Cardinal Thomas Collins presents Paul and Margaret O’Connor the Bishop Michael Power Award at the ShareLife Mass of Thanksgiving in 2014. Photo courtesy of Margaret O’Connor

O'Connor's funeral business stays true to its principles

By 
  • February 3, 2017

To Paul O’Connor, family has always been at the centre of the funeral business.

The most essential role of the funeral director is to accompany people in the most vulnerable time of their family life, to listen and to be compassionate.

Much has changed in the last 50 years, but not that.

“To serve and to help everyone,” he said. “That’s what a funeral director does, try to help them and console them and give them the best advice that you can. And I think as a Catholic, Christ’s teachings has made me well-equipped in this business.”

Feb. 7 will mark the 50th anniversary of the Paul O’Connor Funeral Home in Scarborough, in Toronto’s east end. O’Connor said it feels like he and his wife, Margaret, haven’t really stopped working since they first opened the building in 1967. Both are now approaching their 90s, but they still come in to supervise the daily operations of the funeral home, which is why the anniversary came as a bit of a shock.

“What I have now, I never dreamed I would have 50 years ago when I first started,” said O’Connor. “I’m very pleased with what we’ve done and it’s well beyond my dreams.”

O’Connor never saw himself doing anything else. His father was also a funeral director. The family lived above the funeral home and growing up, he and his four siblings would help run the business.

He remembers working at a funeral Mass at 7 a.m., before being dropped off at school. After school, he and his two older brothers would help their father pick up the bodies from a home or the morgue, dress the bodies and set up the caskets.

“I really didn’t think anything of it. That was the way we were brought up,” said O’Connor. “When I was in high school, I didn’t have to bring a letter or anything because my teachers would all know my dad needed me on funerals on particular days of the week. I found out 30 years later that a lot of the students didn’t like me because I got to miss school.”

O’Connor officially became his father’s apprentice at the age of 18. He was earning about $5 a week. A few years later, he married Margaret in 1950. With dreams of starting a new family, O’Connor left his father’s business to work as a funeral director in another funeral home.

In 1965, the couple ventured to start their own funeral business, so they bought two plots of land in Scarborough. The original building was about 5,000 sq. ft. After five renovations and expansions, the building has grown to about 22,000 sq. ft. complete with a new chapel, viewing halls and expanded reception rooms.

“Funerals have changed drastically over the years,” said Margaret. “Years ago, we were strictly here to look after families for a funeral and of course now, families want receptions. We’ve had to change and build a reception room so families can come back after the funeral.”

When they first started the business 50 years ago, Margaret said everyone had two days of visiting before the funeral later that week. They hardly had any cremations, especially for Catholic families they serve.

Now, it’s a rarity to have even one visiting day and cremations take up about 60 per cent of their business. Families now have several options on how they want to be laid to rest and the O’Connors said they had to change and evolve their levels of services.

Two of O’Connor and Margaret’s eight children work together at the Paul O’Connor Funeral Home, alongside their hired staff. O’Connor said he never particularly encouraged his children to take up the family business like he did, but he is glad that in a way, the O’Connor legacy continues.

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