Resting Places: An Interview with John Tittel

Resting Places: An Interview with John Tittel


We are mortal.  There is no escaping that fact.  There will come a day when we will have to handle funeral arrangements for someone we love or even pre-arrange our own.  Do we know all the options out there?  Is there something new that would tie in with new sensibilities?  Can someone help navigate the waters in this complex situation occurring at such a difficult time?

John Tittel, General Director of the Coopérative Funéraire des Laurentides situated in St. Jerome, certainly can.  At the age of 46, John has 13 years of experience in the funeral industry and was one of the co-founders and co-owners of the first ecologically friendly cemetery in Quebec:  Les Sentiers Commemoratifs de la Rivière in Prévost, Quebec.

On the surface, he's just your average guy.  He lives with his wife and two daughters on a quiet side street in Dorval North.  A tall man, he is often seen walking with his family to the nearby community centre, tennis rackets or beach towels in hand, or walking the dog, waving to neighbours as they pass.  Like many, he's concerned with the environment, recycling and composting with the rest of the community.  How do these characteristics connect with his livelihood?  Well, John is part of a funeral cooperative, a movement with a 60 year history in Quebec.  With a network of 178, 000 members, it continues to grow, not only in the province, but also throughout Canada. 

A co-op is a group of people who pool their resources in order to offer their members full services at reduced prices.  They operate with a more customer-oriented attitude rather than one where profit is everything.  Cooperatives operate with a strong set of ethics and values, not the least of which is the idea that the customers come first and their wishes are to be respected.

These cooperatives are highly environmentally conscious.  They offer such items as biodegradable caskets and urns and use biodegradable cleaning products and eco-friendly construction materials.  Efforts are made to purchase as much of the goods and supplies they need locally.  Not only does this support the local economy, it also keeps costs down and reduces the distance the goods must travel, thereby reducing gas emissions.

I recently had the opportunity to chat with John about his work.

W:   You have a varied educational background that started out with a Bachelor's in French studies.  You also have certificates in business and teaching.  Can you explain to me the process of the change in your direction? 

J:     Without even realizing it, I have always gravitated toward people-oriented jobs.  I have also learned that I need challenges to feel motivated, and I need to be in a position where I'm responsible for things.  My attraction to deathcare has been life-long, but I never fully understood this until I started working for a cemetery supplier in 2000.  I became insatiable in my quest for becoming knowledgeable in this field.  Fast-forward to today, and here I am:  funeral director, cemetery owner, executive director for a multi-location funeral co-op!

W:   Did you ever think you'd be a funeral director?  Was it something that always interested you? What type of person is drawn to, or suited to being a funeral director?

J:     I've always been fascinated with the vocation, but never really allowed myself to consider it seriously.  No idea why.  In fact, it wasn't until I was doing this job that I realized that this is what I was always meant to do.  I was in my thirties - that's a good number of years past the age when everybody's asking you to decide what to do with your life!  Those of us who get into the business do it primarily out of a desire (and capability) to accompany bereaved families in a very difficult time.  Quite honestly though, there is a very large part of our work that is administrative.  I guess this helps families also, as it saves them a lot of trouble in dealing with the estate.


W:   Working with the bereaved must be draining.  How do you keep it from wearing you down?

J:     This is key:  if you are to be successful in this job, you must keep a balance between empathy and detachment.  If you let your feelings get the best of you, you'll lose sleep for sure.  On the other hand, being too detached is horrible for the families:  it makes them feel like a number or a meal ticket at a time in their lives when what they need most is humanity, care, and warmth.  There will always be tougher cases, and you learn to deal with that - or you get a good therapist! It is very important to keep the feelings near.

W:   Can you recall a poignant (or funny) incident that sticks in your mind?

J:     Any situation that involves the death of children is the most unnatural thing humans have to deal with.  Losing a loved one is never OK, but the sudden, unexplained loss of a child is almost impossible to rationalize.  As far as funny moments are concerned, this may sound off, but I do try to keep things as light as possible.  I always take my cues from the family, but when there is a lighter moment, I tend to exploit it a little - a smile or a chuckle are often a pleasant surprise to bereaved families.  And there's nothing wrong with happy memories!

W:   How do friends react when you tell them what you do for a living? What was the most shocking or comical reaction?

J:     The most common reaction is "What? WHY?"  This typically is accompanied by shudders and odd stares.  Quite funny! People get over their initial shock quickly, though.  The funniest reaction is when they say "but you're so funny and lively!" I know many funeral directors all over the world, women and men from all types of backgrounds.  We pretty much all have one thing in common:  we love life and we love to have fun!

W:   What brought you to a cooperative?  Can you explain the differences between a cooperative and a standard funeral home:  service, goods, costs, etc.?

J:     A co-op is like a traditional funeral home.  The major difference is it's owned by its members - like all co-ops.  There are specific laws and guidelines that make managing a co-op somewhat like managing a non-profit organization.  Although I'm executive director, I answer to a board, which is elected by the members at the Annual General Assembly.  All this makes it that the entire operation is completely transparent:  members have access to supplier lists, cost of products and services, salaries, etc.  Also, the fact that pricing is kept as low as possible, everything you do has to be thought out and evaluated in order to make sure the co-op is able to function properly.  Then there's the entire "community angle".  We have a mission to be involved in, and support the communities we serve, as well as ensuring that we also do everything possible to take care of local economies.

W:   The funeral industry is not usually eco-conscious.  Was that a major draw for you or just a bonus?

J:     It's tough to be eco-conscious in this field, as there are so many things which are a little harsh on the environment.  Like in any other consumer-driven industry, the funeral industry has its share of companies that use "going green" as a selling point - but only change their logos or slogans to be more catchy in that sense.  Quebec funeral co-ops have a province-wide committee that oversees every little thing we do on a daily basis, and evaluates alternatives which are, at the very least, less harsh.  This is an on-going process, as everything evolves and we keep finding things out and learning all the time.  With everything I need to do in a day, to me it's somewhere between a draw and a bonus.

W:   You co-own an environmentally friendly cemetery.  How long have you owned that?  Can you explain to me how you came to own one?

J:     We opened in 2009.  I had been travelling all over North America on business for the cemetery/funeral supply company which employed me, and I got to meet many people and talk about many things - not the least popular of which was the "greening" of our industry.  I had been talking about this on and off with two friends of mine (who at the time were my bosses), and the more we talked, the more we realized we were onto something.  So we jumped right in!

W:   How does that figure in with the co-op?  Do your facilities get used by the co-op or is that an entirely separate venture?  Is it still in operation?

J:     Both are separate.  The co-op is actually renting space in order to offer funeral services.  By law in Quebec, funeral and burial contracts have to be separate.  So if people want to use both services, they have to sign two contracts.  This being said, however, they can use the services and facilities without necessarily buying a plot at the cemetery.  They can have a burial anywhere they like.

W:   These cooperatives are pretty far out in lesser-inhabited areas and there is only one in Montreal, in the east end.  Can membership be obtained through them yet have the funerals in regular funeral homes closer to where members live?

J:     Actually, true to form Montreal is an exception.  Quebec City, Saguenay, the South Shore, and the Outaouais areas are actually dominated by co-ops and are currently working on setting up a Greater Montreal Alliance in order to pool our products and services in a more concentrated fashion so that consumers get even better pricing.  As far as membership goes, this is co-op specific.  If a member moves, however, everything is transferrable.  And when it comes to dealing with "regular" funeral homes, that's not really an option.

W:   Your hours are very long, I understand.  Is that normal or partly because yours is a young venture and this will level out in a few years' time?

J:     The fact that this is a younger co-op makes it that as executive director I fill many shoes until we have a volume that justifies hiring.  So until recently, I did as many removals as I could myself.  I have since hired people, so now I'm just on-call 24/7. 

W:   When you get to spend time with your family, what is your favourite way to unwind?

J:     SLEEP! Kidding aside, we have pretty busy lives on weekends also, so actually spending time together playing games, going on small outings and movies are pretty much what we do.

W:   What does the family think of your job? Do you think they will ever work with you in the industry?

J:     They see it as a noble vocation, but they prefer not hearing about it.  My days (and nights) see a good share of things that are either too depressing or too gross for "regular" people to be interested in.

W:   Any closing thoughts or comments?

J:     "Depressing" and "gross" are not my choice of words.  To deal with death and bodies is a privilege, in the sense that the body of the deceased is still a human being, and is entitled to all the dignity and respect it deserved while alive.  Bereaved families need help and support, and they need more than anything to feel that while their world is turned upside-down, someone is in control of the situation and knows exactly what needs to be done.  I am extremely proud to be able to help people who are in need, and because this is not something that everyone or just anyone can do, I think it's important that when you can, you should.  And for people to let you into their lives at such a vulnerable time and to have them hug you and thank you for being there, no amount of money brings that much validation.  I couldn't do anything else.

It is clear that John takes his work seriously.  He even takes it home with him.  John's wife, Christine, recounts one of her first experiences with John's new job:

"There's the time I came home and found about half a dozen urns on top of our bedroom armoire.  I asked what the heck that was, and he said 'Oh, I'll deliver those to the families in the morning.' THEY ALL HAD ASHES IN THEM! I told him to put them in the car overnight, and he wouldn't have it.  'Undignified and disrespectful,' he said.  So we compromised:  they stayed in the house, just not in our bedroom."

Now, that's dedication to one's work!

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