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13. Q&A with Daniel Verkoeyen on Becoming a Funeral Director and Caring for People During Difficult Times

· Career Planning Show
Daniel Verkoeyen interview on The Career Planning Show

Our guest on today's episode of The Career Planning Show is Daniel Verkoeyen. Daniel wants to make the most of this gift of life that he’s been given. He strives to be the best husband and father that he can be, and maintain healthy and positive interpersonal relationships all around. He works as a Funeral Director with a heart to serve the people and families in his Windsor and Essex County community. His life motto, which directs his way, is to love God and love others.

If you have a career planning question you'd like us to answer on The Career Planning Show, let us know via or at @AlexRascanu.

Transcript of the interview:

Alex Rascanu: Welcome to The Career Planning Show. Our guest today is Daniel Verkoeyen. Daniel, how are you?

Daniel Verkoeyen: I'm very well, thank you. It's great to be here.
Alex Rascanu: Yes, I appreciate it. Daniel, can you please share your career journey?

Daniel Verkoeyen: Yes, absolutely. Out of high school, I wasn't really sure exactly what I wanted to do, because there are so many options and I felt almost overwhelmed at how many options are there? I did not jump into funeral services; that's for sure. I actually went out West to Alberta, to a Bible college, and I got a certificate of Biblical studies there. That was me taking time to focus my life. And I came back to Essex County and I served tables as a waiter. I loved serving tables. I loved working with people, and it was pretty good money for a single guy living on my own. I knew I didn't want to do that for the rest of my life, although I did enjoy it. I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do. I ended up going to St. Clair college in Windsor for business accounting. I started business accounting and realized that I liked working with people more than I like crunching numbers. I ended up graduating business accounting , but I didn't want to pursue that path. That left me serving tables again, which I did love doing and looking for the career that was fitting in that I felt called to do, because one thing that was important for me was I always wanted to do something that I felt called to do, that I felt was a ministry. We're at our jobs for so many hours every single day, so I might as well do something that I feel called to do; do something that I feel is rewarding to others and to myself, and serving in that way.
Alex Rascanu: What was the next step once you did that self assessment?

Daniel Verkoeyen: It's funny how I stumbled across funeral services. I was taking a drive one day with my youngest sister, Vanessa, and we drove past the cemetery and she goes," you should become a funeral director!" And I was "What? Why would anybody want to be a funeral director? That's so weird." And I just shook my head and I laughed. And she goes, "No, seriously. I think you'd be really good at it." And I was like, okay, well, let me think about that. And I couldn't shake it. So, what I did was I thought, well, let's just see what this is all about. So I went to a cemetery office, which now I know is different from a funeral home; they're two separate entities. So I went to the cemetery office and I said, "Hey, I'd like to become a funeral director. Can I volunteer here for 40 hours and see what it's all about?" Then they said, "That's a great idea, but you got the wrong place. You got to go to the funeral home next door. I said, "Okay." That's how little I knew about it. So I went to the funeral home next door and I repeated the same statement. I was talking to the manager. He goes, "Hey, that's part of your application process to Humber College anyway. We'd be happy to give you that experience and see if this is the right fit for you." I volunteered for 40 hours, which I ended up getting paid for and I was grateful for. That was kind of him. And I loved it. I just fell in love with it - the caring aspect. I ended up applying to Humber College and I was accepted thankfully. That was the beginning of my career journey.

Alex Rascanu: That's interesting. Was that a two-year degree and is there a step after that you need to follow in order to get certified? I know it's a regulated profession in Ontario.

Daniel Verkoeyen: It is regulated. The government is very involved; everything right down to what's supposed to be on our contracts and what different things we're not allowed to say. They're very involved because of the high sensitivity of our profession. The government is very involved for consumer protection, which is really good. It's one year in school at Humber College, or Collège Boréal way up North in Ontario and you have to speak French to go there. Most students go to Humber college in Toronto. One year in school and then you have a paid internship for one year. During your internship, there's a lot of homework to do, assignments, and there are certain requirements that you have to meet in order to complete your internship for that one year. Once you've completed your internship, you have to go back to college and write board exams with everybody. You also have to do a practical exam, and that exam is embalming a body in front of an instructor or another funeral director who has the proper clearance. If you passed your board exams, which were quite difficult, and passed your practical exam you get licensed as a class one funeral director. Class one includes embalming and the license to embalm and take out pacemakers. As class two funeral director you're not allowed doing those.

Alex Rascanu: What's a pacemaker?

Daniel Verkoeyen: If someone's heart is failing or not working properly, it will keep it up. I'm going to up your curiosity here. A pacemaker has to be removed only in the case that that person's final disposition is cremation. Because the pacemaker is a battery, and if that goes into the crematorium it can explode and damage the crematorium and possibly hurt the crematorium operator. That's why it has to be removed before the cremation takes place.

Alex Rascanu: In your role as a funeral director, what would you say are some of the main responsibilities that you have?

Daniel Verkoeyen: That's a good question. There's quite a lot, right? I do everything from answering the phone , which sounds easy but at a funeral home it's a little more complicated because you have to have a good knowledge of the law. You have to have a good knowledge of the industry. When somebody calls and says that... let's say their loved one passed away you have to know the right questions to ask and it's a pretty important conversation. Starting with the first phone call and then leading up to giving that family guiding direction to have them end up coming into the funeral home. Making the funeral arrangements for their loved one , which also is a really important step that's a great responsibility because we're organizing every detail of a funeral, which might happen the next day or two weeks from then. Right? So it's a lot of details. The other thing that we have to do is follow through with all of those details, making sure to give the family everything that's promised and the care of their loved one, which is huge to be able to go to where they passed and take them into our care and do the necessary preparations of their body so that they're presentable will to their loved ones to come and say goodbye. And then, continuing on with the responsibilities, we have the day of the actual visitation or funeral. So we have to make sure that the room is set up, the flowers are all in the room , that everything looks good, that their loved one looks good as best as possible. And, then, when the family comes in, we have the responsibility of walking them into the room to see their loved one and to be able to say goodbye, and then following through with the funeral service all the way to the grave site. That's one great thing about the funeral director position is: there are a lot of different things you can be doing at any given time of the day.

Alex Rascanu: In terms of someone who has had a loved one pass away recently, or they're just contemplating that happening to someone in their life sometime in the future , what would you say are some of the main considerations that someone should perhaps think about when it comes to deciding between burying in a casket versus cremation? Not purely from a cost perspective, but more so the kind of impact that decision may have on the person's emotional wellbeing, ability to cope with the death of a loved one? A more holistic way of thinking about this reality. Would you mind speaking to that?

Daniel Verkoeyen: Yeah, that's a very deep question. I only can give from my experience, because we do train in grief counseling and the grief process and those sorts of things. We're not grief counselors, but the difference between cremation and burial, when it comes to healing... I think the main difference is actually a person being able to have that time to say goodbye.

Alex Rascanu: Hmm.

Daniel Verkoeyen: I don't necessarily know how much of a difference the final disposition has if they go to the cemetery and see the casket lower, or if they see their loved one being driven off to the crematorium, or even going to the crematorium to witness a cremation. It really varies. I think the most important part for the healing process and the closure is to actually say goodbye. And I'm not a big fan of what's called a direct cremation, which is the way a lot of things are tending to trend. People think it's the most convenient. But death isn't convenient , and our feelings aren't convenient. I think we have to take the time and go through that pain of saying goodbye properly. It's very rare to have someone that just has a direct cremation - there's no goodbye, no nothing- and have that person be better off with that choice. You live a life with someone that you love, you spend years with them and a proper goodbye is really important. I feel.

Alex Rascanu: Thank you so much. In the role that you do, what would you say are some of the most challenging aspects of it? And, on the flip side, what would you say are some of the experiences that bring you the most joy as a funeral director?

Daniel Verkoeyen: I think two things are challenging. Sometimes the families in their grief can take it out on the funeral director, however that might look. Everybody grieves a little bit differently so they can come in just storming in and they might take out their frustration on me. Or you have the in-laws that are there in the room and they're trying to control everything, but we're trying to get from the closest relative what they need, as opposed to what their extended family or friend might be saying. Although the support that those other people can offer is really good, sometimes it can also be intrusive to the process of getting through everything we need to get through. Maybe I've already said too much on that, but it's part of the reality, right? That can be part of the frustration. Some of the hardest things to deal with sometimes, I guess, would be when you see someone that's very vulnerable, like a child, either experiencing a tragic loss of maybe one of their parents or seeing the loss of a child and having to walk the parents through that. Some of the hardest times that I've had are probably just trying to explain to a little girl why she can't take her dad home with her... So...

Alex Rascanu: Thank you for sharing. It must be quite difficult to go through that again and again, and it's not like you can just leave your emotions at home and not engage in that environment.

Daniel Verkoeyen: Yeah. That can be very hard. But at the same time, if you're able to bring someone through that process, and make it easier for them, then that can be extremely rewarding. After all is said and done, and you just buried their loved one and they come and give you a hug. I mean, it's strange that that can take place, but at the same time it's extremely rewarding to know that you've had that very positive impact on someone in possibly the hardest time of their life.

Alex Rascanu: That's right. Thank you so much. If you were talking right now with someone who is inspired by your story of having become a funeral director and they're googling right now "Humber College funeral director program" would you say that the pandemic that we've been experiencing over the last year or so has had a significant impact in the space that you're in, the funeral homes space, in terms of career opportunities? Or opportunities for someone to not just join the profession, but potentially be able to advance a little bit quicker? Or has it had the reverse impact where you're foreseeing fewer opportunities for someone who is completing the degree to become a funeral director, and fewer opportunities for them to advance in, in the coming years due to what we've been experiencing in the last year.

Daniel Verkoeyen: To be honest, I don't think it's changed opportunities very much at all - good or bad. I don't really see it's had an impact. I mean, in some places I'm sure the opportunities could be more if there's more deaths. But, overall, I don't think it's changed too much. I guess, that would be the only difference in, in high areas of casualties from the virus. I think then the funeral homes might need more support , more staffing. I guess that would be something to look to, but overall I don't think it would have changed the landscape of funeral services too much. You've got to realize that we should be prepared as a funeral industry for these types of things. We've had other pandemics in the past, and we've had other things that come up -viruses that everybody is scared about- and we go working and we use our universal precautions and we take care and we do our best to get the family to proper closure before the final disposition.

Alex Rascanu: Are there any resources , in terms of books or websites, or is there an individual who inspired you in your career?

Daniel Verkoeyen: I didn't even know any funeral directors before I got into a funeral service. I just cared for people and I tell interns that's one of my most important advice to the interns. Interns are very nervous many times going into the arrangement office the first few times and they think, "Oh, who am I? I'm 19 years old, 20 years old. And I'm going to sit down with a family who's just lost their loved one and talk them through the grief process and how they're going to say goodbye and everything? That's a pretty big task." My most important advice usually is: "from your heart, care for that person. That’s the most important thing." Getting into funeral services... you don't go into it for the money because you can do a quick search on what the average funeral director makes. And it's a little bit underwhelming. You go into it for the right reasons, for caring for people. And then you focus on that because there can be a lot of distractions that come and discourage you. I think the burnout rate for funeral directors is something like five years. If you can make it past five years, then you're probably gonna be okay. So go in caring about those people . There's the Bereavement Authority of Ontario. They're the governing body that governs over a funeral services and funeral directors and funeral homes. The bereavement authority of Ontario is a really good source and they'll have everything that you need for the prospective funeral director, and for the public as well.

Alex Rascanu: That's great, Daniel. Thank you so much for your time. This was such an insightful conversation and we appreciate having you on the Show.

Daniel Verkoeyen: It's been my pleasure. Thanks so much for having me, Alex. It's always enjoyable talking with you.

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