Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Jane's Walk: An interview with Kory McGrath

new funeral home funeral

Toronto Funeral circa 1911

"My goal is to do to funeral services what midwives did to the Birth process: to bring it back home. To give it back to families, empowering them and creating the opportunity for a more profound experience. The truth is, our skills will always be required, but how we deliver them needs to be re-thought." -Kory McGrath

home funeral ritual
Kory McGrath

In her book 'The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs pointed out the positive influence that Funeral Homes, Cemeteries, an even Undertakers can have on the life of urban neighborhoods. Toronto Funeral Director, Kory McGrath argues that "the disappearance of funeral homes & burial grounds from urban neighborhoods further removes us from our own understanding and acceptance of death, funeral rites & ceremonies, and compassion towards bereaved members of our communities."

Now in its fourth year, 'Jane's Walk' celebrates the legacy of Jane Jacobs, inspiring citizens to get to know their city and each other by getting out and walking. This year Jane’s Walks will span 67 cities worldwide (28 in Canada, 32 in the U.S, 7 internationally) with some 410 walking tours on offer.

The Toronto walk: Funeral Parlours & Burial Grounds will be guided by Ms. McGrath. The walk will not only celebrate Jacobs, but aims to educate the public about the important role funeral parlors and undertakers play in their communities. Other themes that will be explored on the walk include the effects of visual reminders of death on a community, sacred spaces in urban environments, and dealing with secularization and multiculturalism. The walk take place this year on Sunday, May 2nd in the Queen West neighborhood of Toronto. Not surprisingly, this event is fully booked, but for those of us who will have to wait for next year, I'm pleased to share an interview with Kory McGrath.


new funeral home funerals

St. Michael's Cemetery - hidden among the towering office buildings, this cemetery (now closed) is one of Toronto's oldest Catholic cemeteries and home to mostly Irish Catholics who arrived in Torontoto escape the Potato Famine.

Pat McNally: Could you tell me a bit about your background and how you came to direct this project?

Kory McGrath: At a young age I worked in a family-owned funeral home in a mid-sized city, then interned at a more rural funeral home a year or 2 later. It led to becoming enrolled in
Toronto's Funeral Services Education program. For one of my assignments, I read & wrote a paper on the Tibetan Book of Living & Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche and I think everything changed for me from then on. I ended up turning inwards a bit, traveling, doing yoga, and reading, reading, reading. I moved to Toronto, then to Vancouver, spent some time overseas and back to Toronto again. And then I discovered Jane Jacobs. I even lived a few houses up on the same Annex street where she lived. Her writing woke me up from my introverted slumber and I started thinking about my passion for funeral services in a more complex way - from simply wanting to help individuals, to wanting to help entire communities and future generations. I came to this project in one way to pay tribute to a
woman I hold in high regard, and in another way to really start the dialogue on how death, funerals, grief, and memorialization work in a metropolitan landscape where everything else moves at such an exponential pace, and how they could provide more meaning - in a really profound way - for people directly involved and for people just passing by.


Pat McNally: Jane Jacobs noted the importance of having funeral homes and cemeteries as a part of the urban landscape. Do you think that these people and institutions contribute to a neighborhood?

Kory McGrath: Absolutely, and only when, they interact with the neighbourhood, not only in providing their services, but also by being a model for high ethics & reverence, fair business practices, engagement in compassionate outreach, and in demonstrating both social & environmental responsibility. It doesn't hurt to have a little fun too - like the cemeteries who employ an 'Artist-in-Residence' and the funeral providers who host artistic events in their facilities. Programs like this contribute to breaking down the barriers, the taboo, the ghoulish associations generally made to "The Dismal Trade" (as coined by poet & funeral director Thomas Lynch).

Pat McNally: The visibility of funeral homes in urban areas has decreased quite a bit in many North American Cities. Certainly this has affected the neighborhoods. Do you think that this move away from the neighborhoods has affected funeral directors as well? Are they less in tune with their clients because of this change?

Kory McGrath: Hmm. Good question. I don't know if I've articulated my answer here very well, but here goes: Speaking from my own personal experience, I think it is important to work close to home not only to cut down the amount of hours we spend commuting (guzzling gas and spending more time away from our families) but also as an investment into our local economy in terms of building & maintaining professional relationships with neighbouring merchants and interacting with community members. Funeral directors are affected when they solely drive to work to" do their jobs", and no longer become emotionally and socially invested in their neighbourhoods.

I also believe funeral directors are affected when the only work experience they have are with these larger corporate-style funeral firms that generally pop-up outside the city after having bought-up all the 'mom-and-pop' city parlours and where they are assigned tasks based on their best strengths - say a strong sales person only gets to engage in the funeral arrangement, and an apprentice only gets to be in the embalming room. Though seemingly more efficient, it doesn't equip a professional with the full spectrum of skills required to wholly serve families and typecasts them into one role which is detrimental if they ever wish to advance themselves. Not to mention the disconnected services provided to the family who get shuffled from person to person for each area of 'the transaction.'

On the other hand, many funeral homes migrate from the city to follow the ethnic or religious communities they have been serving for generations, so to the business, perhaps it is a matter of survival to pick up and leave town, rather than remain and adapt to the change. So in a way, these funeral directors are loyal to the families they serve, but not to the neighbourhoods they operate from. And I think that is a bit unfortunate - because they avoid ever having to change the way they conduct business, they just keep doing "what they've always done," which isn't always best for the consumer.


home funeral green

Pat McNally: What is your goal in this project?

Kory McGrath: Mostly to start a dialogue. To get people thinking about

funeral homes, funeral directors, death, grief, memorials and

listening to people talk about their personal experiences and any of

their own interactions in these areas and their ideas on what they

think is required in order for funeral professionals, funeral

storefronts, and memorial businesses to remain relevant to our

changing society. The thing is, 9 out of 10 people I've encountered in

my lifetime of being a funeral director still have this idea that it

is a grisly trade, that they hate funerals, that they think the

funeral industry is out to rob people, and so on.

I just believe there is so much potential that is not being explored - and it's generally

our fault - funeral directors get stuck in this script or hold onto

the traits of their forefathers - and all of those business practices,

especially in the urban setting, have for the most part expired. Why

aren't we encouraging families to have more input, to be more

participatory? Why aren't we walking alongside them in their journey,

not 'directing' it. Why are we resilient to the greening of our

industry? We should be leading it.

So I suppose, in a nutshell, my goal is to do to funeral services what

midwives did to the Birth process: to bring it back home. To give it

back to families, empowering them and creating the opportunity for a

more profound experience. The truth is, our skills will always be

required, but how we deliver them needs to be re-thought.

Pat McNally: I couldn't agree more! As funeral directors, we need to

encourage and facilitate more participation from the families we

serve. The movements toward green funerals and home funerals could

gain a lot if funeral directors engaged in the dialog and helped to

facilitate the changing desires and values of families interested in

these experiences. As an industry, we really do need to rethink how we

deliver our services and share our expertise. Mostly, I think, we need

to listen to what families and communities are saying, and respond in

a creative and compassionate manner. Funeral service is all about

relationships, and if we've lost touch with our communities, those

relationships need to be repaired.

new funeral

Funeral Procession

Pat McNally: How can others get involved?

Kory McGrath: Most obviously, I'd encourage people to "Get Out and Walk" and discover the history and personalities that abound in their own neighbourhoods, talk to fellow civilians, ask questions and share stories and insights. Funeral professionals around the World could get more involved by emulating a similar walk where they live or holding a 'Doors Open' type of event at their workplace, inviting people to interact with the business at a time that is neutral in their lives - not just when they are in need of funeral services. I would also say that every funeral and non-funeral person needs to watch the film
Departures.

Jane's Walk is in its 4th year in
Toronto and it is being held annually around the World. I will likely be involved in a similar walk in the years to come and am interested in taking the funeral walk into rural communities as well, to compare & contrast how funeral providers work in cities, towns, and perhaps one day, territories in the North.


Pat McNally: Is there a way to remedy the situation, bringing these influences back into neighborhoods? How can we adapt to the new landscape in a positive and creative way as individuals, neighborhoods, funeral service providers?

Kory McGrath: We are always having to reinvent ourselves - An editor for a gardening magazine becomes a gardening consultant or designer when they are laid off because no one buys magazines anymore. Furniture makers became undertakers when communities needed someone to make coffins for them, and later became morticians that offered embalming services. But now, I believe we have to think outside of bricks-and-mortar. There are many meaningful and creative ways to influence neighbourhoods without a storefront, or, by using "New ideas in old Buildings" (Jane Jacobs). I'll leave that to your imagination.


home funeral

Archival Funeral Home Receipt

Pat McNally: Any parting thoughts or observations?

Kory McGrath: I love the diversity of your website. If only there were more funeral professionals engaging in this kind of dialogue & exploration. I commend you on the creative and thoughtful approach you have taken to your profession. Can I interview you next time?!!

Pat McNally: Absolutely! Thank you so much for sharing your project and your thoughts with The Daily Undertaker.

for more information on the walk, please visit Jane's Walk

and the website of Ms. McGrath's firm, The Remember Network

1 comment:

Charles Cowling said...

My goodness, Kory is a very intelligent and wise person. I've read this piece twice, but I'll be coming back to it for a while yet. It is very thought-full and thought-provoking.

I'd like to have learned more about her practice: how she realises her ideas. Matter, perhaps, for a followup interview?

Thank you, Pat, for putting us in touch with Ms McGrath. She is going to make a difference.

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Funeral service faces a crisis of relevance, and I am passionate about keeping the best traditions of service alive while adapting to the changing needs of families. Feel free to contact me with questions, or to share your thoughts on funeral service, ritual, and memorialization. dailyundertaker@gmail.com

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