Father was a Funeral Man
written in 1986 by James W. Reid about his father, Fred C. Reid
James Reid 1829-1900
Father was a “Funeral Man.” He got this name from the Wolfe Island farmers. Father never liked the word “Undertaker.” He never swore, but when he got through with his famous, “I never heard of such a thing in all me life,” speech, the culprit who dared blaspheme the words “Funeral Director” ended up as subdued as the rawest recruit before the toughest Regimental Sergeant Major. To Wolfe Island farmers, “Funeral Director” was simply too highfalutin. So they compromised with “Funeral Man” and this seemed to satisfy Father.
Father was respected and feared by practically everyone including the town police, the volunteer fire department, and the clergy in particular. To use his own words, he made them all “form fours.”
“You gotta use psyology,” he later told me, instructing me in the funeral business.
Father used to kill the King’s English, but regardless of his pronunciation, his sincere manner and look brought comfort to hundreds of bereaved families. Looking back, I believe Father gave so much more of himself than ever was expected. Years after he died I was to hear repeated so many times, “What a wonderful man he was.”
Father had little formal education, but he was a prodigious reader. His discussions on politics, economics and world news were really orations that brooked no rebuttals. He always seemed to be right too.
Father was a religious man. He himself was living proof of the power of prayer. Every morning, noon and night he would kneel beside his bed and pray. “This is what gives me my strength,” he would say, and up until his stroke at a ripe old age, he could work any man under the table.
No one knew Father’s political affiliations. I remember Father meeting R.B. Bennett, Canadian Prime Minister in the early 1930s, on the steps of a church at a funeral in our town. They resembled each other in their bowler hats. They must have impressed each other because they held the funeral up until they were ready to stop talking. Mourners and friends just stood around and gawked while these two great men defined the ills of the world.
Father was the damnest man for keeping secrets. I remember quite well the secret about the formula for the making of embalming fluid. Father kept it locked up in a drawer in the safe. About once a month he would get out the formula and a large steel drum and proceed to mix formaldehyde, alcohol and glycerin in certain proportions and to this he would add a certain amount of pink colouring matter. There was no doubt that Father’s corpses certainly took on a life-like complexion and a lot of them certainly looked much better dead than when they were alive!
It was a standard joke around town that when Father embalmed Wolfe Island farmers he would put in a couple of extra quarts of alcohol just to make these hard drinking folks feel at home.
In the Thirties, our “Funeral Home” was really just a large back room behind our furniture store. It was generally filled with furniture that was taken out to make room for folding chairs and the catafalque, a fold up table covered with wine velvet on which the casket rested as well as a fold up wine velvet background. There was a pump organ in the corner and two 9’ x 12’ carpets that were laid on the floor side by side.
Next to this room towards the front door of the furniture store were rolls of Gold Seal congoleum and linoleum. The price lists were tacked onto the “Funeral Home” swinging doors. Nothing was thought of this, or of the fact that if we were selling linoleum, mourners had to gingerly step over and around us. From there to the front door was an assortment of furniture, beds, and mattresses. In the middle was a small office for Father. It comprised a desk and chair, another chair and a day-bed upholstered in cotton chintz.
I can still see Father sitting in this little office with people who were making funeral arrangements sitting on the little day-bed. There were nights this day-bed was used as a bed. Father would never leave a body alone. If a body was lain out in the “Chapel” overnight, he always had one of the help sleep in the office. I have done it myself. It was called “crying,” probably derived from people sitting up all night with the corpse in Irish wakes. I think Father was more afraid of fire. “Saving” the corpse was his first concern.
Wheeling the casket through the furniture store was of no consequence to anyone. The hearse was parked in front. It used to be horses, but in my day it was a very elaborate carved and embossed vehicle. It was my father’s pride and joy. It was a Henney. Old timers may remember them.
Father’s old Studebaker led the procession, followed by the pallbearers’ car, the hearse and the mourners’ car. Father would drive right down Princess Street. He could have taken lots of short cuts to any of the town’s three cemeteries.
Father certainly was a “Funeral Man.” I can still see him in his top hat and Prince Albert coat, driving his old Studebaker. He would ‘bull’ his way through anything. If he hit the side of the garage door he kept on going. If he turned too sharp into a farmer’s gate way he would take post and all on his way through. He kept the local garage busy banging out his dented fenders.
Ministers were afraid to drive with him. His favourite tactic was to aim his car directly at oncoming traffic when leading a funeral procession, if they didn’t stop. The locals, of course, all knew Father’s idiosyncrasies and pulled over immediately when they saw him coming. It was the strangers that gave the Ministers apoplexy.
It was years after I received my license that Father would condescend to let me drive him at funerals. He would deposit the Minister in the back seat and then with a, “move over,” he would huff and puff his way in beside him, wave his hand which was dressed in a grey silk glove and which was a signal to start off. Father never trusted my driving. If I drove faster than ten miles per hour he would admonish me, then he would break into song (one of his favourite hymns), suddenly cut if off and lecture the Minister on “the ways of the world,” admonish me again, and so on all the way to the cemetery.
The way to the cemetery seemed awfully long to a young man who had a heavy foot for the throttle. One day I remember trying to break up Father’s favourite patter of song and lecture by telling a little joke. It was the old chestnut about the Minister preaching about the evils of drinking. I can still see Father’s ears pricking up since he was dead set against drinking. The Minister in my joke said, “We should take all the booze and dump it in the river.”
“Amen,” said Father, not knowing what was to come.
“This concludes my sermon,” said my Minister. “We shall all sing, Shall We Gather At The River?”
The Preacher with Father laughed his head off but Father scowled.
Driving back from the cemetery, Father would always light up a stogie and remark as we drove through the gates that he had made it again. It was the closest he ever came to joking and the Preachers always laughed heartily at this remark regardless of how many times they had heard it. I can still picture Father as I looked in the rear view mirror. There he was wreathed in a veil of cigar smoke, his snow white hair glimmering like a mirage and his grey gloved hands gesticulating as he talked on “the ways of the world.”
When Father wasn’t busy in the store or conducting a funeral, he used to stand at the front door of the store and speak to everyone who walked up and down the street. He knew a lot of people by name. The men he didn’t know he called ‘Bill.’ Years later many men would tell me that my father always thought their names were Bill.
Looking back fifty years, it didn’t seem strange to me then that Father would stand at the store’s front door and sing. Yes, sing, and he had a wonderful voice. Of course, they were hymns and nobody thought that was peculiar. In Ireland today in little towns many shopkeepers still do. Father’s family came from Killyleigh in County Down, Northern Ireland. I have seen Irish men also carry on a conversation with a motorist while standing in the front door of their stores. Naturally, Father did this, too. Traffic would be held up and wait patiently for Father, Funeral Man. I sure was proud to be his son.