A Family Business Always in Demand
Germain Lépine, a cabinetmaker by trade, set up his business here in 1845. Together, he and his wife would make a success of it, and for over a century their descendants would uphold the family business’s reputation for excellence. They would also be at the forefront of change in the Québec City funeral parlour industry. Because, although death has always been a certainty, the rituals surrounding it have changed a great deal over the years.
Skill and entrepreneurship
Back when the bodies of the departed were exposed and left for three days in the family home before being buried, Germain Lépine would have his first caskets made to measure by Vallières, a cabinetmaker. Lépine’s work was appreciated, and he began to make furniture and caskets himself. One year later, in 1845, he set up his own business. His wife, Suzanne Bourget, held the purse strings.
A ready market
As well as making caskets, Germain Lépine provided a full range of funeral services: sombre decorations to show that homes were in mourning, artificial flowers, candles, and a horse-drawn hearse to bring the body to the cemetery. Families did not balk at the expense.
During the wake, the deceased was covered with a black cloth. The body was laid out naked on a plank of wood, dressed only when it was time to move it to the casket and be led in a cortège to the cemetery.
Soon Lépine’s company had to expand to meet growing demand throughout the region. It opened a showroom with a dozen types of casket, ranging in price from $2 to $22.
A new generation
Germain Lépine Jr. put his shoulder to the wheel in 1863. He had two horse-drawn hearses made, a first for Québec City: a black one for adults and a white hearse for children, who were three times more likely to die.
The company acquired a ceremonial hearse for local worthies in 1901. Such decorum went down so well that horse-drawn hearses would long continue to compete with the motorized hearses that the third generation of Lépines introduced in 1919.
Malvina Racicot, the widow of Germain Lépine Jr., took over the company reins in 1919 for some twenty years. She was the driving force behind the transition from horse-drawn carriages to motor cars and also set up an ambulance service. Always dressed in black, she was affectionately known as “Queen Victoria.”
Embalming and the funeral parlour
Adélard Lépine was the first to embalm a body in Québec City in 1898. The practice spread slowly because many considered it a lack of respect to the deceased, akin to a mutilation. In the early 20th century, the embalmer went about his work in the home of the deceased.
The Lépine business continued its expansion, moving from its original premises at Carré Lépine to Upper Town, where Jules, a member of the fourth generation, opened the city’s first funeral parlour in 1941. The Lépines remained in the vanguard by embalming and exposing the deceased at specialized funeral parlours that brought all their services together under one roof, a practice that became more widespread in the 1950s.
The company changes hands
The fifth generation of Lépines merged the family business with Arthur Cloutier’s company in 1975. Lépine-Cloutier Ltd. was then bought by Urgel Bourgie, today part of the Athos group, which remains in Québec hands.