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  • Glen Burkholder

And, From The Sky They Fall

Updated: Jul 7, 2020

(2020 Volume 2: Part 1of a 2 part series)


January 1, 2020 and we are excited to be welcoming the year of all years. My wife’s vision was: A perfect year for growth because “hind-sight is 20/20”. We can all learn from the past and make this year a great one. She is the most optimistic person that I know. Eight days into the new year, and I am changed again, as a person and a professional, with the news of an aircraft that had been shot out of the sky. Half a world away, in Iran, there was an “accidental” missile attack on an aircraft that was perceived by the Iranian military to be inappropriately flying in Iranian airspace. After sustaining two guided missile strikes the aircraft was violently grounded on a quiet Iranian community. Never could I have predicted how deeply this incident was going to impact my well being as a person and as a professional.

In the hours and days to follow, I learned that the aircraft had one-hundred and seventy six souls on board, many of who were Canadian. Wonderful, beautiful, brilliant people, of all ages, all of whom gave and contributed to our proud Canadian culture. Some, in that moment, enjoying the thrill of a jet leaving the runway, some nervous about that thought, and all anticipating the repatriation journey to the country they call home. For many aboard that plane, Canada is the second country they have lived in, but a country that represents hope, freedom and prosperity. No one aboard anticipated a flash and explosion, nor another flash and explosion, and from the sky they would fall.


In the weeks to follow, the phone would ring at the funeral home. On the other end was the distraught voice of a gentleman reporting the death of his wife, a victim of that fateful flight. I later sat with him, one on one, face to face and learned of a gentle lady who was a doctor in Iran. She immigrated to Canada with her family and tirelessly achieved her accreditation here. Never working alone, my colleagues and I began the process to repatriate her remains. Such difficult arrangements…these tragedies cut my soul deep.

Then the phone rang again…


This time it was the voice of a father. Divorced and taking advantage of the Christmas holiday season, he bought a ticket to Iran for his 18-year-old son to visit his son’s mother. His life ended abruptly when he was on his way home to begin his final semester of high school and pave the road to university. We worked together and prepared for his son’s return to Canada.


That day arrived and, by the time I went to bed that night, I was left with so many emotions: angst, sadness, humility and pride. The repatriation effort on this given day, happened to be the largest that Pearson International experienced, during the course of this tragedy. That day, there were the remains of eight passengers (victims) in the cargo hold of a flight out of Tehran, all in identical red painted transportation containers. It was in the cargo warehouse of Swiss Air that the efforts of so many touched my life with the collaboration between a team of dedicated Canadian specialists mapping out all of the details and assisting the surviving family members. The custom agents, cargo hanger employees and funeral directors from several competing funeral homes all working together for one purpose.


My pride, my purpose.

Families of the deceased were convening in the airport before being shuttled to the warehouse at Pearson Cargo. Funeral directors were sorting through the paperwork of names and weigh bills with Canada Customs agents. Warehouse workers were transforming an otherwise centre of beehive-like-activity into a solemn welcome centre, setting their work schedule back by hours with uncountable skids of cargo destined for sorting and distributing. Through discussion with my peers, it was decided that we are all here for one purpose. We lined our funeral coaches (hearses) in a respectful assembly outside of the warehouse and decided to remove our identity plates from the rear windows. For this night was about representing our profession as a whole. One of the funeral directors brought a casket cover (aka: a pall), the ultimate symbol of equality. With this, we assembled the transportation caskets out of sight of the families. We brought the caskets to the families one at a time using the pall, so that when they saw their loved one for the first time it was done with respect. Families walked their loved ones to their respective funeral coaches, sobbed and comforted one another until all the caskets were in the vehicles. At this point, the unity of our profession departed the airport proper together, in a cortege, led by a sedan with a purple dome strobe light. This is typically used to identify a funeral procession, moving through the street of its community.


It was one of the most meaningful events in my career to observe and participate with like minded professionals who put their ego and identification aside in the name of compassion and dignity for those we serve and those who witnessed. My regret: Why didn’t I think of

bringing a pall? Why didn’t I think of bringing flowers? In this profession you cannot think of everything, and in that is the very definition of collaboration in common unity. I could not be prouder to be a funeral director. In the face of tragedy, we came together as one. I thank all of those who participated that night to make this event a little easier on those grief stricken families.


Next: Part 2 "There Is No Playbook"

The hours to follow. This is the first time in my career I have had to deal directly with the families who are faced with loss, at the hands of a military strike. There is no script…what next?



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