Shannon Jackson was 13 the first time she saw a dead body.

This article was published 12/2/2016 (2123 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Shannon Jackson was 13 the first time she saw a dead body.

Her great-grandmother had died and, as was tradition in her family, there was a viewing. Jackson went to the front of the church to say goodbye, and gasped.

Her great-grandmother was neon green.

Shannon Jackson, is a licensed funeral director and embalmer with Mosaic Funeral Home. Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press

Shannon Jackson, is a licensed funeral director and embalmer with Mosaic Funeral Home. Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press

The image left an indelible mark. It was at that moment Jackson became fascinated with the business of death — and, in particular, death care. Now 40, she’s worked on more than 1,000 bodies in her decade as a licensed funeral director and embalmer.

The people under her specialized form of care are not just grandmas and grandpas who have passed "peacefully surrounded by family," to borrow a bit of obituary parlance, although there are many of those. There are also suicides, murder and trauma victims. The hardest cases are children and babies.

Women such as Jackson used to be a rarity in an industry long dominated by men. As statistics and recent trend pieces everywhere from Broadly to the New Yorker report, an increasing number of young women are electing to make their living in the death business.

We’ve come some way since Miss Katie Smith was featured in a Dec. 1, 1900, article in the Kentucky Irish American newspaper as "the only lady following that profession in the south."

Across North America, funeral homes are increasingly being run by women, and more women are studying funeral and mortuary science. According to Statistics Canada, women held about 34 per cent of the jobs in funeral direction and embalming in 2011, up from 15 per cent in 1991.

I first met Jackson on another assignment. She had organized a purse drive last December, and I asked her a boilerplate question: what’s your day job?

When she responded she was a funeral director and embalmer, my reaction was: "Tell me everything."

And she did.

While a person doesn't have to be embalmed, it can be vital for surviving family members. 'Time to arrange, time to travel, time to be present,' Jackson says. Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press

While a person doesn't have to be embalmed, it can be vital for surviving family members. 'Time to arrange, time to travel, time to be present,' Jackson says. Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press

Other than her long dark hair, Jackson flies in the face of the stereotype all people drawn to the death business are fictional goths such as Wednesday Addams or Lydia Deetz.

When I meet with her again a couple months later at Mosaic Funeral, Cremation and Cemetery Services, she’s dressed in a soft pink shift dress and is rocking a sparkly pink manicure. She smiles a lot and has the sing-song voice of an elementary school music teacher.

Jackson didn’t enter the business right after graduating from Winnipeg’s Vincent Massey Collegiate in the early 1990s, as she’d originally planned. "I was welcomed… not in a positive light," she says, diplomatically. She recalls being looked up and down and asked, "What’s a pretty little thing like you going to do here?"

Most funeral homes at the time were family owned with heirs apparent. Discouraged, she worked at several jobs before forging a career in the alarm and security industry, where she met her husband. He encouraged her to quit security to pursue her dream.

Shannon Jackson provides a glimpse of her workplace.  If human remains were present, she would wear full protective gear, including a face mask or shield. No skin would be exposed to protect the embalmer from bodily fluids and microorganisms.  RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Shannon Jackson provides a glimpse of her workplace. If human remains were present, she would wear full protective gear, including a face mask or shield. No skin would be exposed to protect the embalmer from bodily fluids and microorganisms. RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

She found an invaluable mentor in the late Neil Bardal, whom she just called up. To say she was keen is an understatement. "I said, ‘I can come down this afternoon!’" she recalls. "He laughed at me and said, ‘How about you sleep on it and, if you’re still interested, I’ll meet you in the morning.’"

That meeting turned into an all-day question-and-answer session, which turned into a part-time job. Jackson got her licence as a funeral director and embalmer in 2005, at the age of 30, from what is now the Canadian College of Funeral Service.

There are two educational bodies in Manitoba for funeral directors and embalmers: CCFS and Red River College, which currently offers instruction in funeral direction only. The industry is tightly regulated in Manitoba; students must be sponsored by a funeral home to complete embalming labs; one cannot simply observe or "job shadow."

Jackson, who is also a marriage commissioner, has a dual licence, and was interested in the art and science of embalming. Embalming, in its most simplistic definition, is the process of preserving remains with chemicals to stall decomposition. It is an ancient, cross-cultural technique thought to have gained prominence in North America during the U.S. Civil War, so servicemen could be buried at home.

The process uses the body’s vascular system; embalming fluid is injected into the body via an incision in the right carotid artery and the displaced bodily fluid is drained via the right jugular vein. This is followed by several more steps before the body can be moisturized and dressed.

Before embalming, Jackson will gather all the tools she thinks she might need, not unlike a surgeon. Some bodies may still carry pathogens, so she must take care not to cross contaminate. When in the presence of human remains, full protective gear, including a face mask or shield, is worn. No skin is exposed, to protect the embalmer from bodily fluids and microorganisms.

First, she will disinfect the shroud. Then she rolls the body to remove the shroud. The deceased will be disinfected and bathed from head to toe. Then she conducts what is called a pre-embalming analysis.

Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press

Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press

It’s often in that moment the body on the table becomes a person. "It’s not just someone on paper anymore," she says.

Jackson is matter-of-fact when she describes these steps — and, as is her training, the body is always referred to as the dead or the deceased — but she never sounds clinical or cold. Her empathy and tenderness is striking.

A person doesn’t have to be embalmed, but embalming buys a family time. "Time to arrange, time to travel, time to be present," Jackson says.

Cremation continues to increase in popularity and burials and embalming are on the decline, but Jackson doesn’t feel as though she’s practicing a dying art. Many cultures still believe in fellowship with a body or a viewing. Jackson believes there is value in viewing and restoration — for the living, but also for the dead.

Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press

Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press

For the living, it’s a chance to see a loved one again in a peaceful, serene setting. It’s not closure, exactly — Jackson doesn’t believe there’s such a thing — but she says it can offer peace of mind.

She’s encountered many people who insist they don’t want to see. "Are those fears based on past experiences? Is it based on an expense factor? There are always reasons behind someone saying, ‘I don’t want to view.’ And they usually don’t have anything to do with what’s going on in the moment. Many people will change their minds and are thankful for the opportunity to spend that time."

For the dead, it’s about care.

Speaking with Jackson, I was reminded of the final season of the TV show Mad Men, in which the character Betty Draper is handed a terminal lung cancer diagnosis and leaves her daughter, Sally, very explicit instructions about the dress she is to be buried in (the blue chiffon, hung in a gold garment bag in the hall closet beside the mink).

"Please bring the lipstick from my handbag," she added, "and remind them how I liked to wear my hair."

Betty’s instructions weren’t just about vanity. They were about dignity.

When someone is dying from a terminal illness, "a lot of daily care gets put on the back burner when the focus is on health," Jackson says. Her job is to put the deceased into the best light possible, and she takes a lot of pride in the restoration part of her job.

"I think of it as their last time to be the talk of the room," she says, adding she’s one of the few that will remove blackheads and other blemishes. She’s meticulous.

After the incident with her great-grandmother, Jackson reviews her work through a child’s eye, as children are often eye-level with a casket. They are the ones who will notice — and comment on — too much nose hair, or an incorrect manicure or a shocking green pallor. (Jackson now suspects her great-grandmother died from a condition in which she incurred jaundice, and the chemicals used reacted badly.)

A peaceful, placid expression — with eyes lightly closed — doesn’t happen naturally. It takes work. Unsecured eyes and mouths will open. Also, dead bodies tend to leak. "And I’m not just talking about urine — mucous, all that stuff, will eventually start to drain," she says.

Some restorations are more difficult than others. Unless the body is carrying an infectious disease, the cause of death can often be a surprise to Jackson, as it’s entirely up to the family to disclose it. Wounds, post-autopsy Y incisions which cut from the shoulders to the pubic bone — these are all things she must account for. Accidents and trauma victims also present unique challenges; her most difficult case was someone who died in a train accident. Some bodies will never be suitable for a viewing, but there are workarounds.

"When a funeral director says, ‘Do you want to spend some time with a loved one or friend,’ that doesn’t necessarily mean viewing — or seeing someone’s face," Jackson says. "You can hold someone’s hand."

Before embalming, Shannon Jackson will gather all the tools she will need, not unlike a surgeon. Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press

Before embalming, Shannon Jackson will gather all the tools she will need, not unlike a surgeon. Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press

At another viewing, years later, another young woman was inspired to answer the call to death care. Like Jackson, Jane Kehler was taken aback when she saw her grandmother — but unlike Jackson’s great-grandmother, Kehler’s grandmother looked incredible.

"Whoever had done her restoration had done such a beautiful job, it looked like grandma again. Her hair was done, her makeup was done. It had been years since I had seen her like that. It was such an important part of saying goodbye to her."

Kehler, 39, has always been interested in death — but the act of restoring someone to a "natural, viewable picture" is particularly compelling to her. She’s now a student of the Canadian College of Funeral Service. Lessons are delivered online, with three in-class seminars per year.

She says preconceived notions about the "type of person" drawn to this work persist. "I’m not picnicking in cemeteries," she says deadpan. "I don’t sleep in a coffin. It’s just an intensely personal experience."

That said, it’s an experience she used to be terrified of as a kid.

"I was raised in a religious community, so it was very much, ‘Be really good, otherwise you’re going to burn eternally.’ Which was horrifying to me as a child: what if I die before I say my prayers and I’m on the hook for something bad I did today?" she recalls with a laugh.

Her relationship to death has changed with experience. She approaches the subject with more curiosity. "It’s something I think I can help with. I want to help. I would love to help."

Preconceived notions about the type of person drawn to the funeral profession exist. But, Jane Kehler says, 'it's an intensely personal experience.' Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press

Preconceived notions about the type of person drawn to the funeral profession exist. But, Jane Kehler says, 'it's an intensely personal experience.' Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press

Kehler is currently in the process of finding employment and sponsorship through a funeral home so she can obtain her licence. She’s hungry to work in the industry; it’s been a longtime dream, deferred by other dreams of starting a family. Her children are now nine, six and four, so she felt it was time.

If you ask L.A.-based mortician Caitlin Doughty, she’ll say talking and learning about death is the antidote to death denial.

"Nitty-gritty details about death and dying don’t make us more scared, they make us less scared. Our own imaginations come up with horrors far worse than the facts."

Doughty, 31, has arguably become the ‘it girl’ of the death industry thanks, in part, to her popular YouTube series Ask a Mortician, in which she hilariously and candidly answers all of your, er, burning death-related questions. (For example: what happens to breast implants and titanium hips when you’re cremated, and just how prevalent is necrophilia in the funeral industry?)

As Doughty says, "Everybody benefits from rational educational exposure to taboo topics!"

Doughty also told the unvarnished truth about death in her 2014 memoir, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory. It became a best-seller.

Still, for all our curiosity in the subject, we still — in North America at least — don’t talk about death much.

Best-selling author Caitlin Doughty says it is vital to break down the taboos surrounding death.

Best-selling author Caitlin Doughty says it is vital to break down the taboos surrounding death.

"We’re still reticent to talk about death because of the systems around us," Doughty says. "We have a broken relationship with the funeral industry, the health-care and end-of-life industries, the meat-and-food production industries. All of our death is mediated and hidden. Until we have more open dialogue with actual death we will continue to be terrified of the boogeyman under our bed we can’t quite make out in the dark."

That dialogue needs to start early. Children need to be brought into the conversation.

"When grandma dies, don’t leave the kids at home with a babysitter," Kehler says. "Be present with your loved one when they take their last breath. Face your own mortality and just talk about it. Talk, talk, talk. It’s going to happen to every person, 100 per cent guaranteed. There’s no getting around it."

Jackson wishes someone had answered her question about her great-grandmother’s appearance that day instead of hushing her and rushing her off into a room. As well, she wishes adults would ask her questions with the unselfconsciousness of children.

"There’s nothing to hide," she says.

How we deal with and care for our dead has evolved over generations. Death — and birth, for that matter — moved out of the home and, as a result, became less visible. It became clean, sanitized. Cremation is rapidly outpacing burial — partially, as a rejection of the excesses of an increasingly commercialized funeral industry, partially because of cleanliness and efficiency, in terms of both cost and time.

Not unlike weddings, funerals have also become more personal as people strip out ritual from religion (although we’re probably still a few years away from the proliferation of Pinterest boards devoted to planning the perfect artisanal funeral).

Still, people can have a lot more say in their arrangements these days — likely more than they think they do.

"I think a lot of people believe they only have two choices: cremation or burial," Jackson says. "But there are no rules in funeral service."

And who is delivering those services is changing.

It used to be funeral homes were family businesses; now, many people are going into the business for themselves.

Doughty is the owner of Undertaking L.A., a progressive funeral home that offers home funerals and natural burials as well as giving people the chance to help prepare their loved one’s body. Natural burials require a chemical-free body, so embalming is not a service offered. As well, bodies must be buried in biodegradable materials (think wood, wicker and raw cotton).

The natural burial trend has been slower to catch on in Canada than in the U.S. There are Green Burial Council-certified cemeteries in this country, but currently none in Manitoba.

A viewing in a peaceful, serene setting can offer peace of mind, Jackson says. Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press

A viewing in a peaceful, serene setting can offer peace of mind, Jackson says. Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press

Still, Doughty hopes the future of death care looks something like Undertaking L.A.

"The funeral industry is still very dismissive of families taking care of their own dead," she says via email. "‘Maybe one per cent of families want that!’ they say. They have to believe that, because if families took charge of their own dead, paying far less of their life savings to corporate funeral homes and grieving intimately, the larger structure of the industry would have to change.

"I hope very much this is the future."

Jackson believes death should not be rushed. She believes the fast-food, instant-gratification, on-to-the-next-thing culture has turned the process of death into one of efficient disposal and not one of care.

It has nothing to do with planning an extravagant funeral or filling a room with flowers. It’s about spending the time.

Our conversation turns, at some point, to difficult cases. "There are always going to be cases that take you aback," she says. "When you leave work, you can’t take it home with you."

She rides her bike a lot.

But it’s also incredibly rewarding. She’s worked on family and friends — the highest honour she says she can receive. She has been able to put babies back into mothers’ arms.

"To be able to provide parents the opportunity to hold that child again, to touch that child again — I can’t put it into words."

jen.zoratti@freepress.mb.caTwitter: @JenZoratti

Jen Zoratti

Jen Zoratti
Columnist

Jen Zoratti is a Winnipeg Free Press columnist and co-host of the paper's local culture podcast, Bury the Lede.