New book explores funerals in Ontario

Minister and journalist chosen to pen book for industry group

In a new book presented to the Northern District Library, local journalist and minister Ken Bagnell tells the history of funeral services in Ontario.

It may sound like a narrow focus, but consider this: how many professionals in our society truly touch every one of our lives?

The Ontario Funeral Services Association commissioned the book, entitled Then and Now.

Having written on the subject for decades in several national and local publications, Bagnell was happy to accept the job.

“I thought it was a field I could make interesting to people,” he said. “There is an awful lot of history in the funeral profession.”

Bagnell, who got his start in journalism and the ministry in early 1950s Glace Bay, Nova Scotia, came to Toronto to work with the United Church Observer.

Through his work with the Observer and other publications, Bagnell had the chance to write numerous articles over the years on the subjects of death and bereavement.

One of his first high-profile pieces appeared in a 1964 edition of Maclean’s.

The article was in response to famous American muckraker Jessica Mitford’s The American Way of Death, a polemic book that called attention to corruption and greed in the funeral business.

Bagnell came to the defense of funeral directors and what he called their positive, essential role in society.

While this particular article doesn’t appear in the new book, several other works do.

One example is the story of the humane role Ontario funeral directors played in the 1970 Air Canada Flight 621 disaster that killed all 109 people aboard when crashed in Woodbridge.

A funeral director was one of the first people at the scene. He organized a team of his peers from across the province and together they undertook the grim and sensitive duty of dealing with both the physical remains of those who perished, while notifying affected
families, who were to be found in 27 countries.

For those whose families couldn’t be reached, that first funeral director held an inter-faith burial service at Mount Pleasant Cemetery.

The book also contains a story about women coming into a profession that was one of the last to accept females.

“Funeral directing was considered to be a highly male occupation because we had the view that you had to have a strong male constitution to do it,” says Bagnell.

“But the funeral is basically for the living, the family, and women have the maternal instinct that befits that role.”

The most surprising story, says Bagnell, involves his own work as a journalist in the field.

In the early 1970s, Bagnell was putting together a piece on the cursory funeral services provided by the state for people with no relatives.

He befriended a government official and few weeks later Bagnell found himself the lone mourner in a chapel at the funeral of a man named Harry.

As the service began, the officiating minister read some lines from a poem. When he got to a line, “Let me take happy memories as I go,” the minister collapsed, dead.

There was nothing for Bagnell to do but finish Harry’s service himself.

Bagnell’s other books, including 1980’s The Little Immigrants are available online, but so far, Northern District Library is the only place to catch the new book.

About this article:

By: Christopher Reynolds
Posted: Feb 16 2010 3:35 pm
Filed in: NEWS
Edition: Toronto