Thompson Rivers University

Alumni Q&A: ‘Proximity to death a lesson in living’

  Posted on: October 6, 2021

TRU alum Emily Bootle

TRU alum Emily Bootle (BA '14).

TRU alum Emily Bootle (BA ’14) is a funeral director, embalmer and the founder of DeathCare BC. We got in touch to learn more about her work since completing her undergrad in psychology at TRU. Passionate about caring for the dead, Bootle talks about building awareness, working with families, the opioid crisis and her responsibilities as a death worker.

Tell us about your job. What do you do?

I am a licensed funeral director and embalmer in Vancouver. In June 2021, I partnered with KORU Cremation | Burial | Ceremony, an independent death-care provider in South Vancouver. On a given day I may be at the computer, on the phone, in the morgue, sitting in church or standing by a graveside. The work itself takes many forms.

The big question many might have: Why? What got you interested in this field?

A couple years after graduating, it came time to figure out what I really wanted to do. Not necessarily what job, but what activities—how do I want to spend my time? I was working in e-commerce and feeling drained after long days at the computer.

Death work came to me in a bit of a brainwave. We hear a lot about health-care sector jobs with the aging population. For some reason, my mind went one step further. I did some research and discovered it was a two-year course and apprenticeship, then I could be licensed and set loose. I was 25 and had only been to three funerals. My parents are teachers, not morticians.

Things that appeal to me about this career, in no specific order, are: personal connections, purpose, job security, growth opportunities and variety. Every family is unique, each person you meet is in the midst of a once-in-a-lifetime experience. It’s an incredibly authentic space to work in, with tremendous challenges and reward. Being the last one to see or tend to someone’s beloved is truly sacred to me and that meaning drives me on difficult days.

Take this with a grain of humour: there is an opportunity presented when your career peak will align with the sunset days of the largest living cohort. It feels gratifying to know that I will be a resource to friends and family in the coming decades.

What was your path from TRU to the career you have now?

In the last year of my degree, I decided to start volunteering to try some things out. This led me to RCMP Victim Services, where I learned about our criminal justice system, cycles of substance use and domestic violence, and about death. In my courses, I had been interested in bereavement and attachment, and inclined toward community psychology.

The seed was planted when I learned that when someone dies, unexpectedly or not, the death system that takes over in BC is completely private. Certain religious and cultural communities have their own support systems, however overwhelmingly it is funeral directors and embalmers tending our dead.

This was intriguing at the time and I believe that is what eventually drew me back to this line of work. I perceived and still believe that there is a support gap between time of death and burial or cremation.

Tell us about DeathCare BC. What is it and what gap is it filling?

A couple years back, I created DeathCare BC as a platform for education and advocacy that is separate from my practice as a death worker. It is important to me that folks feel like they can reach out even if they are using another funeral home or from a different area. Very few people know what happens after someone dies and this mystery can create a lot of fear. By familiarizing ourselves with the death system (before we need it), we can reduce this fear and be empowered in our decision making.

There is a negative stereotype of funeral homes and directors, not necessarily unfounded, that they exploit individuals in grief. The best way to protect against this is to be informed about what you need and what to expect. DeathCare BC is an avenue for people to get informed without being beholden to a particular funeral business.

On a long enough timeline, each one of us will encounter death. It is possible to introduce ourselves before we are in shock or grief, to become acquaintances. This does not ease the pain of loss, but it will certainly reduce confusion and fear.

How has COVID-19 impacted your work?

COVID affected death workers in unanticipated ways. In BC, we have not experienced a surge in COVID deaths, however we did experience huge disruptions to the way we gather. In March 2020, funerals and celebrations were first postponed, and eventually cancelled en masse. This has impacted the way funeral homes operate and support families, as we have had to get creative in the way we help folks come together.

The opioid crisis has been a shaping factor of my career. My first year working at a funeral home was in 2016, during peak toxicity. In the last six months, over 1,000 British Columbians have died of drug poisoning and it affects every community you can imagine.

The heat dome was an unprecedented and unimaginable week. Three hundred sudden deaths were reported in one day (June 29), a volume never experienced before in BC. This had mortuary workers stretched to the absolute limit, morgues were full and it took weeks to work through the backlog.

Climate change alongside an aging population puts us at risk of more events like this one. As a death-care worker, I see it as my responsibility to call attention and be a part of making plans for how to respond in future.

What is green burial? What are the benefits?

Green burial is the original burial. Over time our burial practices evolved to include things like embalming, metal caskets, concrete grave liners. Green burial simply means taking all this away and placing the body in a natural shroud or casket and returning to the earth. The burial is shallower than a typical burial, allowing oxygen to aid in the process.

It is a tremendously gentle way to go, one that permits the community to gather and gives the living a place to visit. There is a concept called conservation burial that goes even further by conserving and restoring the burial land to nature.

If you think your local cemetery should have a green burial section, contact them to let them know.

How do you cope with facing grief and death on a daily basis?

It really helps that there are tangible ways for me to support grieving people in the early days after a loss. They come to us with questions and we are able to give answers and provide structure to a very confusing and sad time. Some situations weigh heavier than others, and on those days, I really try to be patient with myself and lean in on comfort. Comfort food, music, movies, people.

This work reminds you to be present with the people you love and to enjoy the time you have. Proximity to death is a lesson in being alive.

What’s next for you? What are your long-term goals?

Right now, I am very excited to nurture and grow KORU Cremation | Burial | Ceremony with my business partner Ngaio Davis. She is a highly experienced funeral director from whom I am very grateful to be learning. Our foundation is in environmentally sustainable practices and family-led care. We are doing our best to chart a different kind of path in a highly traditional industry.

One big goal is to draw awareness to how limited our after-death options are in BC. Washington state has legalized human composting and multiple provinces have access to water cremation. In BC, we have only flame cremation and ground burial. With a cremation rate of almost 90 percent, the liquid natural gas footprint of our death care in this province is significant and under the radar.

I hope to persuade our legislators to permit more sustainable options for British Columbians. As a province, we are falling very much behind.

How did your experience at TRU prepare you for this career?

The breadth of experience I was able to get as a student at TRU informed my work in innumerable ways. My connections to professors, other students and my community almost felt like being in a village together. I had role models for what grassroots leadership looks like in individual programs and felt authentically connected to my cohort.

Being a funeral director means I play a very specific role in my community. I am proud of what I do and extend a depth of gratitude to the individuals at TRU who helped shape and prepare me for it.

Where can people go for more information?

To get in touch with me, or browse some resources, my site deathcarebc.ca is a good start.

To learn more about our independent funeral business check out korucremation.com, there is also a ton more information there.

Green burial in Canada is trending and there’s great info at greenburialcanada.ca.

Regarding water cremation (alkaline hydrolysis) watercremationbc.ca provides ways to support.

Share your story. Contact us at alumni@tru.ca.