‘I imagine we die in the same way we live’: Investigating deathcare in Kingston

Expert discusses the processes, options, and personalities of deathcare

Lots of organizations are working to raise awareness for deathcare. 

Aileen Stewart, a deathcare guide in Kingston, told The Journal she got into the business of deathcare through her daughter, who was training to be a midwife at the time.

“The birth and death similarities are so astounding in many ways,” she said.

The term deathcare refers to the planning and services that occur posthumously. The industry includes funerals, burials, and cremations.

It also encompasses events that happen prior to death, like hospice, palliative care, and alternatives to traditional industrial practices such as “natural death” or green burial. 

Stewart has been a Kingston resident for several years and works as a deathcare guide in the community; she’s involved in both death itself and the services that follow it. She explained her experience with deathcare starting with the beginning of her career.

“Mostly, I help people figure out what their death plan is [and] guide their family and friends in [fulfilling] those wishes after the person’s death,” she said.

Stewart said in the same way a midwife offers a natural, at-home alternative to the medicalized process of birth, many embrace the opportunity for an at-home death. The term for this practice is a “natural death,” which Stewart said, “gives you an opportunity to process your own grief.” 

Natural death involves the practice of performing rituals of caring for the body, the physical preparation for burial, and its final transportation—like to the cemetery, for example—entirely in the home. As a deathcare guide, Stewart helps the deceased person’s family through not only the practical elements of natural death, but the emotional elements as well.

“It really is about being with somebody through the dying process,” Stewart said. “You’re not meant to do this kind of stuff alone. You need others around you. 

She recalled a personally memorable experience of a single mother whose own mother had just died. The woman described how meaningful it was for her to have this time with her mother because “it slowed everything down.” 

“When someone dies, it’s easy to get caught up in the details and not actually be with the emotions that are there,” Stewart said. “We think, ‘we’ll deal with that afterwards,’ but there’s no hurry.”

Stewart said her work gives families the power to handle death on their own, because many people are unaware of their and their loved one’s right to deathcare.

However, despite the option for total individual control of the deathcare process, she finds that a hybrid form of care is becoming increasingly popular. People like having individual autonomy over the deathcare process in terms of paperwork and emotional support, but they’re also happy to have places like funeral homes help with the technical parts of it.

The Funeral Home

The James Reid Funeral Home located at Princess Street and John Counter Boulevard is one Kingston business that provides deathcare services.

Family owned and locally operated since 1854, it hosts an on-site crematorium, a chapel, and multiple rooms for gathering. One such space, the Reception and Celebration Centre, is similar to a living room, with large windows, ample sunlight, and cream-colored couches with plenty of cushions.

Installed nine years ago, the crematorium offers a level of unique personal connection. Owner, Licensed Funeral Director, and Queen’s graduate Jim Reid told The Journal about the many reunions among family and friends that have occurred in this space. 

Reid said the funeral home allows people to meet the staff directly responsible for the cremation of their loved ones, which builds trust and aids the overall deathcare process.

While COVID-19 restrictions were in full effect, cremation became one of the most popular forms of posthumous care in Canada, at a rate of about 75 per cent in 2021. By 2025, about 82 per cent of all deaths are expected to result in cremation

The effects of COVID-19 were deeply felt across the funeral industry, and the James Reid Funeral Home was no exception. Restrictions on the number of people who could attend services meant increased staffing to maintain social distancing and ensure the safety of both customers and staff.

However, during the height of the pandemic and beyond, staff continued to find ways to improve the level of care for patrons.

Sarah Reid, assistant manager and Jim Reid’s daughter, recently arranged for the removal of front-row pews in the chapel. The removal created seating for individuals with disabilities who use mobility aids, which Reid said was happily used the next day. 

Every aspect of the funeral home, from interior design to services rendered, were selected with comfort in mind. It emphasizes personal care—a commonality across almost all aspects of deathcare, including Stewart’s work as a deathcare guide.

James Reid focuses on easing the process of grief by helping with the funeral process. Stewart spoke to her collaboration with him.

“I think [they’re] the most community-based funeral home […] We’ve actually partnered a couple of times now.” 

Sustainability in Deathcare

Another collaboration comes in the form of Green Burial Kingston, a non-profit organization advocating for sustainable burial in the greater Kingston community.

Green burial is a blanket term for many types of sustainable burials, such as the use of biodegradable caskets or simple cotton shrouds that exist outside of traditional practices. It has risen in popularity in recent years, primarily among young people looking to reduce their carbon footprint in a more environmentally friendly form of death care.

However, green burial exists at a constructive intersection between alternative and traditional deathcare. 

Both Reid and Stewart work with Green Burial Kingston.

“We’ve been trying to get a site for green burial in Kingston, because the closest [one] is in Cobourg or Pickton,” Stewart said.

Due to strict government regulations, sites offering space for green burial are rare. Stewart said all the sites for green burial cemeteries in Ontario have the green burial section within a traditional cemetery. If such a site were to be built in Kingston, businesses like James Reid Funeral Home could offer transportation or preparation for green burial.

Already, James Reid offers environmentally friendly options for burial, like bamboo caskets and woven urns.

For those interested in getting involved, Green Burial Kingston is holding their next meeting to discuss plans for a green burial site on Nov. 1 at the Kingston Central Library. 

Conversations on Death

Despite the remarkable breadth of personal choice available in deathcare, most people are unwilling to talk about the subject.  

“People don’t realize that there are options,” Stewart said.

Death, especially for young people, may not always seem like an easy topic to broach. However, from alternative to traditional, people across the spectrum are looking to start the conversation. 

Groups like the Order of the Good Death, founded in 2011 by California-based funeral director Caitlin Doughty, promote resources and education online and in-person about aspects of natural death—such as the physical preparation of the body within the home—and traditional deathcare, in the form of insights into the funeral practice from people in the field.

Smaller, community-focused groups, such as Kingston’s Closing Time, also speak on this issue of communication. Founded by Stewart in 2017, Closing Time met regularly until the COVID-19 pandemic began.

Stewart explained the group is a way for her to get to the know the community and understand what people are interested in talking about.

“People were drawn to the group for different reasons: some from their own unresolved grief or experiences they’d had with a death that was not ideal.”

Though many people sought out Closing Time for difficult reasons, Stewart said the conversation is “enlivening.”

“It’s about life as well. People come out of it feeling a little more alive.”

Although it may be difficult for younger members of the Queen’s community, particularly students, to start thinking about deathcare, the practical and emotional benefits are numerous according to experts like Stewart and Reid.

For example, some funeral homes offer pre-paid funeral plans designed to reduce funeral costs by combatting inflation to ease the burden of planning during times of grief.

Sarah Reid said from a financial standpoint, it helps to treat deathcare like an investment. The more you plan now—by organizing things like a will, powers of attorney, and a funeral plan—the easier you will ultimately make the deathcare process for yourself and your family. 

Deathcare as a Familiar Practice

Stewart also spoke to the emotional advantages of tackling the taboos surrounding deathcare from a familial standpoint—namely, in discussing the desired deathcare plans of your parents or grandparents.

“It opens up a doorway to conversation that can be so meaningful […] because then, when that person dies, you have a trail of breadcrumbs,” she said.

The many options available in deathcare for honouring the unique, personal, final wishes of a loved one become infinitely easier to navigate when you know exactly what those unique, personal wishes entail, Stewart said.

“You have certain values in your life, and if you want those also honoured after your death, then it’s important to talk about it.” 

Additionally, Stewart said there’s a profound, spiritual element to cultivating comfort with not only the process of deathcare, but the act of dying itself.

“A bonus about talking or thinking about your own death is that it increases your awareness of our mortality, which I think gives a heightened awareness of being alive right now,” Stewart said. “You’re not taking for granted [that you] woke up this morning.”

Familiarity with the process is one of first steps to easing into death and deathcare, according to Stewart. When she first entered deathcare as a career, she had never experienced the death of a loved one.

“I didn’t have any experience of death, but my interest in it prepared me better for when my dad was dying,” she said.

She said she felt overwhelmed with the process of her father dying but was better prepared for it because she could advocate for him. She had a great relationship with the palliative team and learned may things from the experience itself.

She smiled and said jokingly, “thanks, Dad.”

Ultimately, according to experts, deathcare is a process aimed to honour personal choice. From traditional funeral practices to natural death, to green burial and beyond, the broad spectrum of options in deathcare means your values while alive matter when you’re dead, too.

“I imagine we die in the same way we live,” Stewart said.

Several resources exist on-campus for members of the Queen’s community who are navigating grief. Queen’s Faith and Spiritual Life webpage has links to resources like the Kingston chapter of Bereaved Families of Ontario, a group that offers services and support for individuals and families mourning the loss of a loved one.

You can also email Faith and Spiritual Life to have a conversation with a chaplain—it has no religious or faith-based requirement. Student Wellness Services also has other resources available.


death, family, funerals

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