New Brunswick

Surviving the death care business

Intrigue in the idea of what happens when something or someone dies, and the rituals surrounding death led Sharlene MacDonald, 34, to a career in what the industry calls death care.

Saint John funeral director Sharlene MacDonald reaches milestone in industry where many last half as long

Sharlene MacDonald says of the 10 people in her class from the Nova Scotia Community College's funeral and allied health services program in 2008, two are still working in the field. (Sarah Trainor/CBC News)

Sharlene MacDonald, a self-confessed "weirdo" who grew up as a free-range kid said she was drawn to death early on.

"At five or six years old, I was collecting animals from my aunt's doorstep that her cat killed, and burying them in the yard, like digging little holes and setting them there," said MacDonald, a funeral director and embalmer at Brenan's Funeral Home in Saint John.

"My mom caught me one day because I was stealing her spatula from the kitchen and her gardening gloves, and she figured out what I was up to."

This intrigue with the idea of what happens when something or someone dies, and the rituals surrounding death, led MacDonald to a career in what the industry calls death care.

"It was sort of a, 'I need to take care of these people, I need to take care of these things, and this is what I have to do.' Even as a small child I knew this."

Compassion fatigue, unconventional hours

MacDonald, 34, is coming up to her 11th year working with Brenan's. Before that, she spent two years apprenticing at a funeral home in Sussex.

Of the 10 people in her 2008 class from the Nova Scotia Community College's program in funeral and allied health services, two are still working in the field.

Not many people even stuck with it five years, MacDonald said.

"Some of it is burnout. You have to make sure with all the stress you deal with on a daily basis you know how to relax yourself, how to unwind."

The New Brunswick Funeral Directors and Embalmers Association doesn't keep statistics on retention rates, however, funeral homes are "constantly looking for licensed funeral directors," said executive director Marc Melanson.

While the pay can be appealing — $47,319 annually according to the Department of Post Secondary Education Training and Labour — compassion fatigue is a reality, along with unconventional work hours.

"It's not a Monday to Friday nine-to-five job," said Melanson. "It's evenings, weekends and holidays.

"People who get into the funeral profession genuinely want to help people. But a funeral home is never closed."

Viewing rooms are often rearranged, making physicality a key component of the job. (Sarah Trainor/CBC News)

The workday can be fluid and intense. It might start with MacDonald doing prep work on an infant that would afford parents more time with their child, then a full shift in gears to oversee a 103-year-old's celebration of life service in a space filled with laughter.

"You wear a lot of different hats and it changes so quickly," she said.

"I could be making funeral arrangements with a family, I could be directing a funeral, I could be painting — like literally building maintenance.

"We get dirty in our suits. We garden, mow the lawns, wash the cars, we do it all."

The job requires a good deal of physicality. Viewing rooms are frequently rearranged to make space for what families want to bring to a visitation. Personal touches have been as dainty as jewelry and as grand as a motorcycle.

Some scenes hard to process

Not everyone is in a bed when they die, and moving a body can take some physical and mental effort.

"Some things you see you don't ever forget, and you wish you could. Especially when you walk into a scene where you can imagine their last moments."

MacDonald said those moments can be difficult to process.

"It's hard to think of them as being a person in the way that you're protecting your mental state," she said.

"You say, 'I have to move them from one place to another,' and after, you reflect on that and think, 'OK, that was a human being and I feel terrible for them. And I'm going to probably have bad dreams for a while.'"

MacDonald often finds herself "down in the trenches" with families in their most vulnerable moments, and pulling them out to a place of healing can be both heavy and rewarding.

That's been one constant in an industry that's ever-changing.

Embalming is turning into a dying art, said MacDonald, thanks to a rise in cremations, now estimated at about 60 per cent in greater Saint John. (Sarah Trainor/CBC News)

In the greater Saint John area, MacDonald estimated the cremation rate has risen to about 60 per cent, meaning she doesn't prepare as many bodies for a funeral as when she started.

Embalming 'gives dignity back'

"It's like a dying art," she said. "People coming into the business now might not get the same exposure as some of the older generations did to learn how to restore somebody and give them their dignity back.

"How to get the eyes closed, how to get the mouths closed, how tight they should be, whether you use someone's dentures, little things to make a person look like themselves.

"If you do it wrong, it's easy to make someone look uncomfortable or have an unpleasant expression. Most of that is just practice," said MacDonald.

Embalming has turned into a specialty for McDonald, who has learned different techniques over the years to do restorative work on people who died under traumatic circumstances.

"It's a huge honour to do something like that for someone, and death robs us of a lot," said MacDonald.

"If there was an accident, they don't look like there has been one. It's a beautiful thing for people to have that moment where someone is at peace."

Funeral homes are getting more requests for chapel services done in-house. As well, multi-denominational services and celebration of life services are growing in popularity. (Sarah Trainor/CBC)

When MacDonald started at Brenan's, there was no reception room because there was no need for one.

Now, with multi-denominational services and celebration of life ceremonies growing in popularity, the funeral home has expanded to include the space, along with a large parlour.

Unique requests welcome

If someone comes in with an unusual request, MacDonald said, she'll do what she can to make it happen. She'll listen to special details while making arrangements to incorporate it into the service.

"If she loved bingo, or her favourite animal was a tiger, little things they mention in passing I'll make sure to incorporate onto her stationary or in her bulletin," said MacDonald.

"It's cool to make all of these things about the person who died, and I think that's the healing part."

MacDonald says she's test driven a few caskets to vouch for their comfort. (Sarah Trainor/CBC)

MacDonald said people can feel uncomfortable confronting their mortality, but it's her responsibility to make it a little less frightening.

She's even test-driven a casket to vouch for its comfort as a final resting place.

"When it comes down to it, your death is like a rite of passage," she said. "You celebrate a birth, a bar mitzvah or a Sweet 16, a wedding, your funeral is another one of those," she said.

"Everybody is going to die, we all do it. So we might as well plan our party."


Sarah Trainor is the morning newsreader at CBC New Brunswick. She has worked for the CBC since 2005.