Straightening a dead man’s tie or curling a corpse’s hair is not everyone’s idea of a dream job, but it is Laura Van Sprang’s.
Van Sprang is an embalmer and funeral director at Richmond Funeral Home.
“I feel honoured to be able to take care of someone who can no longer take care of themselves. To be able to curl and set an elderly woman’s hair for the last time, or pin a medal or pin of accomplishment on a person’s lapel, or just simply tying and straightening a gentleman’s tie before his family comes to visit him for the last time is truly a privilege, and I do not take that privilege lightly.”
Van Sprang is part of a growing number of women who are entering the profession of funeral director/embalmer.
“I think it’s because we are naturally nurturing, caring and compassionate.”
While part of her job is about working with the dead, much more of it is about working with the living — their grief, their stories, their arrangements.
“I really get to know the deceased through stories told by family members,” she added.
Loved ones often ask to bring special items for the service — golf clubs, fishing rods, even a surfboard.
“I definitely think death can be a difficult topic for people to speak about openly. They feel if we don’t talk about it, it won’t happen.
“And then it is so difficult for them when it does. They are not only dealing with the shock and grief, they are now having to make some pretty important decisions under all the stress and confusion.”
Funeral directors become part counsellor, event planner, accountant, embalmer, caterer and make up artist.
As a former event planner herself, the 36-year-old felt something was missing in her career and personal life.
Then, a little over four years ago, fate intervened.
“The Richmond Funeral Home, Cremation and Reception Centre and the Richmond Hospice Association were planning a fundraiser and I was their event planner,” said Van Sprang. “I saw right away their compassion for people and their passion when they spoke about helping people through their most difficult time in life and I knew this was something I wanted to do.”
Van Sprang was immediately intrigued with the idea of planning for such a significant event.
“I went for a tour of the funeral home and when I found out there was an opening, I applied.”
To further cement her decision, a recent widow had asked her if she could host her husband’s celebration of life at the hotel where Van Sprang had worked as an event planner.
“When her sister came to pick her up, she turned to me and asked, ‘Have you ever considered being a funeral director?’ I looked at her, surprised, and said, ‘Actually, yes, last week.’”
Van Sprang finished a two-year apprenticeship both at Richmond Funeral Home, Cremation and Reception Centre and at the Canadian College of Funeral Service.
Many funeral directors also reach out to the community. They volunteer and invite the public into the home for visits. For the past two years, Van Sprang has sat on the volunteer board for the Richmond Community Hospice Foundation, and was one of the organizers of the inaugural Dancing with the Richmond Stars, which she won last month.
“We are trying to let people know we are here for them and will be there when they need us,” she said, adding she believes this career choice is somewhat of a calling for some.
“We can’t make all these important decisions for them, but we guide them through to make sure they have options, support and feel they are doing what their family and loved ones would want. To make it meaningful and personal to them.”
When her family and friends learned of her rather unorthodox career path, Van Sprang said they were all incredibly supportive.
In the end, what’s at the root of her profession, she said, are sensitivity, dignity and respect.
“I take great pride in what I do,” she said. “It is such a rewarding career.”