Funeral director Kory McGrath
I meet Kory McGrath at the gates of Trinity Bellwoods on a spectacular spring afternoon. The park is filled with people, from babies to the elderly. It's the perfect time and place to talk about life. Thing is, we're here to talk about death, dying and what Toronto stands to lose if funeral homes themselves pass on.[rssbreak]
"They're disappearing and being swallowed up," says McGrath, a funeral director and the guide on one of the 100-?plus tours offered in Jane's Walk, a two-?day fest happening May 1 and 2. McGrath's is called Funeral Parlours & Burial Grounds: Death And Life In The City.
"Dying is part of city life," she says as we begin a sneak peek of her walk. Funeral homes, besides doing the work of prepping our corpses, remind us of our mortality, she points out. "You have to have visual reminders of death - it makes you more compassionate."
In that spirit, she's insisted we meet at Trinity Bellwoods' gates - a symbolic heaven (or hell) portal within view of T.O.'s oldest funeral parlour, Bates and Dodds.
"I was watching a funeral procession come out of the building," she says. "The family was on the sidewalk, coming from a place of grief and re-?entering the real world." There, they mingled with passersby who were reminded of our limited time here.
Jane Jacobs wrote that "undertakers, like druggists, lawyers, dentists and clergymen, are representatives in neighbourhoods of such qualities as dignity, ambition and knowledgeability." It's a role that needs to be reaffirmed, says McGrath.
But there's been a devaluation of the funeral home's place in society, in part because of monopolization. Mega-?corps buy mom-?and-?pop parlours and apply a "bottom-?line" template, says McGrath. "They have different people taking care of different parts of the arrangement." It's like the Walmart?ification of death, I'm thinking. Hell, Walmart even sells a wide assortment of caskets online.
McGrath pins a black arm band around my sleeve. "There's something about the honour of human contact. We're so out of touch with doing funerals ourselves." McGrath recalls visiting her own mother's deathbed at the hospital and feeling no fear of touching her after she died. It wasn't morbid -"it created a sense of peace."
She points out further deathly reminders. First is a stone bearing a memorial plaque. "The city no longer allows stones in parks, but families can donate trees and memorial benches." Actual burial spaces increasingly tend to be outside the city.
Moving on, we reach the north end of the park. This is the burial site of what was once the Crawford Street Bridge. Pointing to a sign with a photo, McGrath reminds me of the importance of memorials. "How would we know without some kind of marker?"
As for averting the death of downtown funeral parlours, we need a serious rethink of ideas inherited from the Victorian era. Time to put to rest Addams Family stereotypes and grim parlour facades in favour of funeral homes that engage actively in community-?building and greener approaches. "The aesthetic - the mourning clothes, the black - need to go," says McGrath. "We need to educate people about the beauty and importance of ritual."
Alfred Dallaire funeral homes in Quebec, for example, have turned that curtained mystery on its head. "They have espresso machines and they look like art galleries," says McGrath. "They have poetry festivals and art therapy groups." Even Bates and Dodds is opening up to locals. "My first introduction to them was shooting a music video upstairs," says McGrath. The parlour has also embraced its arts neighbours.
In terms of greening, McGrath, a David Suzuki ambassador, working on guidelines for eco funerals, highlights the funeral director's responsibility to educate. "In a normal situation, families can assemble in 24 to 48 hours, and with refrigeration there's no need for embalming," which uses toxic formaldehyde.
As we finish our loop around the park, she points out the impact of Jane Jacobs. "What are these walks about? They're about carrying on her legacy. This is an act of mourning. We explore how she affected us and we add to her legacy - it's a beautiful memorial in motion."