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Homemaker to undertaker: Canada’s first female mortician

Violet Guymer, licensed funeral director in The Pas, Man. Digital Museum Canada

“I had become accustomed to having corpses in the morgue next door to the house, but I never liked it,” Violet Guymer was quoted in “Quite an Undertaking,” by daughter Lorrie Guymer Hutton and granddaughter Elizabeth Lycar.

Guymer’s husband, Daniel, was the only mortician in The Pas, Man., and when he died, town council asked Violet to take over the business. “I never liked that side of Lawrence and Daniel’s enterprise … I could never do it,” she said. Then Guymer changed her mind.

Drawn to the Canadian West by glowing advertisements of land for immigrants, Daniel Guymer and his younger brother, Lawrence, made their way by ship and railway from England to Saskatchewan in 1909. Daniel’s wife, Violet, and their two sons arrived several months later. The young mother imagined pretty houses with flowers blossoming in the yard, just like those she left behind in England. Instead, her ideas of clean, civilized living were soaked by mud. Everywhere.

Farming was not the right career for the Guymer brothers. After their best effort, they gave up thoughts of growing giant vegetables. In 1910, the family moved north to The Pas to work at a new lumber company. Later, after trying a handful of venture, including “honey wagon” drivers, the men established two businesses. Guymer Bros. Transfer and Forwarding Company was opened to fulfil government mail and liquor transportation contracts. Competition was stiff in the carrier business, but no rivals vied for the second business: the funeral home. The brothers already had the necessary “horses and wagon, and Lawrence had the carpentry skills to build caskets,” Lycar and Hutton wrote.

While not very profitable, the funeral operation was busy. Daniel Guymer trained in embalming in 1914, making him the region’s official mortician and funeral director. His wife had no part in the operation; her role was mother to their growing brood of children, homemaker and family hostess.

The Spanish flu pandemic brought more patrons to the undertaker. Exhausted from overwork and pleurisy, he contracted the dreaded influenza. Guymer succumbed to the disease on Nov. 13, 1918, leaving his 33-year-old widow and family nearly incapacitated with sorrow.

Violet Guymer was expecting her sixth baby when her husband died. Compounding the mother’s misery, a short time later the baby miscarried at approximately five months along. Gathering strength, Guymer realized there were still five children to care for, and she reconsidered the town council’s suggestion that she run the funeral home. She made her choice. To keep her husband’s dream alive and her family fed, she would become a mortician. First, she needed to learn the skills.

Taking the train to Winnipeg to attend mortician training and apprenticeship, Guymer reached the conclusion that there would be no turning back. She knew she was about to transform from a free-spirited social butterfly into a serious, respectable business owner.

The only woman in the class, Guymer worked persistently to prove she was up to the task. There was significantly more to undertaking than the physical work of embalming the dearly departed. She “had to learn to efficiently plan all aspects of a funeral,” Lycar and Hutton wrote, “from the flowers to the music and the transportation of the remains to the burial site, how to comfort and counsel the bereaved and assist in choosing caskets and headstones.”

Learning how to prepare a handmade casket for an infant, she was also taught how to apply makeup on the deceased for a natural look. Unaware that her late husband had been performing all those tasks, she “began to appreciate him more and more.”

The student’s determination paid off. She received her diploma on Aug. 1, 1919, from the Western Canada Funeral Directors and Embalmers Association. Violet Guymer was the first female funeral director in Canada, and for the next 20 years, the only licensed female embalmer in the province of Manitoba. To develop the look of a professional, she bought a few better pieces of clothing and a string of pearls.

Bringing the softer side to funeral directing, Guymer provided bereavement support to families and offered respect and dignity for all, whether they could afford to pay for her services or not. Often, families had no money to pay for the funeral or made small instalments. Guymer wrote off the debts and carried on.

Caring for the dead was never easy, but tending to those killed in accidents gave Guymer reason to reflect. A young man mushing his racing dog team crashed through the Moose Lake ice. Missing for several days, 24-year-old Walter James Goyne was at last located underwater, still sitting upright on his sled with his team of dogs in racing formation. Police “believed Goyne was travelling at racing speed toward shore in an effort to escape thin ice, when he plunged through and under heavier ice, where escape was impossible,” described a newspaper report on Dec. 1, 1921.

Another heart-wrenching time, four children out on a fun summer day drowned in Pike Lake. Placed in Guymer’s tender care, “this funeral was one of the most stressful of (Guymer’s) career as a funeral director,” her daughter wrote.

While heartbroken for the families that Guymer knew well, “there were so many things to do, so much to co-ordinate and organize, and so much grief all around her.” The undertaker was a true professional and able to perform her duties with grace, whether drownings, air crash victims or other manners of death.

Throughout her career, Guymer was challenged by the town coroner. He did not believe she should be performing such work and made life difficult whenever he could. To Guymer’s distress, the coroner treated local First Nations people with disdain and occasionally with brazen brutality. The undertaker found it best to steer clear of the contentious man as much as possible.

In 1929, another funeral home opened in The Pas. It was the first competition faced by Guymer. Working for years from her home funeral parlour, she now realized a downtown location would be preferable. A few years later, Guymer purchased a hearse, and for her transfer business purchased a truck. Although improvements were made, her businesses were not lucrative. By 1939, she was forced to sell her assets. The transfer operation brought in $750, according to Hutton, and the funeral home sold for $500.

Changing vocation, Guymer worked as a railway cook, then delighted in the opportunity to deliver a baby as a midwife. Developing lung cancer, Violet Irene Guymer died on Sept. 4, 1955, at age 70.

Facing sadness and adversity, and then success as a single parent and businesswoman, Guymer thrived as the first licensed woman funeral director in Canada. Caring for the deceased was a good decision after all.

Susanna McLeod is a writer living in Kingston.


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