KITCHENER - Olivia Kreischer's backup plan was to be a flight attendant. Instead, she followed her dream and became an artist.
But Kreischer, 20, doesn't work with canvas. She works with the dead. And as a funeral director, it's her job to give people dignity in their final farewell.
As one of 14 licensed staff at the Henry Walser Funeral Home in Kitchener, Kreischer is also concierge to the grieving, doing everything from transporting the deceased, driving the long black coach, transferring ashes into urns, writing obituaries and planning every funeral detail, right down to the flowers and religious components.
But one of her favourite parts is the embalming. It's her job to wash, dress and stylize the dead for their last public appearance. She figures she's done more than 200 of these preparations already in her young career.
Although it may seem to some like a grim task, involving draining the blood and replacing it with the preservative formaldehyde, she takes great pride in her work, much like an artist.
"I look at it as an art form. I think of it as I'm trying to paint the best last picture for this family of their loved one, " she said. "The one thing the family will remember after that day is how their loved one looked."
She starts by using an electric hoist to lift the body, which she delivered to the funeral home in an unmarked van, onto one of two stainless steel tables. Wheeling the deceased into the sanitized preparation room, which is heavily ventilated, she puts on music, dons gloves, a medical gown, mask and apron, and gets down to business.
The process can take up to three hours, especially if a body is being shipped overseas for burial and needs extra preservation. It includes "cosmetizing" - finishing touches like applying lipstick, makeup, nail polish and whatever else is needed to make a deceased person appear as close to how they did in life.
It also means readjusting limbs stiffened by rigor mortis, using a range of chemicals to compensate for skin colour and jaundice caused by disease, and painstakingly applying cotton filling, all designed to make a person look as natural as possible in the casket.
It's not a job for the faint of heart.
"You have to be OK with blood, " she said. "You also have to be OK with smells because the chemicals we use are very strong."
At five-foot-two with a petite frame, Kreischer said people often assume she's a hairdresser or a waitress. They're shocked when she tells them what she does for a living.
She was drawn to the funeral business while still a teenager. Kreischer's mother died of breast cancer when the Forest Heights grad was just 16. She was inspired by her mother's female funeral director and she decided she wanted to become one, too.
She did a co-op stint at the Erb & Good Family Funeral Home in Waterloo while still in high school, then earned her funeral services diploma from Humber College, where she studied anatomy, pathology and microbiology, among other courses.
Her career has been an education in the funeral rites of different faiths, too. Every culture has different rules on how to dispatch the dead, from things like which hand to place over the other in the casket, to where to position crucifixes, prayer rails and candles during the visitation.
Kreischer understands that death makes many people uncomfortable, but she tries to put them at ease.
"I think people are scared when they come here. I'm here to make it easier for them, " she said. "I just want to take the load off people because I know what it felt like when my mom and grandfather passed away."
Kreischer loves her work, but it's not always enjoyable. The most difficult part of the job is preparing a funeral for children and infants.
"Babies are the hardest because they didn't even get a chance, " she said.
It can be a physical job, too, between all the moving of caskets and repositioning of heavy bodies. Kreischer goes to the gym three times a week to maintain the strength she needs.
Being a funeral director can also mean working long hours, occasional weekends, and sometimes being on call overnight. That can mean getting a phone call at 2 a.m. from a grieving family member who wants to talk casket prices. Kreischer carries a thick, black binder with her just for those occasions.
On most days, the Walser funeral home is a busy place. On the ground floor, there's a central office with a digital white board that keeps track of the dozens of funerals that may take place in a week, and all the specific requirements for each one.
In the basement, there's more office space, files for pre-arranged funerals, and a storage room where ashes are placed in containers on white shelves.
It's the funeral directors' job to take the ashes when they come back from the crematorium and transfer them into an urn. It can be a nerve-racking task.
"The first time I had to handle ashes, I was so nervous. I thought, ‘I can't get this on my hands' because I thought I was taking it away from the deceased person, " Kreischer said.
Since then, she's become comfortable dealing with all aspects of death. It's a part of life, she said, and someone needs to be there to help make it easier for everyone else.
"It's something that has to happen. You have no control over it, " Kreischer said. "I think because I deal with it every day, it's the norm for me."