Up the Gatineau! Articles
The following article was first published in Up the Gatineau! Volume 45.
A History of Dying in the Gatineau Valley
One day in 1919, young Charlie Chamberlin was standing on the railway tracks in Wakefield, skipping stones across the Gatineau River, when he saw the funeral carriage of I. B. York coming down the road. Large black horses pulled the hearse. Onboard was York himself, wearing a cutaway coat and a top hat, a Vandyke beard on his chin. Charlie gazed up in awe at the village undertaker as he passed by. Chamberlin recounted this boyhood memory in Norma Geggie’s Up the Gatineau! article about that prominent Wakefielder, Isaac Brown York.1
York established his undertaking business against a backdrop of nationwide change. At the turn of the 19th century across North America and Great Britain, business and death entered into a complicated relationship. Death-care work, previously performed by the family of the deceased, increasingly fell under the jurisdiction of trained and licensed professionals, known as undertakers.2 New scientific processes to handle bodies, such as embalming, became the norm. The place for the deceased’s body was moved from the family home to the funeral home, leaving traditional waking customs by the wayside. As families and communities were slowly separated from the visual and physical reality of death, an uneasiness grew about the business, which seemingly sought to turn a profit from their patrons’ grief.
Source documents (newspapers, parliamentary papers and magazines) on the growth of the death-care industry in Canada from the late 1800s to 1950 focus on highly populated areas and thus reflect urban attitudes. However, the death-care industry did not evolve uniformly across all locales. The rural Gatineau Valley evolved differently, due to its low population, limited access to technology, and transportation challenges. Community recollections and stories, such as Charles Chamberlin’s, reveal the diversity in the evolution of the funeral industry, especially between rural and urban settings. In addition, this comparison can contextualize our community’s position in the larger Canadian picture.
At the end of the 19th century, the undertaking profession had yet to be clearly defined. Most practitioners began their careers as cabinetmakers or, with mass-production manufacturing on the rise, furniture retailers. They sold coffins, and the increasingly popular casket, along with other wooden furniture. In an effort to increase profits and expand their businesses, undertakers started offering funeral “accessories,” such as veils and casket covers rented from third-party suppliers. They also added more services, such as obtaining burial plots and organizing transportation, duties that were previously carried out by the family of the deceased themselves, and initially at least, required no apparent specialized skills or training.
The arrival of mass-production manufacturing led to public resentment for the business “middleman” across all professions, but undertakers faced particular scrutiny because their commodity was death. Although opinions were not exclusively negative, urban newspapers from the late 1800s reflect a certain public attitude to undertakers. They were often framed as taking advantage of people in their most vulnerable, emotionally unstable state, for their own financial gain. This disreputable image was enough of a problem that by 1884, undertakers in Toronto (swiftly followed by those in other provinces) created a professional association that regulated undertaking practices to ensure their quality. The association committed itself to purging its ranks of “morally corrupt” men who had soiled the profession’s
The arrival of mass-production manufacturing led to public resentment for the business “middleman” across all professions, but undertakers faced particular scrutiny because their commodity was death. Although opinions were not exclusively negative, urban newspapers from the late 1800s reflect a certain public attitude to undertakers. They were often framed as taking advantage of people in their most vulnerable, emotionally unstable state, for their own financial gain. This disreputable image was enough of a problem that by 1884, undertakers in Toronto (swiftly followed by those in other provinces) created a professional association that regulated undertaking practices to ensure their quality. The association committed itself to purging its ranks of “morally corrupt” men who had soiled the profession’s name.3 Founding member J. B. McIntyre wrote in his article “How Can A Successful Undertaking Business Be Built Up?” that an undertaker must be honorable, have integrity, and be polite as he met with people with all sorts of “prejudices and preconceived notions.”4
Within this context, I. B. York presents an interesting contrast. York was born in 1855, of Irish descent. He moved from Metcalfe, Ontario, to Wakefield as a young man, at the behest of his mother, to apprentice as a blacksmith under local entrepreneur and builder Robert Earle. He eventually established his own blacksmith shop in the village, and later added a funeral directorship to his business. York’s shop stood near what is now the former Hamilton Motors lot, on Riverside Drive in the southern end of the village.
Charles Chamberlin’s recollections of York illuminate the community’s perception of him in the then-young community. Chamberlin described him as an “impressive figure,” asserting that “he looked in every way the gentleman of the day.” He “couldn’t help but a feel a little in awe” of York. In contrast to the negative attitudes to undertakers in urban areas, this was not a man disliked or feared by his community, but one who commanded respect.
A number of factors may explain this attitude. To begin with, York was not exclusively an undertaker. Though by York’s time specialization in undertaking was becoming the norm, the rural conditions of Wakefield slowed that transition. There were not enough people dying in Wakefield to support a venture that relied entirely on death. To make a living, a rural undertaker had to take on multiple roles.
York had begun his career as a blacksmith, and then added other occupations. He operated a general store that dealt in farm machinery, sold dry goods, and even had a candy counter. At one point he was the postmaster, acting as an indispensable line of communication for all those living in Wakefield. Thus, the link between York’s money and death was less pronounced than for full-time undertakers. His varied income streams involved him in people’s lives in a multitude of roles. Wakefield people viewed him as a man who served his community, not extorted it: someone who aided families coping with the death of a loved one. The village undertaker was in a position of trust, viewed in the same light as a family doctor.5
In addition, as a village resident, York could not be a stranger to his clientele, a disconnected businessman. He lived close to his clients and moved in the same social circles. He attended the Presbyterian church, where he served as the clerk of session, and sat on the school board. As Norma Geggie wrote, “There was not a man, woman or child, and in fact in the community, whose life had not been touched in some way by I. B.” The undertaker in Wakefield was a community leader and held in esteem, in contrast to the sensationalized views publicized in Canadian cities.
At the end of the 19th century, undertakers increasingly adopted embalming— an injection of chemicals that delayed the decomposition of bodies. This practice first became popular during the American Civil War. Because families wanted their loved ones who fell in battle returned to them, the American government found itself transporting large numbers of corpses across the country. To deal with public health concerns about the potential spread of disease, the practice of embalming started. Its popularity grew in the general population, in part for sentimental reasons, because it allowed families to see their loved ones similar to how they had looked in life.
Death-care workers encouraged its growth too, since the specialized knowledge needed for embalming transformed their position. It required training and could be viewed as a legitimate service by the public, as Canadian funeral publications regularly stated. Embalming was also considered the most sanitary way to handle a dead body. Undertakers pushed their clients to opt for embalming, perpetuating this practice. The preparation of the body became a defining characteristic of the profession.
It appears that undertakers in the Gatineau Valley in the late 19th and early 20th century did not practice embalming. This service would certainly have been available in Ottawa, but that would have involved transporting the body to the city. This meant that some local families continued to prepare the bodies of their dead themselves, rather than hiring a professional.
The result was the continuation of intimate dealings with deceased family members, a practice that would have by then become outdated in other places. An anecdote about such is recounted in a collection of Gatineau Valley folklore by local historians Venetia Crawford and Gunda Lambton.6 In their book, Clifford Robillard shares a story of a wake from his youth. When a close family friend (and distant relative) Dan O’Brien died, Clifford and his father started preparing the body themselves. Young Clifford, even though he had never even shaved his own face, was charged with shaving the face of their deceased friend. As the two men went about their business, Clifford recalled how bodily gas began expelling from the corpse’s mouth. He was sent to their car for the patching cement used for flat tires. The men combined the cement with toilet paper and, using a tablespoon, put the mixture down Dan’s throat. A unique homemade treatment, after which the men washed and dressed Dan for his wake.
Distance did not always prevent professional embalming for deceased residents of the Gatineau Valley. Increasingly over time, bodies were sent to the city to be embalmed by a funeral director. Plenty of issues came along with transporting the body back and forth across extended distances in early days, especially during the winter. Snow could close the roads until they had been packed down by rollers. This could delay funeral dates.
The growth of the undertaking profession also brought about the funeral home, where funeral directors housed the body, prepared it for burial, and hosted wake services. Wakes had traditionally been held in the homes of family members. In urban households, this practice became increasingly rare over the late 19th and early 20th century, and eventually disappeared.
In the Gatineau Valley, this shift took place gradually. In Wakefield, when I. B. York died in 1930, the business was passed on to his daughter, May York, and her husband, Wilfred MacNair. The couple relocated to Burnside Avenue three years later, after a fire destroyed the old shop. In 1950, Ross Shouldice took over the directorship.
In more remote areas of the Valley, there was not enough demand for the services of a funeral home. The bodies of deceased loved ones continued to be waked in family households into the 1950s. Even when a body had been embalmed and prepared for viewing in a funeral home in the city, it was sometimes sent back to the community to be waked. Perhaps this was also to limit travel for family and friends.
Keeping the body in the home for a wake meant that families also maintained more traditional waking practices. In particular, the Irish wake survived in the Gatineau Valley longer than in urban areas. In my conversation with Dan Sullivan, who is the location manager of McEvoy-Shields Funeral Home in Ottawa, but has roots in the Gatineau Valley, he noted that advances in transportation, resulting in shortened travel times, has changed mourning practices. The wake—traditionally a two-day event—has been reduced to an afternoon, in part because the time and effort required for travel has lessened. Traditionally, a loved one, or two, stayed up overnight and watched over the body during the wake period. The length of the wake is, of course, the family’s choice. This changed more slowly in the Valley, and this two-day custom continued into the mid-20th century.
Mona Monette, a nonagenarian from Low, felt there was another reason for the lengthy waking practice. She suggested wakes lasted two days partly because it could take that long to dig the grave. Mona recounted what happened when her own mother passed away in the middle of winter. It was -35°C the day the grave was to be dug. The men dug what they could, chipping away at the frozen ground. When the task became too hard, they would light a fire to thaw the earth, until they could keep going. A laborious task.
Both Mona and local historian Don Kealey described Irish Catholic home wakes they experienced throughout their lives in Brennan’s Hill and Low, respectively. Typically, the body would be displayed inside the home. The mood would be somber and solemn. Around the body would be candles and photos of the family. Windows would be covered with curtains to darken the room. Prayers were important and were said regularly. Reflecting on an Irish wake he attended in 1935, Alfred O’Hanlon wrote in Up the Gatineau! that a lot of food would be served, the neighbouring women having come together to cook for the event.7
According to Alfred O’Hanlon, the home would be packed with visitors. When asked about the differences between rural and urban funeral services, Dan Sullivan confirmed that wakes in rural areas tended to be much better attended. This was certainly true in the Gatineau Valley. Families were generally more dependent on their neighbours for support in difficult times, and so communities came together in mourning. And because people knew each other well, it was significant when a member of the community died.
Homes were often too small to contain the number of people attending a wake. Most would eventually move outside the house, where the energy shifted. In striking contrast to the interior of the home, Alfred O’Hanlon described that there was a certain “merriment” to the wake. Sometimes the odd drink was had. Mona humorously noted, “Drinking could take place outside. Or inside, depending on the lady!” Music could be played. People would continue eating, and there would be plenty of conversation. The wake was an opportunity to gather and talk about anything—not exclusively about the deceased or the family. O’Hanlon wrote, “Wakes fell into the same social category as weddings, births, dances, picnics and building bees. Sorrow or joy brought the lonely farm people together.” Scholars have noted that Irish wakes were a place of tears and a place of laughter; all emotions were expressed at these events.
Things did change in the Gatineau Valley, but not in the same way as in urban centres. In the 1960s and 1970s, funeral homes were increasingly used by those in Gatineau Valley. This could be related to advancements in transportation that connected farming families who had previously been more isolated. Another practice was also taken up. Some wakes were moved into local community centres, such as the Heritage Hall in Low and the recreation centre in Venosta. Since these are spaces designed for large numbers of locals to gather, but not as financially oriented as are funeral homes, this practice can be seen as similar to the traditional home wake.
So what emerged in the Gatineau Valley was not an absence of commercialism or professionalism in the death-care industry, but rather conditions that mitigated some of its negative aspects. In contrast to the sense of separation from the deceased that was growing in urban centres, here death and its rituals appear to have been more connected to a sense of community. Death-care professionals here were viewed as community members who served their neighbours during difficult times. In the absence of certain services, such as embalming, that required a professional, families of the deceased maintained a close connection with the body itself, both in preparation and housing. The traditional Irish wake continued on much longer in the Gatineau Valley setting. Overall, the ceremony of death was an important moment for community building.
Special thanks to Dan Sullivan, Mona Monette and Don Kealey for sharing their knowledge and stories in conversation with me, and to Alfred O’Hanlon, Charles Chamberlin and Clifford Robillard for their recollections, either to others or through their writing. Thanks as well to Norma Geggie, Venetia Crawford and Gunda Lambton for their contributions to local history.
- See “I. B. York – A Man of Many Parts,” by Norma Geggie in Volume 8 of Up the Gatineau! Norma’s contribution to our local history with this look at the life and work of I. B. York is worth revisiting.
- This terminology has been chosen for consistency in this article. The profession changed its name frequently—funeral director, embalmer and mortician are all comparable synonyms.
- “Constitution, By Laws, Rules of Order, etc. of the Undertakers’ Association of Ontario,” Journals of the House of Commons of the Dominion of Canada (Ottawa: B. Chamberlin, 1888).
- 4. J. B. McIntyre, “How Can A Successful Undertaking Business Be Built Up?” Furniture and Upholstery Journal and Undertaker’s Gazette 8, no. 6, 1901, p. 229.
- This has been noted in Zena Beth McGlashan, “Caring for the Dead: The Development of the Funeral Business in Butte,” Montana: The Magazine of Western History 56, no. 4 (2006) and James I. Robertson, “The Development of the Funeral Business in Georgia, 1900–1957,” The Georgia Review 13, no. 1 (1959).
- Gunda Lambton and Venetia Crawford, The Wildest Rivers, The Oldest Hills: Tales of the Gatineau and Pontiac (Maitland, Ontario: Voyageur Publishing, 1996).
- Alfred O’Hanlon, “An Irish Wake – Made Memorable by an Earthquake on Hallowe’en,” Up the Gatineau! Volume 8, 1982.
- Farrell, James J., Inventing the American Way of Death. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1980.
- Fritz, Paul S., “The Undertaking Trade in England: Its Origins and Early Development, 1660–1830,” in Eighteenth Century Studies 28, 1994–95.
- Gilbert, Christopher, “Chippendale as Undertaker,” Furniture History 9, 1973.
- Harris, Mark, Grave Matters: A Journey Through the Modern Funeral Industry to a Natural Way of Burial. New York: Scribner, 2007.
- Laderman, Gary, Rest in Peace: A Cultural History of Death and the Funeral Home in Twentieth-Century America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.
- McGlashan, Zena Beth, “Caring for the Dead: The Development of the Funeral Business in Butte,” Montana: The Magazine of Western History 56, no. 4, 2006.
- Robertson, James I., “The Development of the Funeral Business in Georgia, 1900–1957,” The Georgia Review 13, no. 1, 1959.
- Smith, Ronald G. E., The Death Care Industries in the United States. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Co., 1996.
- Wood, Claire, Dickens and the Business of Death. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015.Young, Brian, Respectable Burial: Montreal’s Mount Royal Cemetery. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2003.