A Look Behind the Curtains of the Funeral Industry

by M-Gillies

Tom Jokinen is the author of Curtains.

For Tom Jokinen, the decision to devote eight months handling coffins, corpses and embalming fluid wasn’t a career move set in marble. It wasn’t like he woke one morning with an epiphany to his life’s true calling. In fact, the decision to quit his job as a CBC radio producer in order to become an apprentice undertaker and then write a memoir of his experience arose more from the unusual business trends blossoming in the funeral industry.

From green funerals to Disneyland wildcat scatterings; from cremations to huggable plush urns, Jokinen saw radical changes impacting the death-care industry and sought to answer some questions that lingered in the back of his mind as well as others.

“I was interested in these commercial oddities,” Jokinen said. “Like the various ways of dealing with cremated remains. At the same time I was thinking, what does this ritual mean; what is it that we get out of it; what is it we need to do to mark the end of a life? All of these things came into play, both the curiosity and a sort of dark obsession of what we do when somebody dies.

“When it comes to funeral arrangements, or what a person wants to do as their last sendoff, they plan they need to do something, but what that something is, is less clear.”

While most people tend to avoid thinking of their final sendoffs, Jokinen, a veteran radio producer and video-journalist for CBC, found himself drawn to the death-care sector while researching the modern commercialization of the funeral industry. In particular, Costco’s introduction of wholesale caskets, sold alongside industrial-sized ketchup and bulk rolls of toilet paper. Though, his fascination with death could easily be linked to his Finnish ancestry and what Jokinen describes as the Nordic-way-of-death, it was while speaking with a third-generation Winnipeg funeral director named Neil Bardal, that saw the manifestation of a new idea.

Bardal, a type of Evangelist for cremation was keen inopening up the back room of his operations for people to see what took place in a crematorium, so much so that he encouraged tours for families to view the process. It was with this receptivity that Jokinen and Bardal discussed his temporary apprenticeship in the name of old-school emersion journalism.

“The idea was to see if the life of undertakers, like Neil, could give me pause to reconsider my own preconceptions,” Jokinen said. “Like a lot of people, I found it fairly easy and necessary to ignore death. It’s easy to encounter it in fiction; novels, poetry, the dark-side of what it means to live; that great human capacity to deny the inevitability of death.”

Soon, at age 44, Jokinen began the drastic self-imposed vocational second-life, exploring first-hand the traditions, cultural views, and the trends shaping the funeral industry. The end-result of his experience became the basis of his memoir Curtains: Adventures of an Undertaker-in-Training, which documents 8 months of his life learning of the what happens between the time of someones death to when they magically appear as a bag of ashes.

“I think – in kind of water cooler chat, people like to talk about what they’re going to do when they die,” said Jokinen. “After the death of Osama Bin Laden, I had a couple people say to me, is this an option; is this something you can do; is burial at sea an option? It’s interesting how events in the news will prompt people to think about their own mortality or what they want to do when they die.”

However, while Jokinen mentions having his body placed in a blue box on recycling day in the book, the fact is Jokinen, having experienced the retorts of a crematorium said he would prefer to be cremated.

“The beauty with cremation is, it’s simple; it’s convenient; it creates an end product in which you can do almost anything with,” he said. “People have ashes blasted off in fireworks, or mixed with acrylic for paintings, or scattered along a river or lake, or they have them placed in commercial urns that dissolve in water. There’s a billion things you can do with ashes.”

And while most people will avoid thinking about their own mortality in terms of one day it will come, Jokinen indicated there is an importance in ensuring final arrangements are discussed beforehand.

“I’ve seen a lot of people that just show up at the arrangement room who don’t know where to begin because nobody talked about it,” Jokinen said. “First of all, it’s practical, it let’s people in the family know or at least gives them a leg-up on how to make arrangements. It’s a good idea for people to break through the taboo and not be like the way I used to be and ignore it, it let’s their wishes be known.”

Curtains: Adventures of an Undertaker-in-Training can be purchased online at chapters.indigo.com or amazon.com, and can be ordered from your local bookstore.

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