Glen French vividly remembers the late-night call he received during his early days as a funeral director in Kirkland Lake.
A fatal car accident had occurred about a 30-minute drive out of town, and he and his wife, Patricia, also a funeral director, were required on the scene.
Despite having two young children at the time, staying home wasn't an option, and they quickly realized their choices were limited.
“How do you find a babysitter at two o’clock in the morning?” French said.
Glen climbed into the van that would carry the body back to the funeral home, while Patricia followed in the family car, with the children safely buckled into their carseats.
When they arrived on scene, a community police officer loaned his services as a surrogate child minder while the Frenches attended to the deceased.
“We went and did our thing and one of the officers kind of just stood near the car,” French said. “You wouldn't find that in the city.”
As a funeral director in a small community, French is required to wear many hats. On any given day, he could be washing vehicles, setting up equipment at the cemetery, embalming a body, helping clients customize a service, retrieving the deceased, or directing a funeral.
“When you're in a small community in Northern Ontario, you're doing everything from A to Z.”
For a trio of funeral homes in Temiskaming Shores, that's just simply the way it's been for well over a century.
The earliest to be established, Perrin Funeral Chapel in New Liskeard, traces its roots back to 1908 when O.J. Thorpe and Joe Blanchard opened Thorpe Bros. Furniture and Funeral Services on Whitewood Avenue.
It was the first funeral home in Northern Ontario to have a motorized hearse, and the pair owned additional branches in Haileybury and Kirkland Lake.
In time, the business was sold to Arthur Perrin, the company's manager, licensed embalmer and undertaker.
Successive generations of the Perrin family owned and operated the business until 2019 when it was sold to Québec-based Fédération des coopératives funéraires du Québec (FCFQ). The organization has also purchased the French Family Funeral Home in Kirkland Lake, formerly owned by the Frenches, and the McDonald Funeral Home in Englehart.
French, who serves as FCFQ's general manager for all three businesses, said the intention is to bring them together under a cooperative model, which would be owned by the community and guided by a board of directors.
The Frenches, who owned and operated their business for 17 years, are nowhere near retirement – yet.
But neither of their children had shown interest in continuing in the family business, and they anticipated finding successors would be a challenge.
“It's difficult to be able to recruit licensed individuals to come up this way,” French said. “We've had people that would come and work and last six months, a year, and move on, because the northern lifestyle isn't really what they want.”
By putting in place a succession plan, French said, the aspiration is that funeral services will continue to be available to the community far into the future.
Despite the industry's challenges, he said, it’s been a rewarding career.
As a high school student in Whitby with no clear view on a future career path, he followed the suggestion from an uncle who thought funeral direction might suit him.
After completing a high school placement back in his hometown, he trained as a licensed funeral director, working for funeral homes in Whitby and Winnipeg, and “I really got to enjoy the profession,” French said.
His uncle flexed his matchmaking muscles again a few years later when he introduced French to Patricia, who was herself studying to be a funeral director.
When they married and were looking for an opportunity to settle down, the Frenches came across an opening in Kirkland Lake and purchased the business in 2002.
Meeting people during some of the most devastating days in their lives, a funeral director is there to bring comfort and a measure of closure to the families who have to bid goodbye to their loved ones, French said.
It's a task that can become more painfully difficult in a small town where there's an increased likelihood the funeral director knows the deceased's family or someone who does.
French takes pride in being able to guide clients through those tough days, providing reassurance that life will get better, even though they may not see it at the time.
Receiving a hug or handshake and a 'thank you’ from the family for helping them through their grief is an “unspeakable” reward for the work he does, he said.
“There are no words for it; it just transcends all things,” French said. “That's probably the biggest satisfaction you can get.”
The funeral industry is changing. Families are eschewing traditional, religious-based ceremonies in favour of more modern, secular rituals, French said, and the demand for cremation over burials has risen sharply in the last two decades.
Virtual ceremonies streamed to far-flung friends and relatives were already becoming commonplace prior to COVID-19, he noted. But with more business being conducted online over the last year, French believes it's a trend that will continue.
However families choose to grieve, ritual can be a meaningful step in bringing closure to the death of a loved one, he said, even if it's something as simple as sharing memorable stories about the deceased over family dinner.
“You want to face it,” French said. “You want to talk about the person. That's how everybody's going to move on.”
At the heart of his business is a core belief that every human life has value.
With each client French serves, he's reminded the deceased was somebody's mother or father, son or daughter, husband or wife, sibling, grandparent, or in-law.
His goal is to be supportive, creating a tribute to a life that will become, if not a happy memory, then at least one that helps the family put their loved one to rest in a respectful and purposeful way.
“Whomever it is that we meet, I have one of those in my family, and I know, if it happened to me, how I would want to be treated and how I would want them to be looked after,” he said.
“That's all that we can try, is to do that for whomever we meet."
This article is one in a series focused on the rich histories, journeys and long-term successes of generational businesses in Northern Ontario.