After a loved one passes on, funeral directors play a vital role in the healing process. They come to a family in their hour of greatest need, and even though they may be strangers, they care for the family and the one that has passed with respect and dignity. Funeral directors stand between the family’s past and present. They guide the deceased to their resting place and the family to their new path.
This is the role the Smolyk family has served for 75 years. Now, with the third generation at Park Memorial Funeral Home, we get a rare and precious glimpse of the story behind one of Edmonton’s longest running funeral homes.
“Dad and mom started the business from scratch and opened it on their wedding day,” says Jerry Smolyk, president. “On November 29, 1941, we had two full-time staff members, dad and mom (Tod and Lucy), and our one location in Edmonton. Grandma Kostynuk, my mom’s mother, and my mom’s brother also quickly became backup part-time employees. Grandma used her own personal car to pick up the family for a service and return them from the cemetery because she didn’t trust her son-in-law, Tod, to drive her car!
“At a time when every funeral home in Edmonton carried the surname of the owner, dad chose ‘Park Memorial’ as his intent was not to connect specifically with any one religious affiliation or ethnic group. His motto was: ‘We will serve every person of any colour, creed or religious belief with equal care and the utmost compassion we are able to provide.’
“I came on board while it was operating successfully and saw my role as helping to increase the number of families served, reviewing all parts of the operation to become more efficient and providing new ideas from ideas gathered from colleagues across North America to offer families the newest trends in funeral service. I was expecting my dad to take a long time in accepting my new ideas and eventually stepping aside, but to my astonishment, he turned over major control of our family operation in just a few months! That showed the faith he had in educating me.”
“I started working at Park Memorial during my summer breaks from the University of Alberta,” notes Kirstie Smolyk, Jerry’s daughter and the company’s vice president. “I was taking my Bachelor of Commerce and thought I would go into marketing. During my first summer, I deemed myself ‘the photocopy girl’ because I spent a lot of time assisting with many smaller things that needed to be done around the office, but they were still things that needed to be done in order for everyone to do their jobs properly. From there, I progressed to assisting in the front administration office, helping to answer phones, greeting families at the door, and assisting with the paperwork files related to each deceased. I also worked as a funeral attendant, driving the hearse or the family limousine, working on the service in the church or our chapel, and helping in any other way I could while slowly learning more about the business every day.”
After graduating and working at Park Memorial for two years full time, Kirstie left to pursue additional career and educational opportunities. “Working outside of the business was something that my parents fully encouraged. They felt I would learn more from others in different roles and companies rather than only working in the family business. They thought the experience would serve me well, and it did,” she smiles.
After roles that included public relations and event planning for Klondike Days and a job in communications with the Canadian Red Cross, Kirstie remembers the pivotal moment that set her on a new course.
“After five years within the non-profit world, I was looking for a change. My dad asked me to lunch. We arranged to meet at a restaurant and he proposed the idea of me coming back to Park Memorial, as well as going back to school to obtain my funeral director’s license. At this point, and armed with a bit more maturity, work and life experience, I felt that I was ready to tackle a new challenge! So, back to school I went, taking the program through Mount Royal College in Calgary during the evenings and working at the funeral home during the day.”
Kirstie loves her role as vice president. “I love that this position combines the best of both worlds. I can contribute to helping people during their darkest times as well as still being involved on the business side, for instance trying to find ways to grow the business, investigating new and better ways to provide service to families, and learning more about how the importance of today’s social media and improved technologies can benefit our families and our business.”
“Knowing we have served a grieving family so well that they are talking about us makes it all worthwhile; they give us a special thank you at the grave site, or they make a telephone call or send a special note later. I have saved a number of the really outstanding and touching ones and reread them to lift my spirits on days when dealing with death gets me down,” says Jerry.
“The most rewarding thing is when a family says, ‘Thank you for helping us. You made this so much easier than we thought it would be.’ I especially love it when a family starts off being a little reserved and hard to pull information from, but by the end of it all, they are laughing with you, sharing stories about their loved one and giving those cherished hugs. That’s when I know I did something good,” notes Kirstie.
The world has changed dramatically since Jerry’s parents started Park Memorial in the 40s, and those changes affect the funeral home and how it operates, too.
Jerry points out, “Today one of the biggest challenges isn’t directly within the profession, but results from things that affect the profession, such as divorce, second and third marriages, and a high number of common-law relationships. Decades ago, marriages took place within the same nationality and religion, but in today’s world, it is more readily accepted that love is love, and people will marry who they want to.
“Recently we provided a service for someone of Ukrainian heritage who was married to an Asian, which called for a creative and inventive blending of customs and traditions from both cultures. In another arrangement conference, the family showed up with two children from a first marriage, three from a common law relationship, and one more from a second common law relationship. All of these children wanted to be involved in the planning of a meaningful ceremony for their father. How do you plan a service that will meet the needs of six children, a current spouse, and a couple of ex-spouses – some of whom are coming from very different viewpoints and are handling their grief differently because of their family situation? It can be pretty challenging, and so far we are doing quite well, but some days I wish I had a referee’s black and white striped shirt and a whistle to call a time out!”
Kirstie says, “There are a couple of things I find challenging. One would be staffing. We are lucky and privileged to have a solid staff base, but we’ve also been through some tight times over the years. There are not a lot of people taking the funeral director courses in school each year, and it’s becoming tougher for funeral homes to find enough great people to fill the gaps created as the current staff either retire or make a change to another career. I would love to see more students taking the programs.
“We also need more people in the profession due to a couple other factors: the funeral profession is a 24/7 job because people don’t just die between 8 am and 5 pm, Monday through Friday. Weekends are some of our busiest times because many families like to wait until a Saturday to hold a service so that more people are available to come. Today, the old employee workhorse values of working seven days a week and not seeing your family for days at a time aren’t so desirable. We understand that it’s important for our staff to have time with their families and to get a break, so we have added extra staff and always work to ensure that we have enough experienced, compassionate and professional staff working every day of the week, while also continuing to provide the all-hours service excellence that our families depend on.
“The other challenge would be informing families about the many other unique products and services we can provide to them, such as a planning guide or computer program that can make an executor’s job easier, jewellery created from the thumbprint of your loved one, canvas portraits, travel insurance plans, collecting DNA to avoid fraudulent claims against the estate or for genealogy reasons, making a diamond from cremated remains, and more. Families are often tired after having to make so many decisions while also reeling from their loss and grief. We want our families to know that they can come back to us with questions about anything at any time. We are full of information and will do our best to ensure your idea or desire to honour your loved one comes to fruition.”
In the early 80s, Park Memorial installed a crematorium to handle the rising demand for cremations.
“We are also, unfortunately, seeing scenarios where families do not return to the funeral home to pick up their loved ones’ cremated remains,” says Kirstie. “Or five to 10 years after a cremation, we find an urn on our doorstep, or someone returns an urn to us because it was found in the trunk of an old car or a storage unit. Thank goodness it’s still a small percentage, but I find it sad and disheartening that families would treat cremated remains this way. I think it’s easier for people to ‘forget’ about doing something with cremated remains, yet the remains still require some form of final disposition.”
There are many positive changes happening within the funeral profession too.
“We are seeing more women in funeral service than ever before,” Kirstie points out. “When I started working here during university, 25 years ago, there were only a few female funeral directors and embalmers at Park Memorial. It was traditionally a male-oriented profession, whereas it’s now more balanced. More women, often transitioning to a second career, now want a position that’s focused on caring and giving, helping them to feel fulfilled while truly making a positive difference.”
Park Memorial takes serving the communities in which they operate very seriously, and that means going beyond funeral service. “The company stays involved in our local communities by supporting as many non-profit organizations and charities as possible, through monetary donations and donations in kind,” notes Kirstie. “And when families experience early pregnancy loss or a baby loss, we have always provided a casket and most of our services at no charge, along with a teddy bear for the casket or for the parents to hug. We know these gestures can’t take away the immense pain of losing a baby, but we feel it is a small comfort we can provide to those families experiencing such a tragic loss. We have experienced this type of loss in our own family and know how much support is needed during such a difficult time.”
Today, Park Memorial is pleased to have over 60 long-term staff members across their five locations (Edmonton, Mayerthorpe, Lamont, Smoky Lake & Vegreville) and the family involvement has grown. Both Midge, Jerry’s wife, and Nelson Lanca, Kirstie’s husband are also involved at Park Memorial. Midge was instrumental in the earlier years by overseeing the transfers of the deceased, and is still active today through the designing of every building renovation and planning company events. As the facilities manager, Nelson is involved in overseeing all the major technology and building upgrades for all the offices. Kirstie and Jerry express their thanks to the instructors, friends, family, colleagues, clients and mentors that have been on this journey with them for so many years.
“For Park Memorial, Kirstie is now steering the ship,” concludes Jerry. “I’m a little off to her side suggesting which direction she might want to steer! Truthfully, I am going to continue my present involvement as I have really enjoyed my career and all the people I have met and/or served… and still do.”
“I see us staying on a similar path to that which we have always been on, providing service excellence to families who need us,” concludes Kirstie. “But do I also see us continuing to grow, adapting to change – and celebrating 100 years as a family business? Absolutely!”