Anticipating the dead

A funeral director’s job is tough, but it’s all part of the territory

There are 17 caskets kept in the selection room at Robert J. Reid & Sons funeral home at Barrie and Johnson Streets.
There are 17 caskets kept in the selection room at Robert J. Reid & Sons funeral home at Barrie and Johnson Streets.
Robert J. Reid & Sons was founded in 1901.
Robert J. Reid & Sons was founded in 1901.
The chapel seats up to 200 people.
The chapel seats up to 200 people.

Tim Bailey wants to break down sometimes, but he knows he can’t.

It’s the nature of his business. As a funeral home director, Bailey is the one that families must turn to when they can’t keep it together.

Outside of Robert J. Reid & Sons Funeral Home, Bailey looks like any other man in his late 30s. He’s the one who helps plan funerals from the embalming to the burial.

As our interview moves on, he becomes friendly and open, but you can tell he’s guarded with his first few answers. Maybe it’s not often that he talks about his work this way.

Throughout the interview, I make mental notes about who he is, what he’s like. I think that it’ll help me figure out what it takes to work in the funeral business, not that I’ve ever wanted to go into it myself.

When I go home, I find myself jotting down recollections from our time together. I title it “Things To Know About Tim,” and it consists of arbitrary observations like how he’s tired of the smell of flowers, has two sons and has never seen HBO’s Six Feet Under.

Bailey’s spent the entirety of his career within the walls of the surprisingly-large house.

Founded in 1901, Robert J. Reid & Sons sits on the corner of Barrie and Johnson Streets. Formerly entirely family-owned, it once used to occupy a space on Princess St., now taken by the Gap.

It’s an inconspicuous building, with a memorial bench and a fountain outside. On a Tuesday morning, the corner’s as quiet as the inside of the funeral home.

But it could all change with a phone call.

“You never know until you pick the phone up,” Bailey said. “You never know what the journey is of the family — if they’ve been sitting bedside for days or if they got a call at two in the morning that their mother’s passed away.”

Bailey offers me coffee almost as soon as I meet him; being friendly seems to be one of his natural talents.

“I got into this job because I like the whole atmosphere,” he said. “You’ve just got to make people feel comfortable. You’ve got to visit [a term for when people come to plan funerals], and be able to talk about nothing and everything all at the same time.”

It’s a succinct description of a job that can mean so many things. For some people, the funeral director lays out the two most important options — cremation or burial?

For others, he’s the mediator of a family conflict, a shoulder to cry on or the last person to ever see your mom before the casket lid is shut.

“The truth is, we always ask the family if they’d like to remain [and shut the casket],” he said. “They usually say no. At least they have the option.”

At this point in the interview, we’re standing in the middle of the casket selection room.

There are 17 caskets around us, all in different wood finishes, and we’re talking about appreciating life. The job gets harder when you’re dealing with kids, he tells me.

“There’s an eight-year-old girl. We’ll be getting ready for her wake tomorrow,” he said at that time.

It puts his life into perspective. At the end of his day, he can still go home to his nine-year-old son.

“[Maybe] he has a little homework to do, or he’s a little whiny [but] that’s really not a big deal, is it?”

There’s a little ache in his voice here. Funeral home staff are light-hearted folks, with whistling and jokes, but it’s still a business about death. There’s still tragedy and sobering loss.

Bailey’s kids must be different, though. Unlike most children, they understand a little more about death. Their dad is around it every day, after all.

“We just started [explaining it with] … ‘when people die, daddy gets them and puts them on the table at work.’”

The questions don’t stop, though.

“There’d be something on the news about somebody who died somewhere,” Bailey said. “And [my son would] ask me did I get up last night to get that body. ‘Did you get that guy, daddy? Is he on your table?’”

It all seems so casual now to the ex-farm boy who grew up on tractors, watching life and death happen with each passing generation of cows and calves.

“This is a dead animal. I need to deal with it, so you just do what you do,” he said. “[It’s] on a different level with people, but it’s just a dead person. Something needs to happen.”

After years in the business, Bailey said, funeral directors become familiar with the peak season for deaths — the weeks after Christmas. That’s why, between Reid & Sons and their two affiliate funeral homes, there are 17 decedents waiting for burial or cremation.

“There’s something internally with a lot of [terminally ill] people that can help them along so they make it to Christmas,” he said. “And after Christmas … they let themselves go then.”

At social gatherings, Bailey said he needs to keep up his professionalism, being guarded with his words.

Not everyone wants to overhear details behind a death after all, because it might be their neighbour. Or their cousin. Or best friend.

“If … you’re at a bar somewhere, you can’t just get loaded up and get up on the tables and dance or get in a fight because you’re the funeral director,” Bailey said. “You’re always on, if you will.”

The conversation gets easier from here. I ask if he’s superstitious. He’s not, though his son saw a ghostly apparition once. Does he still have a favourite flower? “The light ones,” he said.

Most embalming takes place at their affiliate, Gordon F. Tompkins Funeral Home on Colborne St., but sitting on the counter of Reid and Sons’ basement embalming room, there’s an urn with one half of a married couple inside. The other is on its way, but I wonder how an entire person can be held in two handfuls.

“They’ll be together in this urn forever,” he said.

Behind us is what Bailey’s sons call “his table.” It’s a bed, slightly shaped like a surgical table, where people are made to look peaceful in death.

It can’t have always been easy for Bailey, so I ask him what his first time embalming was like — before two years of training in Humber College’s funeral services program.

Here’s a memory that’s lasted throughout his 16-year career. He tells me that everyone in the business has their stories they cling on to. This seems to be one of his.

An 18-year-old Bailey, a few weeks into working for the local funeral home, was asked to embalm the body of a hockey teammate, a boy he’d sat next to on the school bus.

“Friday night I’m playing hockey with the guy … and on Saturday night I’m looking at the inside of his head,” he said. “The funeral director then said to me, ‘You’re not doing this for you. You’re doing this for his mum and dad.’”

Now embalming is routine. It only takes two hours, but families are always impressed with the work.

“They think we’ve done a wonderful job but we’ve basically just given them a better image to say goodbye to, rather than what they saw at the nursing home or at the hospital.”

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