SFYou: Christa Ovenell talks death, education, and where they meet

Christa Ovenell discusses her unique career trajectory

Photo courtesy of Christa Ovenell.

By Kelly Chia, Peak Associate

Name: Christa Ovenell

Pronouns: She/her/hers

Departmental Affiliation: English

Occupation: Apprentice funeral director and community educator

Hometown: East Vancouver

Fun Fact: When talking to her kids, it never takes Christa more than three minutes to mention her potential grandchildren.

After graduating from SFU with a BA in English (2004), Christa Ovenell has continued to grow an incredible career in education. Getting a Master’s in Education at UBC (2010), Ovenell was the director and principal of Fraser International College for six years. Recently, Ovenell decided that she wanted to have a career in death-care, which refers to funeral and death-related services.

She graduated from the Canadian College of Funeral Service this September. Ovenell’s experiences in education and death-care made her realize that as a society, we tend to avoid conversations about death. That’s why Ovenell started doing workshops at The Learnary so that people can prepare for death in a comfortable and practical way.

Ovenell’s extensive career initially made me intimidated to speak with her, but her warm personality was immediately apparent, even over text. At times, her words felt as if they were reaching across the screen to pat me on the back. That hospitality made her very easy to speak to — even if the topic of our conversation was unconventional. While educating me on death-care, she gave me some background on how people joined the funeral business in the past.

Back in the days of the family funeral home, most people came to the business through the business: funeral homes had names like “Smith & Sons” and Mr. Smith’s son really didn’t even have a choice in his career path!” Ovenell joked. 

“Now, it’s far more common for people to come to funeral services as [a] second or, like me, even [a] third career, and many of us who are new to the business actually come from some pretty diverse background,” Ovenell told me. She said that many people who joined funeral services usually came from hospitality backgrounds, or what she calls, other “helping professions.”

I asked Ovenell to elaborate more on her favourite memories in her career in education, and at SFU specifically. 

“Graduation,” Ovenell said decisively. Fondly, Ovenell recalled the memory. “My young children were in the audience and my sister — who had worked with SFU for years — had gotten my whole family VIP seats,” she said.

“Then, when I was FIC’s principal, it was every single graduation. I got to witness the proud, extremely hard-working international students who had started at our college cross the stage. A couple years after I left FIC, my own son was valedictorian for the Faculty of Environment. It probably won’t surprise you that I think his speech was the very best I heard at any of the many, many, many convocations I have sat through!” 

I could tell from her answer that Ovenell valued her work in education, and it showed when we talked about her career path.We then talked about Ovenell’s reasons for going into funeral services. Part of it was that her career, first in hospitality and then in education, allowed for a good transition. 

“When I’m serving families in the funeral home and when I’m facilitating death education workshops, I use skills I honed in both previous careers. Our society is so death-averse that we really don’t know how to deal with it when it happens. And I mean, come on: our mortality is the ONE thing every single one of us has in common! I am equal parts educator and servant leader in this role: it’s truly perfect for me,” Ovenell explained.

She was right — death was something I avoided thinking too much about.

My personal aversion to death largely had to do with the fact that at this point in my life, I haven’t experienced many personal losses. A former staff writer at The Peak, Kim Regala, had expressed a similar sentiment when she went to Ovenell’s death workshop. 

READ MORE: “SFU alumni Christa Ovenell hosts a four part series engaging in open and honest conversations about death.”

 I asked Ovenell if age pushes her to approach the death conversation differently in her workshops, as the workshops often take place in groups.

“Currently most of my educational endeavours are indeed group-oriented, but I’m also more than able to work either in one-on-one settings or in very small groups. It’s not just youth who change the way I talk about death — the conversation changes based on who is in the room. Queer folks have their own special concerns, sometimes. Older people often take an extremely pragmatic approach. Boomers are their own special breed . . . as us Xers, millennials, Y’s, and Z’s know!” she said, lightheartedly. 

“My mission is to have exactly the kind of breakthrough that Kim [Regala] had at The Learnary: talking about death should be one of the easiest and most natural things in the world. And let me tell you, I have not picked an easy goal!”

Lastly, I asked Ovenell to give some advice on life in general. She first stressed the importance of an education in the liberal arts, and the value that this had given her.

“I am a huge proponent of a liberal arts education. I think the relentless quest for credentials is actually killing formal education,” Ovenell told me. “I took a BA with an English major and a women’s studies minor, and I remember a lot of people wondering what I would ‘do’ with that degree. I’m sure I surprised everyone — I’m a death educator and a 50-year-old apprentice after all — but virtually everything I do now and have done through my previous rich and rewarding career has been informed by my early, broad studies that introduced me to concepts instead of teaching me specific requirements.

“My advice is not specific to young learners, but to any learner who is trying something new, whatever age they are. And it’s pretty simple, really: your successes probably won’t matter as much as you think they will. But your failures will matter far less than you can ever imagine.

“Don’t be afraid to be inexperienced at anything, at any point in your life. If you are lucky enough to become an expert at something, give it up. Try something new. You’ll be striving every day like you did when you first discovered your drive, your passion. And it will be invigorating. It will make you want to do more, try harder, reach farther, and be far less afraid while doing all of those things.”