‘A funeral is so important, and we have just three days to organise it’

The funeral industry has been hit hard by the pandemic. LINDA KENNY talks to some of Cork city's funeral home bosses to see how it impacted on them
‘A funeral is so important, and we have just three days to organise it’

Funeral director Donal Forde

WHEN Thomas Francis O’Connor started up a funeral business in 1887 in Blarney Street, it was strictly as a side-line to his hardware shop/pub.

There was no such thing as a funeral home at that time, and pubs would use their cool rooms to house a body and, more frequently, to operate as a focal point for gatherings of grieving relatives.

Thomas could never have foreseen that such humble origins could evolve into two of the busiest funeral homes in Cork city: O’Connor Bros. of North Gate Bridge and Jerh. O’Connor & Sons of Coburg Street.

Finbarr O’Connor, MD, O’Connor Bros., North Gate Bridge

“Many assume we are the same company, but, while we do have a great working relationship, we have been totally separate businesses since the 1920s,” says Finbarr of the O’Connor companies.

“In the late ’50s, my father Val went to the States to study embalming as there were no preservation techniques being employed in Ireland at that time. When he came home, he took over the business from his dad, Thomas Finbarr.

“Dad was an innovator. In 1967, he established the first funeral home in Ireland. Prior to that, removals took place directly from the hospital mortuary, a cold, unwelcoming place, or the deceased’s home, which put undue pressure on family.

“The current North Gate Bridge funeral home was built on the site of the original old stables which housed the horses and carriages for the Blarney Street operation.

Finbarr O’Connor, of O’Connor Bros, North Gate Bridge
Finbarr O’Connor, of O’Connor Bros, North Gate Bridge

“It was always taken for granted that I would step into this role. That was a lot of weight on my shoulders. My sister Laura Humphries also works with me and we have a great team here.

“The funeral business is a vocation, not a job. It is a 24-7, 365 days a year business. I love it but, in the depths of winter, driving home late at night with wind and rain battering the car, it can be challenging. It is the appreciation of families that keeps me motivated, especially when they come up after a funeral and thank you profusely for making it so special. The family who are grieving, going through the emotional roller coaster, are our priority.

“As a colleague once remarked to me, a funeral is one of the most important events in a family’s history, and we have just three days to organise it.”

Kevin O’Connor, MD, Jerh O’Connor & Sons, Coburg St

“My grandfather went out on his own and opened in Coburg Street in 1928/29,” says Kevin “The premises was originally a pub. He and my grandmother built up the business from scratch.

“Coburg Street is still the epicentre of the entire business. It is where everything is done.

“They had three sons, Tom, Willie and Derry. Tom went to college and became a gynaecologist and the locals would always joke ‘Oh, he brings them in (to the world) and you bring them out!’

“My father and uncle worked in the business. My uncle retired in 1994. My father never really retired. He had a stroke and had no interest in coming back to work if he couldn’t do everything. The stroke was a mild one: he didn’t lose his speech, but he had difficulty walking.

“My brother Brian joined the business in 1994 and we worked alongside dad. Our sister Geraldine works in the office. We are very much a family-orientated company but have a great team with us.

“I was always interested in the business. I worked in the summer holidays and loved it.

“It is amazing the things that draw you into something. I have loved cars all my life. We had old Rolls Royce hearses and they were like little rooms: the timber, the smell inside. I just loved them.

“When I left school, my father would have had me straight into the business but my mother put her foot down and insisted I had to do it properly. I went to England and worked with a company for a while, then got a diploma in Funeral Directing and the Business of Funeral Homes, and a diploma in Embalming. I returned in 1980.

“At the time of the Air India crash, our company was asked to be involved in the repatriation of deceased loved ones. We have letters from parents who lost their children. They put their kids on the flight for the summer. It was awful. It was a huge experience for all of us and a sharp learning curve on how to handle such a delicate situation.

“If you like doing something, it isn’t a hard job. I love doing my job. It is a very tough life because you are dealing with death, loss, and parting.

“I have five sons ranging in age from 18 to 28. They have all worked in the business at different stages. I would love to see them come into the business, but only if they want to. Every generation is different. We didn’t get the same opportunities as this generation.

“It’s a funny business. You either love it or loathe it. It’s not a job that grows on you.

Donal Forde, MD, Fordes Funeral Home

“My grandfather was a wheelwright, building horse hearses and carriages, and started Forde’s Funeral business out of his home place on Keyser’s Hill,” says Donal. “It was still a very small operation when he passed away and my dad Dee, just turned 18, took over. At that time, the bigger focus of the business was hackney and limousine hire. In 1970, he opened our premises on South Gate Bridge. We continued to live just around the corner on Keyser’s Hill. There are six kids in our family.

Funeral director Donal Forde, of Fordes Funeral Home
Funeral director Donal Forde, of Fordes Funeral Home

“I have been around the funeral business all my life. I don’t remember making a conscious decision to be involved in it professionally, but was quite happy to do it. When I started, it was just myself, my mother Kitty and my father. My mother still works every day in South Gate Bridge.

“I qualified as a member of the British Institute of Embalmers when I was only 19 and received a certificate in Funeral Practice in 2012.

“I wouldn’t want any of my children to come into the business full-time at 16 or 17, like I did. I think it is too young. I would rather they go out and experience the world, have fun, observe other forms of work, and come back to it later. Only if they want to.

“It isn’t a job for everyone. I never turn my phone off, which can be perceived as rude, but it is a 24-7 job. In the last year, I have taken just five days holidays. I get great satisfaction out of helping people. We are continually trying to improve the service and are so grateful to our staff. I live by the rule that if things are running smoothly then your influence on organising the minutiae won’t even be noticed.

My Dad, who passed away in 1995, always said to me, ‘If a funeral director does their job well, mourners will hardly notice their presence’.”

Linda Kenny profiles three family-run funeral homes in Cork.

John and Mary Keohane, of Keohane's funeral home

ALTHOUGH Keohane’s funeral home, on Copley Street and Knight’s Hill, Mayfield, will mark nine years in existence this summer, John Keohane could still be regarded as the ‘new kid on the block’.

His gentle kindness and compassion, bringing a human touch and dignity to an emotional, vulnerable time for families, has ensured his company has survived and thrived in a competitive world.

With John and Rose, his wife of 40 years, their daughter Mary and sons Sean and Peter, Keohane’s is very much a family affair. Even his grandsons help their grandad clean the cars on occasion.

John gained a human touch early on, growing up in Douglas Street, and running the popular An Crúiscín Lán pub with his parents Nellie and Jerome.

“They’re similar businesses,” he says. “You are fundamentally dealing with people, and I find people very interesting. Every family we meet has a different story and you try to fit in with them and move the funeral along based on their story. Simple as that.

John and Mary Keohane, Keohane's funeral home
John and Mary Keohane, Keohane's funeral home

“You have to tailor your approach to each individual family and knowing how a loved one has passed is vital.” Daughter Mary says: “We are getting to build up relationships with a lot of families in the community, and I love that, months after the funeral, people will still pop in just for a chat!” “There is great solace and joy in helping people,” adds Rose, who worked for years in a doctor’s surgery. “The number of people who connect with Rose is amazing,” John interjects.

“Well, we have time,” she explains, “so we can sit with them for an hour if they want to talk and tell us the story of their loved one. Life is precious and life experience is what we have. I remember the morning my own mother died, six months short of her 90th birthday. It was so unexpected. Heart-breaking for my daughter, who was travelling home from Canada that morning, and for me.

“When families come in, the heartbreak is just horrendous and I can understand and empathise with that. That empathy is genuine.” A qualified electrician with his own successful business, JK Services, John admits choosing to become a funeral director was a “massive leap”. But it wasn’t as random as it seems.

“We’d be half-related to Shanahans funeral home in Leap,” he explains. John’s father also helped Michael Crowley of Ballincollig when he was starting out in the funeral industry and worked with him for many years. “The funeral business has always been in the background and we found it so interesting,” says John.

He admits starting out wasn’t easy though. “It was so daunting because you can’t market it. Little pieces appeared in the Echo announcing the opening by Bishop Buckley.” Rose added: “We also got calendars printed and hand-delivered them to houses all over Ballinlough.

They had to wait five long months for their first funeral. “We can still remember it vividly,” Rose declares.

“For mavericks, it is challenging,” says John. “I have gone into a business that can be somewhat territorial but, with a lot of help from friends and other independent undertakers, who have given me a lift up from time to time, we have got there.” The funeral business operates largely by word-of-mouth referrals.

“We are very grateful,” says John “People have given us a chance.

“It is a vast emotionally-wrought business. We focus a lot on the little things. Attention to detail is so key.

“Looking back over the past nine years, I would say I’ve learned a lot from meeting people who are compassionate and from very nice, down-to-earth families. We have benefited personally. While it is our business, there is a holistic benefit to us also. If there is any regret, it is that I should have done it 10 years previously”

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