says that one of the hardest things for funeral directors to do is to move into discussions about costs. “I’m convinced that most funeral directors would give funerals away if they could.”
Garvie lists a range of needs funeral directors must address on a regular basis: different cultural groups, different generations and extended and blended families—all with different expectations and desires when planning a funeral. Garvie is also cognizant of the financial pressures of a funeral and believes that helping families prepare a proper goodbye within their means is part of the ethical and moral responsibility of a funeral director. Ultimately, his aim is to help families achieve “a funeral services that provides value and purpose and meaning.”
In this challenging industry, funeral directors seem to share many common qualities. “The people that tend to be in this profession obviously tend to be very caring, very empathetic, largely those types of people that have strong moral beliefs and just are good people, frankly,” Richer says.
Competiello says many of these traits are innate. “There’s something about these inborn qualities that you can’t necessarily teach someone. And those qualities are the ones of genuine concern or compassion for a family that you’re serving and a willingness to provide the family with a perfect final send-off for their loved one who died,” she says.
Michelle Clarke, coordinator of Humber College’s Funeral Service Education program, says that while funeral directors represent a range of personalities, “we tend to be conservative.” She explains that while they are often liberal thinkers and open to suggestion and new ideas, they are typically conservative in terms of dress and activities. People who enter Humber’s funeral director program “almost look and act like funeral directors from the beginning,” Clarke says.
Part of the reason for this, she explains, is that they must have spent time observing in a funeral home before they enter the program. “They get an idea of what it means to be a funeral director on the job,” Clarke says, including the fact that it is not a nine-to-five industry.
Clarke says that many people do not realize the expectations put upon funeral directors, especially those working in small communities. “We try to let our students realize what they are getting into and that this is a 24-hour responsibility,” Clarke explains, not just because death happens around the clock but because people perceive that their funeral director will look and act like a funeral director all of the time. Clarke says that funeral directors face “instant expectations” from people in their community, even if the individuals may never interact with them professionally.
It is essential that funeral directors care for themselves. “Probably one of the big challenges I think is the environment that they work in really is, I would think, is quite emotionally draining and they need to look after themselves and recharge their own batteries,” Richer says. He compares it to emergency procedures on an airplane: you need to affix your own oxygen mask first. “You can’t help anybody if you’re gasping for air,” Richer says.
Garvie agrees, saying that when they were young, he always told his children to call him at work to say “dad, it’s time to come home.”
Competiello says it is important to separate work life and home life. “It's quite normal for the events of the day to touch your life even after you've left your workplace but at the same time keeping that healthy separation. And I think that’s for any job,” she says.
For people interested in pursuing the career, Richer offers this advice: “I would tell anybody make certain that you understand what you’re getting into. This is not a profession for the faint of heart… You need to be dealing with people in their most vulnerable and challenging times. It’s 24/7, 365 days a year…
“I think it can be tremendously rewarding but it is tremendously difficult.”