TORONTO - The Ohio Funeral Directors Association presented honors to Don Clarke for 50 years of service as a funeral director, but his work at the Clarke Funeral Home, 302 Main St., began as part of growing up.
"We lived upstairs, from 1950 to 1960 when I graduated from high school. With everything going on here, I grew up here," Clarke reminisced. "My freshman year in high school, I had to start working. The old man said either I was going to work for him or I was going to perish. I started out cutting grass, painting, snow removal, the whole works. It was just here, and you did it."
Clarke's father, Donald T. Clarke, bought the funeral home from Charles Van Nuys on Dec. 1, 1945. The elder Clarke had worked for Van Nuys.
HONORS — Don Clarke and his wife, Cheryl, stand in front of the Clarke Funeral Home in Toronto. Don Clarke has been recognized for 50 years of service as a funeral director by the Ohio Funeral Directors Association. -- Paul Giannamore
The association presented Clarke with the 50-year honor in mid-May, and he recalled getting to meet some of his classmates from mortuary school from the early 1960s.
"There were about 14 of us from the Class of 1963," he said.
Donald W. Clarke dismissed the notion that some guys in his shoes might have told Donald T. Clarke they wanted to do something else.
"It was second nature. You didn't think about it. You just did it," he said. "When I got my driver's license, I was going on ambulance calls in the middle of the night. I just sort of grew into it. My routine in high school was to go to school, come home, wash the cars, do your lessons, do your homework and go to bed. That was it."
Except for the nights when the Clarke family's other responsibility, which continued until about 1971, would come calling. The Clarke's had the ambulance service covering Toronto and the surrounding area. And when the ambulance calls came in the middle of the night, there was no break for the next day.
"If you got up in the middle of the night and went on an ambulance call, Mama would say you're going to school. She was tough, too," Clarke said with a smile.
"And when I got to be a senior, the old man said, I want you to do this and if you don't like it, fine. I want you to go to get your funeral director and embalmer's license so you have it for the future," he said. "If you don't do it, you don't do it. Well, I did it. He was paying the way."
Clarke graduated from mortuary school in 1963 after attending Kent State University for two years.
"Back then, mortuary school was a concentrated 12 months, equal to a two-year course. There were no vacations. There was no English or social studies. You did anatomy and chemistry. It was a concentrated course," he recalled.
And the young Clarke came back to his father's funeral home in 1964 to serve a year's apprenticeship, the funeral home where he had grown up and worked as a kid.
"I didn't know anything. Honest to God. I didn't know anything. I had to learn the mechanics. I knew the bookwork and the theory, but I had no clue about being hands on," he said.
Getting out of the ambulance business in 1971, he recalled "was like going on vacation. We were going in every which direction."
"We were in the ambulance business when they were building the Stratton dam and the (Sammis) power plant. Every injury on those projects, we were up there," he said. "We had a hearse and we had a dressed-out ambulance, a big old Oldsmobile."
He recalled getting in on the final days of holding wakes and funerals in the family's home, the last one occurring in 1978, though the last one prior to that was in about 1963.
Don worked with his dad as "the back room boy" until he was suddenly thrust into the position of owner and funeral director upon the unexpected death of his father from an aneurysm in 1977.
"My dad was such a hands-on guy. He met with all the families. I never met with any families. He never took a vacation, and if he did and the call came that we had business, he'd come back," Clarke said. "He had just turned 60. It was such a shock."
He said it is true that there are seven stages to grief and he's seen people in different stages at different times.
"Everybody grieves differently. They don't do the seven steps all in order. Believe me. Some of the biggest fights I've seen are over the little things. I've seen people fight over flowers, over whose car is ahead of whose in the procession," he said. "But you have beautiful people 99.9 percent of the time."
He recalled one time when he accidentally put on the FM radio over the speakers into the viewing room instead of a tape of organ music, and people laughed.
"Now, we play Pink Floyd. Anything. You name it, I've played it," he said. "The funeral business has changed."
For instance, he said, during the past five years or so, there's been a local rise in the number of cremations.
"We're probably doing 30 to 35 percent cremation. Back when I started working for Dad, we were lucky to do 1 or 2 percent. A lot of it is economy, but a lot of it is that people are displaced in different areas around the country. Dad dies here. Daughter is in California. Son is in Florida. They can't maintain the grave. They can't all get in," he said. "It's not always money. It's convenience. Some of it is philosophy. And about half of those we cremate will still have a visitation and a funeral. A lot of people don't realize they can still have a ceremony and visitation and then cremation. And, though it may sound odd, we have caskets available that they rent and when we're done, we reline them and rent them again for cremation services."
He sees cremation as the wave of the future.
"It will be reaching 60 percent on the East Coast and the West Coast soon. Everything starts out on the coasts and moves in," he said.
Clarke said one thing that doesn't change is the need to say goodbye.
"The hardest thing I see people go through is when there is a tragedy and they can't see the person. They can't face death. I think the grieving process starts when you see the person and then you start to deal with it," he said.
(Giannamore can be contacted at email@example.com.)