Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Funeral firms feud over Bardal name

Competitor's lawyer tells Bardals to rejig moniker

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You might say Eirik Bardal -- the fourth-generation Winnipeg funeral director -- has been dying to tell this story.

Finally, something happened last week that gave him the chance.

A cease-and-desist letter from a lawyer arrived by fax at the Neil Bardal Funeral Centre, across from Brookside Cemetery. The solicitor represents Bardal Funeral Home and Crematorium, a Sherbrook Street-headquartered competitor in a city reputed to have more mortuaries per capita than any city in Canada.

The letter contends the similarity of the two names -- Bardal Funeral Home and Crematorium, and Neil Bardal Funeral Centre -- has "damaged our client" by causing "significant public confusion." The remedy, the letter suggests, is for Neil Bardal Funeral Centre to revert to its previous name, Neil Bardal Inc., by Friday or a court injunction will be sought. What's really at issue is the use of the words "funeral centre" for what is clearly a funeral centre and, of course, the shared Bardal name.

Welcome to Feuding Family Funeral Homes, and what could pass for an episode of that morbidly weird but strangely wonderful TV series, Six Feet Under.

The arrival of the letter is just the latest chapter of the story Eirik Bardal was eager to share with the public when he called me last week after the fax arrived.

It really starts 119 years ago, in the horse and hearse era of 1894 Winnipeg, when Eirik's great grandfather founded A.S. Bardal, which is now Bardal Funeral Home and Crematorium. The story only began to go off the graveside rails for the founding family in 1979, when Eirik's father, the late Neil Bardal, sold it to David E. Pritchard, his business partner.

As you might have gathered, Pritchard and the new owners -- his daughter Patricia Sweryd and her husband, Kevin Sweryd -- are not Bardals, although a quick look at the company website might make one think otherwise.

"Bardal has been serving families since 1894," it reads in large headline-like letters. Followed by: "A Winnipeg family-owned funeral home."

It is family-owned, of course, just not by the Bardal family anymore.

Below those reassuring words, Kevin Sweryd goes on to declare the Bardals sold the business, but you can understand why some only see 1894, and the words "family-owned," might be confused. Which is what bothers Eirik Bardal, even after all these years.

But why would Neil Bardal sell a family business and the family name that went with it?

The short answer is he didn't want to. But as Eirik tells it -- and Neil once confided in me -- he couldn't get along with his 50-50 partner Pritchard. So Neil invoked the so-called shotgun clause in their ownership agreement by setting a price to buy out Pritchard's half of the shares. And it backfired. Pritchard matched the number and bought Neil out. In the process, David Pritchard acquired not only the business and property, but the reputation and goodwill that three generations of Bardals had earned in the community. It must have felt like a death in the family for Neil Bardal.

But he moved on, built a new company and conducted business as if there were only one Bardal funeral home.

His.

Eirik is more aggressive.

They both agreed on, and began using, the funeral centre name in 2008, after the new building went up, even though it wasn't registered.

Since his dad died three years ago, and his mother, Annette Bardal, took over as CEO, Eirik has registered the name and run radio ads designed to distinguish Neil Bardal Funeral Centre as being run by the Bardal family.

Similarly, Kevin Sweryd has tried to distinguish his company in his own way. Even if, ultimately, he's compelled to drop "funeral" from the company name, Eirik Bardal has been only too happy to clear up the "public confusion" about which company is owned by the Bardal family. And which one is Bardal in business name only.

For his part, when I called Sweryd, he was clearly surprised by Eirik going public with the letter.

Sweryd suggested he and Eirik should pick up the phone and talk.

I told Sweryd that option wasn't in the letter from his lawyer.

Meanwhile, Eirik says he's waiting for that phone call. I don't know if it will ever come, but in our phone conversation, Sweryd said something to me that sounds like it could be a good place to start.

"We're both family funeral homes," he conceded, "working hard to help families struggling through a difficult time."

Ironically, they're also two family-owned funeral homes in need of help that are struggling through their own difficult times with each other.

Maybe it's time for the inheritors of a business partnership that ended in such bad blood all those years ago to give their own relationship a transfusion of goodwill, the kind they need from other families to survive.

Maybe it's time the two funeral directors bury their differences and the distraction before another funeral home in Winnipeg's over-served mortuary market happily buries them.

Six feet under.

gordon.sinclair@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 28, 2013 B1

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