In the 1965 movie, The Loved One, Liberace, the symbol of extravagance itself, plays a funeral director who presents a barrage of guilt-laden options for the deceased's family to choose from.
His character, Mr. Starker, not dressed in Liberace's usual glitter costume and feather boa but nearly unrecognizable in black suit and tie, offers a casket with rayon interior — or silk for the loved one with sensitive skin. "Rayon chafes, you know," he says.
He showcases the "wetness-proof" interior of one casket, versus the "dampness-proof" of the higher-end "Emperor" model. Could catch a chill, presumably.
Ashley Newton, who opened her Alterna Cremations in East St. Paul in January, bills herself as the antithesis of that Liberace character. Her death care provider service does one thing and one thing only: direct cremations. And at one price. There are no add-ons or options or casket room.
She doesn't even push merchandise like urns. She has a display of urns but complains they're the same ones all the funeral homes stock. (She's working on having local ones made). So people often bring their own.
"I had a family that just went to Ten Thousand Villages and they found a beautiful urn with the tree of life on it and everything. I think it's great that people do that," she said.
Newton is part of a trend to simplifying the post-death process. Funerals and how people treat death are changing, a reflection of society's ongoing march to deconstruct long-held institutions.
Brett Watson, president of the Funeral Service Association of Canada, calls it "customizing."
"I think society has become a little more secular but I don't think you see less service, just how people do the services," said Watson, who runs the South Calgary Funeral Centre in that city, which operates under the Dignity Memorial brand.
He sees a lot of services still in chapels but also in community halls, on farms, at the lake, and clergy are often still involved. At one chapel service, the family placed hay bales and riding gear at the front for a former jockey.
"It's personalizing it a little more," Watson said. "The point of a service is for the next of kin to share their grief with friends and family."
Alterna Cremations isn't the only company to provide direct cremation. Many if not most local funeral homes today provide the service. She's just unique in that that's all she does. She runs "without the chandeliers and limousines" and next to no overhead, and uses the facility at an existing crematorium.
Someone posted on her Facebook that "all you're doing is picking up the body and burning it." There's more to it than that, however.
"If someone dies, I have to go pick them up myself," she said.
"I go and pick up the deceased, bring them into my care, transfer them to the crematorium. I have to register the death with the province, make sure the medical portion is signed off by the physician, issue the burial permits, issue the funeral director's statement of death," she said. She will also see to it, if requested, that the family receives the Canada Pension Plan death benefits, which are up to $2,500.
"There's a lot of paperwork even for simple cremations," she said. A plywood box for the corpse is included in her fee. She charges $1,395, plus GST.
The slim, 33-year Newton hardly looks like someone capable of lugging bodies around, like when she has to transfer corpses from the hospital or morgue or nursing home. It's basically a slide technique the certified undertaker has perfected.
"My maximum is I can do 400 pounds and that's because that's the stretcher's limit, not mine," she said. "It's all a one-woman show here."
That's evident by her omnipresent Bluetooth earphone. She's chief cook and bottle washer as well as the company's secretary and she meets with the families. People can either visit her at the Alterna office, a former florist shop on Henderson Highway, or she visits clients in their own home. She encourages house calls as people tend to be more comfortable at home.
She's also different in her attire. "I don't wear a black suit as I did in my previous life as a funeral director," she said.
Newton thought a person had to be born into a funeral director's family to enter the profession, but found that's not the case. Nor is there a shortage of women in the funeral homes today. In fact, there are more females attending funeral trade schools now than men. "That is a shifting dynamic in the industry," although owners still tend to be male, she said.
She's often asked why she chose the profession. "Don't most little girls dream of being a funeral director? No?" she says jokingly.
"People say, how can you do this job? It sounds cliche but I love helping people," she said. "Sometimes it's the worst time of their lives for families and it's being able to give them some direction and help and that is very rewarding."
She spent two years attending the Canadian College of Funeral Service on Regent Avenue, and three-and-a-half years at Cropo Funeral Chapel, including an apprenticeship that included 1,800 hours, plus 50 embalmings, plus 50 funeral arrangements.
Newton believes her "no-frills" cremation service is finding a niche. She has had 20 clients so far.
However, she personally prefers a full burial service. "I love funeral services with the casket and flowers," but in her previous working life at Cropo, still one of the busiest funeral service providers in town, she saw people increasingly seek direct cremations.
Cremation is now being used in two-thirds of cases, with the rate higher in Western Canada than in the East.
At Watson's chapel in Calgary, cremations make up 90 to 95 per cent of the business, said funeral director Watson. In his area, a lot of people aren't originally from Calgary but have come out to work in oil and don't have deep roots in the community. "So when they die it's easier to transport an urn back home," he said.
Bill Redekop has been covering rural issues since 2001.