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Funeral customs have evolved over the years


As far back as the pyramids, Adam Ross said, man has felt a need to memorialize the passing of loved ones.

Like the human race, these customs have evolved over the years.

Ross, along with his brother Jamieson, is a third-generation funeral director at Ross Funeral Chapel, having learned their skills from their father Craig and their grandfather Wilf.

"My dad grew up in this building," Jamieson Ross added.

The Ross chapel has actually served Port Hope since the George family started it in 1864. Three generations of Georges would run it before Wilf Ross purchased it in 1952.

Scott MacCoubrey of Cobourg also has a third-generation pedigree, preceded at MacCoubrey Funeral Home by his grandfather Rex and his father Bob.

Then there are Kevin and Scott Allison of Port Hope, whose establishment began in 1917 as Walker Funeral Home on Ontario Street (later Jex and Smith Funeral Home, which moved to its current Mill Street location). Their father Don purchased the business in 1965.

All five men have grown up immersed in stories of funeral customs of yore.

When someone died at home at the turn of the century, MacCoubrey said, "they would call the cabinetmaker to build a coffin.

"My grandfather started in 1938 at McFadden's. He would go to the house and embalm the body in the kitchen. They would dress it, place it in a casket or coffin, and leave it in the parlour or living room until the day of the service.

"Funeral homes simply began out of convenience when people moved to smaller houses in the suburbs in the '40s and '50s. It was hard to have a funeral in a split-level home. That is when funeral parlours came into existence," MacCoubrey summed up.

McFadden's was a combination furniture store and funeral home, he explained. His grandfather had been working in a hardware store, and Eldon McFadden needed help. He offered MacCoubrey an extra 25 cents a week to come work for him.

"On days there were funerals, they would simply turn all the furniture facing the same way and have the funeral in the store," MacCoubrey added.

The Rosses still have chairs made in their chapel by the George family, who were cabinetmakers and woodworkers.

"It must have been a strain to have people into their homes for three or four days before a funeral, serving them tea and coffee and food," Jamieson Ross speculated.

"I think that is where the idea of a funeral home came about. Instead of having it at your home, you could call the funeral director and he would be happy to let people come into their home for visiting hours."

"In my grandfather's day, there weren't set times for visitation," Adam Ross added. "People would just come whenever it was open. It could be all day."

The role of photography in remembrance stretches from the posthumous photos of the deceased in the Victorian era to photos and slide shows embedded in gravestones today, Jamieson Ross said.

"Because human memory is so funny, people like something to spark that memory," he said.

"I think for humans, there has always been a need to say goodbye, to do something to acknowledge someone's life and what they have done -- parks dedicated, street names, trees planted," his brother added.

People's ideas on a proper goodbye have changed, Mac-Coubrey said, from the time when one of the chief considerations was an impressive casket. Another change the post-war era brought was large-scale manufacturing of coffins, as opposed to each being hand-made. And in up to 70% of cases (up from 20% when Kevin Allison started in the business), cremation is involved.

The service is different now too, and as individual as the person involved. Today's families want a portrayal of the loved one's life, a celebration reflected in DVD slide shows, a picture board, representations of that person's achievements (such as trophies) or hobbies (like a fishing pole).

"It becomes very much life-oriented," MacCoubrey said.

When he started in the business with his father, a funeral was a 25-minute service, focusing on the spiritual aspects of the death. Now it can run a couple of hours, with everyone wanting to share memories.

"It's that kind of participation that makes the funeral individual and special," Mac-Coubrey said.

The role of the funeral director has evolved into that of an events co-ordinator. Once the funeral director would only have dealt with the deceased. Now he or she oversees transportation of the body and coordination of the events of the days preceding and sometimes slightly following the funeral.

"We look after everything, from all the different symbols we use to remember the person, like the DVD, to where the reception is being held, what kind of sandwiches will be there, whether there's just fruit juice or also wine and beer," MacCoubrey listed.

"Funerals have changed because of the secularization of society. They used to be centred on the minister who was doing the funeral. Now, if those people aren't church people, they ask us to get someone to act as the co-ordinator of the funeral to keep it together and give some structure.

"It's the personalization they find valuable, in many cases. That changes the way people view funerals altogether. They want to remember Dad driving the boat for waterskiing and the picnics he provided and trying to put up a tent in a windstorm. People find value in a whole different way now and those things are more valuable, perhaps, than dwelling on the spiritual side of things."

Next week's series conclusion: Funeral homes do most of the work.