The granddaughter of an undertaker

How my grandfather's work shaped my view of death

The death of Prince Phillip this week and a country in mourning, made me revisit my own outlook on death and unique inheritance to its meaning.

My Grandfather (also known in Ukrainian as ‘Dido’) is a first generation Canadian. Just before he was born, his family fled the Stalin rule on a brutal journey on a cattle boat from rural Ukraine to Manitoba, Canada. Shortly after his family’s arrival, my Dido was born. The Kowalchuks (name altered from Kovalchuk) came from humble beginnings as farmers but made one of the most important decisions of their lives, to travel to Canada. They didn’t speak English, they didn’t know anyone, have any possessions, little money to their name and certainly didn’t have any jobs lined up. They were hard workers and would do whatever it would take in this unknown country. His family’s 8,000+ kilometre journey wasn’t out of choice but necessity. It is likely that if they didn’t leave they would have died. Joseph Stalin wanted to convert their farms with state-run collectives to make more money for his totalitarian regime and punish any Ukrainians who challenged him. Nearly 4 million Ukrainian's lost their lives in this genocide of forced famine and starvation.1 Many of the people they knew who stayed in Ukraine died.

As an adult, my Dido worked in various roles from clothing tailor to train engineer to a business owner, before being approached to be the town’s undertaker and funeral director. He gained his qualifications and soon was the go-to person in town for a death of a loved one, a grieving family and the funeral arrangements to be made. He is a well-respected man and very influential in the region, not to mention that he fathered 12 children (and now has nearly 50 grandchildren)!

We saw my father’s parents as much as we could when we were children. When my family wasn’t living abroad, we would spend most of our summers in their small town. It was a small reunion every summer and allowed me more time to see my grandparents and learn about their interesting lives. I remember my Grandma saying I was the most curious and inquisitive out of all the other grandchildren, as I always wanted to hear stories about their lives.

It may sound morbid to you, but in sense, I grew up around death and dying. It was a way and a part of life, especially to my grandparents. Their home was quite large with such a big family, but in addition to that, it also had the funeral home, a small chapel and his furniture business attached to it! There were so many places to play as a child, but I would always hold my breath when I would get close to the entrance to the funeral parlour. My grandparents were generous people and they allowed us to be kids to explore, ask questions and respond in age-appropriately ways. My Dido’s door was always open and he wanted us to have a healthy understanding of the death and dying process. On one occasion, maybe around 11 years old I was asked to call him for lunch. I went to find him and couldn’t see him in the furniture store. I knew he must be in the funeral parlour part. I cautiously approached, feeling nervous with each step, trying not to hold my breath and imagine a dead person jumping out at me. I called for him in the funeral parlour and he responded. He said he was just finishing up and to my surprise, he left me with a choice and asked if I wanted to come in. I decided enough was enough with my imagination, I wanted to see for myself.

He was standing over a middle-aged man who lying in a black suit and putting the finishing touches of makeup on his face. I must have gasped as straight away he knew I was frightened and wanted to help me digest what it was I was seeing. He continued his work and in a soothing voice shared the man’s name, how he had known him as 'good man’ and that he died having a heart attack. I approached closer with each of his comforting words. I asked him what happened to his face as it was cut, although less gruesome with the makeup. He said he had a heart attack while on his tractor and it must have been cut when he fell. He asked why I was there and I suddenly remembered about lunch. He said he would be up shortly. As I turned to leave, he said “Jillian, you know you can talk to me if you have any more questions about this or ever want to talk about death. Death is a part of life we will all face at some point. It’s better not to pretend and use it as a reason to live a good life.” Feeling like I must have matured a few years walking back upstairs, I was also surprised how less scared I was about it.

I admire my Dido and his strength to do a career many people would fear. His family and his past was filled with death. He could have run away from it, chose a completely different profession but he found his purpose. To make meaning from this, keep building new ones to improve his life and provide one of the most important services to others in their greatest times of need.

This is a cornerstone childhood memory for me now and I still carry his message with me. Accepting we will die, we will never know when and that this isn’t something to fear, but a tool we can use to further appreciate our lives, the lives of the people we know and the lives of the people we don’t. It is brave to acknowledge it, reflect on it and have it serve its purpose in the pursuit of living a great life. This lesson has only strengthened over the years, as I have experienced the death and dying of family members, friends and others. Grief doesn’t follow a linear path, it can be completely different from one person to the next and there is no way to master it. However, I believe there is always a gift that can be found, in how you can learn from others about a life well-lived, the ways you can make people live on within you and how much more you can cherish your life and the lives of others.

Sending you loving kindness,