Arnie Dunsmore – Q&A
What would you do if you weren't a funeral director?
“I would probably still be in the military. Just because I really enjoyed that career.”
What would you like to see written on your headstone?
“Nothing, just my name and date.”
Is there a song that makes you sing every time you hear it?
“No, and that's probably a good thing. I have a very bad voice.”
What's your clothing style?
“Very conservative and very relaxed. If I could wear jeans every day I would.”
What did you want to be as a child?
“I wanted to be a pilot. I wanted to fly but I could never be a pilot because I have problems with height.”
If you could be an animal what would it be?
“I would be a bird, like an eagle or something like that. That goes back to the flying, freedom and such.”
Can you tell us about your first kiss?
“I would have been about 16 and it was a at a cadet camp. Her name was Bonnie. I guess I remember more than I thought.” (laughs)
When Arnie Dunsmore goes home, he leaves death at the door. And with five to six grieving families at work per week, that's probably best.
Dunsmore is part caregiver, part event planner, sometimes a psychologist and sometimes a mediator. Arnie Dunsmore – Arnie is short for Arnold – is your local undertaker.
Dressed in a dark suit, hands folded on the table in front of him, he sits in one of the meeting rooms at the St. Albert branch of the Connelly-McKinley funeral home.
The room lacks the personal touch of a family home, though it is has warm furniture, comfortable chairs, a wooden desk and a few paintings.
"Probably ten years before I got into the job, I met a gentleman from another funeral home and told him back then that the job interested me," he said when asked what got him into the business.
"It's low stress, much lower than what I was used to. And no one shoots at me."
Dunsmore was in his early 50s when he went back to school, two years at the Canadian College of Funeral Service (formerly called the Western School) where he studied online while practising his profession.
All that came after 30 years in the military as a medic where he dealt with different deaths. He went to Bosnia in 2000 and Afghanistan in 2002, and helped out across Canada in floods and fires.
In 1998, he was moved to Edmonton where he retired in 2004. He said he walked into the funeral home with his resume and came out with a job.
But driving hearses and helping with embalming were never enough. Today, he is St. Albert's main funeral director for Connelly-McKinley and oversees most of the burials in the city.
"I don't mind dealing with the bodies but I like dealing with the people, I like doing services and I like every day to be different," he said.
"Working out of the embalming room is just one small aspect of the job and I have to get outdoors and see the world."
When everyone is busy, the only sounds at the funeral home are families talking behind closed doors, a ringing telephone in an office and an air conditioner that hums in the empty chapel and reception area.
In a room in the back, coffins and urns are on display, decorated with plastic flowers and black and white photographs.
Dunsmore's smiles are rare but gentle, his hands moving slowly as he talks. At 56, he exudes a natural air of serenity and trust.
"Most of my job is education. These are the options (for clients), you can do this and this and this. I am guiding them through the whole process," he said.
"Most people, when it's their first time, they are just lost. They are just not ready and if they are with someone else it's better but if they are on their own they can be easily overwhelmed."
That's hardly surprising, considering Dunsmore's job description.
He arranges for the deceased to be picked up, he registers the death and meets the family and ministers to plan the funeral.
He sees to the casketing and embalming, arranges the design of cards and chooses the music and flowers if the family does not pick them.
And once everything is over, he takes care that someone looks after the family and the leftover paperwork.
All the while, he constantly juggles between helping and staying out of the way.
"Every day is different in terms of every family is different that I meet," he said.
"There are different emotions involved and I get them to talk and break the ice and make them comfortable with the way I am and let them trust me. If they trust me, they open up and it makes the decision process much easier."
While he probably knows more people in the city than anyone else, he said it's difficult to remember all 650 to 700 families who walk through the doors each year.
Some avoid him in the streets because he carries bad memories for them, while others embrace him for his help, he said. In his spare time, he talks little about his work.
"For myself, I deal with it through exercise and probably through humour," he said.
"I am not personally involved so it's much easier. Sometimes we talk about it at work, especially when it's a child. Those are a lot harder."
Dunsmore said funeral directors are all caregivers in a way – they all want to help families through the grieving process and make their lives a little easier.
And while the business is changing, with life webcasts of funerals now reaching family members around the world, with a rise in rental caskets and cremations over traditional burials, the job remains the same.
"I can help people, I can educate them. I am not a salesman," he said.
"Don't get me wrong, we are a business, but that's not our total. We are a part of the community that lives here. And being able to help the community, it makes you feel good."