Courtesy of TheTorontoStar.com | By Nancy J. White | Originally Published 05.30.2014 | Posted 06.27.2018
A funeral director for 30 years, Glen Burkholder knows the drill: Connect emotionally with a grieving family without losing balance. But even this veteran of last passages can be overwhelmed by death.
He recently had a week like that, a pileup of sadness. Burkholder, 48, had embalmed the bodies of two younger men. He’d sat and listened to a man deeply mourning his wife, killed in a car accident. Soon after, Burkholder brought an infant to the cemetery and stood at the grave with the child’s mother.
“You see how delicate life is. It weighs on you,” says Burkholder, his voice cracking with emotion. “I was almost getting grief counselling in the car from the priest.”
Burkholder, wearing his funeral uniform, a smart navy blue suit, is sitting at an oval table, a Kleenex box on top. It’s the room at the R.S. Kane Funeral Home in North York where he guides a family in planning the farewell. It’s a room where he’s sat amidst a lot of grief.
“I wanted to care for others,” he says, explaining his career choice. He briefly considered nursing, but a funeral home job during high school convinced him of his path. At age 18, he enrolled in Humber College’s funeral director program — a move that perplexed his friends.
“I was a bit of a class clown,” laughs Burkholder, who has wavy brown hair and a warm smile.
More good-natured than grim, he didn’t even go goth as a kid.
His interest is in touching people’s lives to make the grief process easier, he explains.
His tone — reassuring, friendly yet authoritative — comes in handy. “At times emotions get elevated. Family members may have different expectations and get into it verbally,” says Burkholder diplomatically. He’ll quietly watch arguments play out, then politely ask, “Would you like me to step out?” They usually quiet down, he says.
Once at a graveside service, the prayers finished, a woman in the back of the mourners burst out wailing. The crowd parted and she ran forward, flinging herself on top of the highly-polished coffin. She fell right over it.
It was, says the understated undertaker, an eyebrow raiser. “I helped her up and gave her a hug,” he adds with a shrug. “That’s what you do.”
He still remembers his first embalming, which involves disinfecting, preserving and restoring a natural appearance. “It was so surreal, almost an out-of-body feeling,” he explains.
For the restorative work, he studies photos of the deceased. “I love doing the cosmetics. We do this job like artists. If the husband says, ‘My wife looks lovely,’ I know I did that. It’s gratifying.”
His toughest restoration was a young man, a passenger in a car that spun out of control. Hurled through the windshield, he suffered severe bodily injuries and broken bones that needed to be painstakingly pieced together. Although it happened years ago, Burkholder still remembers the distraught family.
“I worked on him for two days straight,” he recalls, “so his family could have a viewing, so his mother could say goodbye.”
All this gets bottled up. A funeral director isn’t supposed to show too much sorrow or anger. “I go home to my girlfriend and bleed my heart out,” says Burkholder, a divorced father of two grown children. To unwind, he walks his dog, a boxer, or rides his motorcycle, a hulking black Honda Shadow.
At the funeral home, Burkholder walks past a visitation for an elderly man, the room full of guests chatting. The funerals that celebrate a long life well-lived, those are his favourites — the funny stories he hears, the photos of the children, the family trips and picnics, the grandchildren flopping around a turtle pool. Burkholder watches as relatives and friends come together out of love.
“That’s what’s beautiful. That’s what keeps me coming to work every day.”