Changing Faces of the Funeral Industry: A Stand-Up Kind of Guy

by M-Gillies

James MacNeil is a funeral director, ordained minister, family man, musician, and stand-up comedian

In the last decade the funeral industry has been undergoing some dramatic changes, particularly with the funeral industry’s accelerating changes in raising awareness to local communities. introduces James MacNeil as an excellent example of the growing influence funeral professionals are bringing to the industry. Read more to learn how this progressive influence is shaping the changing faces of the future of funerals.

A former professional alternative metal/rock drummer, a student of seminary classes finishing up a theology degree, a funeral director of 12 years, an officiator of 70 plus weddings a year, a husband and father of five, and a moonlighting amateur comedian – you might be thinking this is the set-up for an elaborate joke in which these very polar opposite personalities walk into a bar – but in all actuality, these are the personas of one man.

Down-to-earth, openly friendly, passionate, charismatic, humble and a stand-up kind of guy, James MacNeil is just your average person, a well respected individual in his community of Chatham, Ontario. However, before attending seminary school, MacNeil’s first career choice was that of a drummer. That was the earlier version of MacNeil, he was going to be that Rockstar guy.

¨Then I became a family guy and suddenly, Rockstar guy didn’t seem to work out anymore,” MacNeil says. ¨I still play in fairly large church productions and things like that. All the skills kind of stayed I guess, but the touring and the late nights at bars – that doesn’t exist anymore.”

These days, MacNeil leads a structured lifestyle. He wakes up each morning, goes to work at the funeral home which he’s managed for six years as a first generation funeral director, and occasionally, he moonlights as a stand-up comedian; an opportunity that came about back in 2008 when he participated in a fundraiser held by the locality of Chatham Kent for the United Way charitable organization.

It was during the So You Think You’ve Got Talent fundraising event, that MacNeil started thinking, ¨I’m going to go and audition. It was me against 200 people singing. Everyone’s a singer I guess, and then there’s this one guy (me) trying to do stand-up. I guess I kind of stuck out because I made it quite far in the contest, but it gave me a chance to get out on stage and work out some material in front of live people.”

And it didn’t stop there.

¨After that,” MacNeil muses. ¨I thought, man, I got the bug now.”

Since that day, MacNeil continued to pursue his passion of comedy. As a fan of comedians such as George Carlin, Brian Regan, Leland Klassen and Sean Cullen, MacNeil honed his skills and carved a niche for himself with a particular type of comedy. With a profession in a field that many people tend to not want to talk about, especially when the conversation of death isn’t a topic that makes for light conversation – even the jokes; those tongue-in-cheek puns that toe the line of bad taste – putting the fun back into funerals, MacNeil feels it’s important to keep the two parts of his life separate.

¨I don’t make jokes about my profession because really, there are no real good jokes (about death) that aren’t hurtful,” MacNeil says. ¨The last thing I would want is for people to think that I don’t care about what I do for a living because I make humor from it. What I do is a sacred calling and a sacred tradition – it’s important to me that it’s not the source of my jokes.”

Following in the footsteps of the likes of Bill Cosby and Jerry Seinfeld, MacNeil has adopted the pursuit of observational jokes. He likes to channel his muses from the everyday humorous occurrences that arise in real life, from topics on marriage to being a parent.

¨I pretty much focus exclusively on “clean comedy” which can often be confused with “lame comedy”,” MacNeil jokes. ¨But it’s not lame, it’s just stand-up comedy without any cuss-words basically. You know, you get some people who think, “Well that’s odd”- but not really. Bill Cosby built his career on that. I think that’s something that’s very important to me – I’ve got kids and I wouldn’t want to do something that I couldn’t share with my kids.”

Nevertheless, MacNeil believes that being a comedian performing clean comedy is more of a challenge. As the old adage goes, “profanity is the crutch of the conversationally crippled”.

To build upon his network, MacNeil sought out like-minded comedians who specialize in clean comedy, and tries as much as he can to get out in front of a live audience.

Then something happened.

¨I don’t go out of my way to be high profile,” MacNeil modestly says. ¨But you know things tend to happen. My main gig is a licensed funeral director, and I’m an ordained minister. But I’ve always been fascinated with stand-up comedy; how it’s done, how it’s perceived, the different styles.”

¨The small town I’m in, there’s no comedy club – we’re between London and Windsor where there are comedy clubs, but I’m busy as a funeral director, I’m busy as a family man – there’s not a whole lot of room to say, ‘So yeah, I’m going to open-mic night again, honey, I’ll see you later’.”

Instead, MacNeil auditioned for the Leland Klassen Comedy Tournament, landing a gig as a contestant for a five city comedy tour in Alberta during mid-April, which will be filmed and showcased on season two of the Laughopolis‘ reality show.

Meanwhile, MacNeil remains passionate about his role in serving the community as a funeral director. It’s the same kind of passion that has led him to avoid using his profession in his routines and it’s the kind of passion that longs to raise awareness on how beneficial funeral homes are for families.

¨Everyone comes into a funeral with preconceived ideas – whether their interactions with a funeral home were minimal or none existent, they’ve got these ideas that we’re these ghoulish people who have spooky organ music playing at all times – but the truth is, we try to be the exact opposite of that caricature.”

In fact, MacNeil says it’s important that they have a lot of natural lighting illuminating their building and that they provide exceptional hospitality.

¨We’re a bright, happy place as opposed to the dark curtains and the black armbands. We’re bringing people coffee and cookies, we’re giving kids stuffed animals and coloring books.

¨I love what I do as a funeral director.”  he says. ¨I think what we do is so important. I feel what we do (as funeral directors) is extremely valuable and vital in our culture, and right now, we’re in an age of direct disposition – we’re at a point in our cultural history where funeral homes are trying, more and more, to explain to people why we even exist.”

¨Funeral homes and the funeral industry, more than ever, need to educate people as to the value of celebrating life. Not everybody is going to have a traditional funeral, but we need to be the people who are still championing and saying, ‘We are the experts on celebrating life’. There’s so much value in having people slow down and remember a loved one.”

MacNeil recalls one particular story in which a father of seven children died at the age of 50 from a sudden brain aneurysm. No one could have prepared themselves for the loss of a patriarch, but suddenly this family’s life was completely altered.

¨This was a really solid family,” MacNeil says. ¨They’re devastated and we’re making these arrangements and suddenly it comes out that their dad was a big bow hunter, an outdoorsman and a huge Ted Nugent fan – seen him many times. Now, if you know anything about Ted Nugent – he’s a MASSIVE outdoorsman; promoter of hunting; especially bow hunting – that’s his thing, his whole tribe of fans are into hunting and family and honor.”

During the week of the visitations, MacNeil remembered working frantically behind the scenes, attempting to contact the offices of Ted Nugent just to say, ¨One of your fans has died suddenly – he’s a family guy, a bow hunter and an outdoorsman. Just hoping to get some kind of generic condolence of sorts.”

Meanwhile, the sons had opted to go for a non-traditional funeral service and carry the casket into the church to the song Fred Bear by Ted Nugent, playing in the background. That very same day of the service, MacNeil remembers getting an email from Ted Nugent himself.

¨It was full of all these classic Nugent phrases like ‘when we face the beast my brother, we will think of you’ and all this really intense, manly wilderness stuff. So when I get this to the hands of the lady reading letters from family members during the service, she’s reading letters from Holland, and here’s a letter from so-and-so who couldn’t make it and then finally the last one she reads, here’s a letter from… TED NUGENT!”

¨She read the message and the whole family was just struck by the fact that Ted Nugent himself sent this message. So it was just a real home run for us and the funeral home.”

While MacNeil’s passion is serving his community as the manager of Bowman Funeral Homes, he does look upon his opportunity to perform for Laughopolis and the Leland Klassen Comedy Tournament with excitement.

¨One, I get the experience and two I get to tour with Leland Klassen, who I really look up to as a veteran of Canadian stand-up comedy. So part of it is being coached by a pro – being told, ‘that was really dumb, what are you doing or that was really good’. (Klessan’s) never really been shy about saying, ‘I see where you’re going with that, but…’ I see it as some really excellent constructive direction as a professional comedian to an amateur guy, such as myself.”

Visit James MacNeil’s stand-up website

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