When it comes to the business of death, Henry “Hank” Friesen has found life in his retirement years.
Friesen, 70, who spent most of his working life in sales, officially retired 10 years ago. But at an age when many seniors are content to take life easy, Friesen decided to follow his passion and offer his services in the funeral business. For the past several years he has worked about 20 hours a week as assistant funeral director for a group of funeral homes in British Columbia’s Fraser Valley.
Working in the funeral business is not a new calling for Friesen. His interest started as a teenager when he did gardening for a funeral home in Burnaby, and continued even during his sales career, when he volunteered part-time to help a friend who owned a mortuary. His work included assisting at pre-service viewings, and he realized he had a desire to help people experiencing grief. “I’ve always had empathy for grieving people,” Friesen says. “Even at that time it was my passion.”
Friesen might have gone into the mortuary business himself as a career, but he would have had to learn all aspects of it, including embalming, and this was not his interest. He prefers to walk alongside families in their journey of loss. Offering his arm to a widow walking into the chapel to view her husband’s body for the first time, or answering the questions of a child wondering why Grandma is so cold, are rewarding to Friesen.
He recalls the service for a murdered gang member at which the widow and two small daughters arrived at the funeral home guarded by police cars and surrounded by gang members on motorcycles. The two children clung to him because there was no one else for them.
One of eight older men who work for the funeral home group as assistant funeral directors, Friesen’s duties include transporting the body to the funeral site, setting up flowers at the church, ministering to the deceased’s family, or driving the hearse or limousine to the cemetery. Those in his age group are ideal for the job because of their life experiences, Friesen believes, adding that his white hair and grandfatherly appearance help put people at ease and make him more approachable. “It’s great for retired people,” he says. “We’ve all experienced the loss of parents.”
A nearly-lifelong resident of Abbotsford, Friesen has found that his connections with many of the city’s older people, particularly in the Mennonite community, have served him well. Often just a sentence or two in Low German to an elderly Mennonite widow will be enough to put her at ease. He enjoys the aspect of his job that allows him to get to know the family of the deceased.
Friesen’s Christianity is very much a part of his work. “I do it because of my faith, because of love and empathy for others,” he says. “My faith is very interwoven with what I do. I almost always pray for the family. I do a lot of praying when they’re Buddhist or [Sikh] Indo-Canadian.”
Becoming acquainted with clients of other religions has been an eye-opening experience, and a way to witness silently, he says. Friesen has observed that those of the Sikh religion wail loudly at funerals, and one time a Sikh man came to talk to him. “He asked me, ‘You know why my people cry so hard?’ ” recalls Friesen. “ ‘It’s because we have no hope. You Christians have hope.’ ”
Over and over, the word “passion” continues to come up when Friesen talks about his second career in the funeral business. “I do feel very passionate about it. When something’s your passion, it’s hard to explain,” he concludes.
He plans to continue with what he considers a ministry as long as he can. “By nature, I’m a very active person, and it’s always been a part of me to help people. I like to keep busy and this is a way I can give of myself. Because you give of yourself emotionally, it’s a demanding ministry on its own.”
Friesen was a member of Olivet Mennonite Church for 47 years before the congregation withdrew from Mennonite Church B.C. He now attends Emmanuel Mennonite.