Janet LeBlancq, in spite of her French name, has an Icelandic background. She spent most of her early years in Ashern, Manitoba with her mother, grandfather and grandmother. “Funeral Processions” from I know how I got this way” by Janet LeBlancq (Arnason). Her grandfather, Asmundur Arnason, died when he was 32. Her grandmother, Lara, married Charlie Clemens. Her mother, Margaret Stefania Arnason, married a 41 year old miner by the name of LeBlancq. The marriage didn’t work out and Margaret and Janet moved back to Ashern to live with Afi and Amma. This story and one to follow both come from a collection of stories about those Ashern years.
I was charmed by these stories. They capture a time and place and roused in me a flurry of memories. It was through the diligence and generosity of Jim Anderson, of Jim Anderson books, that I obtained a copy of I know how I got this way.
So there I was, a kid growing up in a tiny town in Manitoba’s Interlake region, with a Funeral Home in my backyard. My bedroom was also “the Office” where my Afi did his Funeral business. Outside, where one usually finds a yard, was the morgue and a garage for the hearse.
On Saturdays my chores included washing that hearse; it was a beauty—a 1929 Packard, black of course, with a red velvet interior and mahogany runner bars set in the floor. It had an exterior sun visor, and, except for its length, looked like the old cars you see in the movies driven by Al Capone’s boys as they blast their way through the streets of Chicago. It was actually fun to wash and polish that beautiful car and I dreamed of the day I would be big enough to drive it.
A business call meant someone had died and our entire household went into funeral mode. If the deceased was a local I would hear my Mom and grandparents reminiscing about times they had shared, but for all of us it was mostly business. My Uncle Lawrence worked with Afi; they would pick up the remains and be in the morgue for long hours doing the embalming and cosmetic work. I remember it being said that when they were through, a body looked asleep.
When the morgue was occupied, an air of solemnity descended on our house, orchestrated by my Amma. My sister and I, and my two cousins who were regulars at our place, were not allowed to linger or play anywhere near the backyard. I never did see the inside of the morgue, other than a stolen glimpse through a closing door. I guess I knew the rules and, fearing the consequences, obeyed them without question.
My Mom did the obituary writings and phoned them into the Winnipeg newspapers. That call would be made from my room! She also did a lot of the funeral arrangements, like booking the church and minister, organizing the pall bearers and ordering the flowers. The funeral wreaths and flowers were shipped from Winnipeg by bus. In the winter the flowers would sometimes arrive fresh frozen. The flower pick-ups from the bus station was a part of the whole business that I could be included in. I recall going to the café bus stop with my Uncle Lawrence to help load the flowers into the station wagon, with flourish, I might add. It was a mark of distinction, collecting something or someone from the bus, and I couldn’t wait to be old enough to do it all by myself. The only part of the whole funeral preparation not done directly by my family was the grave digging. The prerequisite to commissioning the service of a grave digger was determining the location and sobriety status of two local gentlemen who were the regulars for this task. Somehow the graves got dug, summer and winter.
When the bereaved family came to the Funeral Home to “view the remains,” I saw a lot of crying people and learned to be respectful of the moment. This meant being quiet and not around or, at least, out of sight. On the day before a funeral service, I would be in high gear washing the hearse and the station wagon; usually my older cousin Glen helped me.
The whole town involved itself on the occasion of a funeral. All the businesses closed for an hour at the appointed time of the service, and school would finish early so the teachers could attend. The funeral procession from the church to the cemetery was a solemn affair that everyone watched. The Packard, gleaming black and with headlights on, led the way, driven by my Afi. I was proud of my family; I recall how shiny the cars looked, and my Afi’s top hat. We would watch them pass in a thoughtful moment, and then go back to our playing.