Geoff Carnell had never intended to get into his family’s funeral business. A professional engineer, he hadn’t worked a day in his life with his father.
Until his father died.
“My father did his last funeral, that’s how we say it, on a Thursday, and I came in (the following) Monday to look after his funeral arrangements,” Carnell said.
Carnell is the sixth generation in the family business, which was started by Gilbert Carnell in 1780 as a carriage factory at the corner of Duckworth and Cochrane streets in St. John’s. Makers of horse-drawn carriages and sleighs, the family was often asked to build caskets, deliver them to homes for wakes, and then the cemetery. A new business was born.
Andrew Carnell, Carnell’s grandfather and a longtime mayor of St. John’s, was the first licensed embalmer in Newfoundland, graduating from the United States School of Embalming in 1902.
In 1966, with Geoff Carnell Sr. at the helm, the family business moved to Freshwater Road and incorporated reposing rooms and a chapel. Today, Carnell’s is a full-service funeral home, taking care of everything from preparing remains to cremation and the opening and closing of burial plots.
In 26 years of serving between 350 and 400 families a year, Carnell has become an expert funeral planner. He often finds himself acting as a therapist for grieving people, and even encourages them to open their hearts and share their stories with him. Not only can it help ease their pain, he said it helps him acquire information about their loved one that he might use in creating an obituary or structure a funeral.
He’s at the stage in his career where he can pick up on a family’s dynamics as soon as they walk through his door.
“Somebody like myself can tell just by a gesture or the manner in which the members of the family are treating one another how this is going to go down, how the arrangements should be handled. That’s a skill set you get as you get older and meet more and more families.”
Even after working with thousands of families, day after day, year after year, Carnell’s empathy for those grieving a loss hasn’t left him. He reckons there hasn’t been a funeral in which he’s attended that he hasn’t felt emotional.
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“You’re human like everybody else and funeral directors can be emotional, but we’re not supposed to be, so we try to hide it,” he said.
“It’s almost not even a business. It is a business, but I don’t look at the monetary side. I look at the care side. I believe my colleagues do the same thing.”
Amanda Laite-Rogers has worked at Fillatre’s Funeral Home in Deer Lake for the past 11 years, and she agrees. As a funeral consultant, her job includes meeting with families, transporting remains and assisting with funerals, from the beginning until the casket is lowered into the ground. Her duties make up just a small part of the funeral home’s services, she stressed.
Laite-Rogers’ empathy is real, and not merely a work skill. Living in a small community, she often finds herself assisting with funeral arrangements for someone she knows personally.
“I grieve with every family I meet, whether I know them or not,” she explained. “It’s always harder to meet families you know. I get butterflies every time I meet with a friend of a friend or someone whose family I know. It’s also sad when the family is a stranger, but you don’t know the story behind it; you don’t know if it might have been a welcome death, after a long illness.”
Funerals are particularly sad when they involve a child, Laite-Rogers said. Carnell’s, like most funeral homes in the country, doesn’t charge service fees for families that are grieving a stillborn baby. Fillatre’s doesn’t charge fees for services for young children. The emotions that arise when assisting with a funeral for a young person are often hard to leave at the funeral home, Laite-Rogers said, and she has found herself thinking about them long after her work day has ended.
“Sometimes I do feel sad. I don’t think it’s fair if a young person dies, and I find myself questioning it.”
Like any personal care business, funeral homes must be flexible to adhere to the wishes of their clients, no matter how specific. Both Carnell’s and Fillatre’s serve all faiths and that sometimes means adapting typical procedures. For example, the Jewish faith is against cremation, Carnell said, can’t have a funeral on their Sabbath, and family members prepare the body for burial. The Muslim faith dictates that the deceased must be wrapped in a shroud and buried before the next sunset or within 24 hours. Carnell accommodates religious and cultural traditions, and allows families to be a part of the rituals themselves, whether it be at his facility or a place of worship.
Funeral homes also have to keep with the times and trends in the services they provide. In the past few years, Carnell has seen an increase in the number of people preferring cremation (which costs less than a traditional burial and can mean that a previously closed plot has space to be reopened). He predicts the next trend in the business will be what he calls green funerals, using biodegradable materials. Remains are cremated and the ashes are placed in the ground, nourishing a tree which is then planted on top.
It’s all about a celebration of life, no matter what the specifics, and that’s what keeps him happy in the business.
“We believe in the service we provide. Because of the feedback from families, we know that what we do is helpful and families are so kind and express their thanks,” he said. “That’s very fulfilling, because there are so many details that have to be looked after. All of those things add value to the funeral ritual.”
Remains remain unclaimed
There’s a somewhat shocking new problem most funeral homes in North America face: tens of thousands of unclaimed remains have been left behind by families, who have walked away.
At Carnell’s Funeral Home in St. John’s, there are dozens of urns holding cremated remains which Geoff Carnell, so far, is holding onto, in the hopes that families will one day come back to claim them.
In some cases, the deceased person didn’t have any close family and a distant relative took care of the funeral arrangements but then moves on and doesn’t finish the ritual. In other cases, a person didn’t get along with their family members and no one wants to claim their remains.
In the United States, Carnell said, some areas have an agreement with the medical examiner’s office which, being a third party, can take possession of the remains and bury them.
“The problem that most funeral homes have is they’re afraid of litigation if they decide to scatter or do something with the cremated remains that the family wouldn’t like,” Carnell said. “Some funeral homes find common burial grounds for them. The jury is still out on what to do because it’s a relatively new phenomenom.
“We have dozens here. There are 23,000 funeral homes in North America. Even if there was one urn left at each of the funeral homes, that’s 23,000 people’s remains that are left behind.”
— Tara Bradbury