A most rewarding undertaking

Denton Harlan’s longtime work as a Battle Ground mortician is fascinating and anything but typical

By Sue Vorenberg, Columbian features reporter

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You never know what people might ask for when planning a funeral for a loved one.

In his 43 years at Layne’s Funeral Home, Denton Harlan has taken requests for a host of odd things -- including some that make burials with liquor bottles, rare coins or stuffed animals seem almost routine.

One time, he had a customer ask him if he could load a loved one’s ashes into a miniature metal cannon that he kept on his desk. When Harlan modified it, the guy liked the makeshift urn so much he asked for a second cannon for a relative.

Another time, Harlan had a customer who was a trophy hunter. The deceased man was very proud of a hunting trip where he bagged a special bird at a lake in Germany, and his family wanted to honor him by spreading his ashes over the site.

“So I reloaded a bunch of shells with his remains so they could shoot them over the lake where he hunted,” Harlan said. “They seemed really happy with that.”

Harlan, who also owns and rides a Harley-Davidson motorcycle, has even performed services in his biker leathers on request, he said.

It’s all just part of the job when you’re a small-town mortician, he said.

“Anybody in the funeral business has to do things a little differently because you’re dealing with all sorts of people,” Harlan said. “If it’s meaningful for them, and it’s not illegal or immoral, we try to make it happen the way the family wants it.”

Although he’s a natural at helping people through the process of a death of a loved one, the notion of becoming a funeral director was pretty far from Harlan’s mind when he was a young man.

Before the 65-year-old got into the business, he almost signed up to fight in the Vietnam War, but a hunting accident took his right trigger finger and put an end to that idea.

Then he became an instructor at the Fred Astaire Dance Studio in Vancouver, at least until the girl he had his eye on told him she wasn’t too impressed with his career choice.

“She wanted me to find something more stable, so in January 1969 I answered an ad in the paper and started working as an apprentice mortician,” Harlan said.

The job, at Layne’s Funeral Home in Battle Ground, ended up growing into a 43-year career, and the girl, Barbara, was so pleased with the choice that she married him later that year.

“He was a dance instructor -- but it just wasn’t a family-oriented job,” Barbara Harlan said. “That was a long, long time ago.”

Growing up in Clark County, he was always familiar with Layne’s. The company handled the funeral for his father, who died in October 1966, and at the time, Denton Harlan remembers being somewhat fascinated and impressed by the service and process.

“I’d always kind of been interested in dealing with death,” Harlan said. “When I was a kid I was fascinated with Egypt and mummies and things like that.”

He graduated from Mount Hood Mortuary School and became a licensed funeral director and embalmer in the early 1970s. But before he completely settled into the career, he found himself drawn to one other field.

“I became a Christian in 1975 and was called to the ministry, so I ended up in California at a Baptist college,” he said. “I was actually sort of intending to be a history teacher rather than a preacher, but then I got a call from Layne, who wanted me to come back and take over the funeral home.”

He finished becoming a licensed minister, and then Harlan returned to Battle Ground to take over the business. And when Thomas Lane retired in 1981, he bought the place.

The job of funeral director can be interesting, odd and, at times, emotionally draining. On a typical day, he gets into the office at around 9:30 a.m. and often doesn’t get home until after midnight.

“Most days are hard to describe as typical; everything varies,” Harlan said. “We may get a death call, we may have to make a removal, we may have to make arrangements. There’s paperwork to do, cemetery arrangements to make, caskets to order.”

Sometimes calls come in at 2 a.m. And he answers them, even at that hour, he said.

In between the work, though, are periods of down time when he and his wife, who runs the business with him, can’t leave the office.

“It’s hard to take regular days off,” Harlan said. “The way I keep from going nuts -- I have a number of hobbies that I do here. I have a little machine shop in the back. I do metalworking, woodworking, leatherworking. I do a lot of reading, too.”

Sometimes those skills play into the job, too.

One time, he had a client with an urn that was shaped like a model car. But there was a problem with the container.

“Because the radiator cap wasn’t there on the car, the remains would sometimes come out,” Harlan said. “So I went into my shop and made a little radiator cap for the car and it fixed it right up.”

Funeral costs vary quite a bit. Cemetery funerals with embalming can run between $6,500 and $8,500 or more. Cremations are a bit less expensive, and the option has become more and more popular over Harlan’s time in the business.

“Back in 1969 it would be remarkable if we had one or two cremations a month -- or even a year,” Harlan said. “Now it’s about 80 percent of the business in Clark County. It’s a large part of the 200 or so funerals we do each year.”

There are some newer chemical cremation methods gaining in popularity that completely eliminate all remains, but the equipment is extremely expensive and it doesn’t seem to suit the needs of his customers, he added.

Cleaning up bodies, embalming and other physical aspects of the job actually weren’t as hard for him to get used to as you might think, he said.

“I always approached that more from a scientific basis,” Harlan said. “I had an interest in embalming and how the circulation works, how complicated it is. Medical stuff fascinates me.”

Probably the hardest aspect of his job, but also the most rewarding, is helping families get through the loss of their loved ones, he said.

“It breaks your heart when you have children,” Harlan said. “Children or suicide are probably the worst strain on us. If you’re cold-hearted and that doesn’t bother you, you shouldn’t be in this business.”

Those sorts of deaths can be hard to get through, especially when you’re trying to help the family while you’re also experiencing the emotion of the tragedy, Harlan said.

“I have wanted to go off in a corner and cry sometimes,” Harlan said. “I’ve done that, too. But mostly to counter that, I work with something I enjoy doing. Sometimes that’s in the shop, or sometimes I take off and go for a ride in the country on my Harley.”

He doesn’t use his religious beliefs to counsel families, but the background does help him stay calm and find ways to help people, Barbara Harlan said.

“He really tries to make people comfortable,” she said. “He has a lot of empathy. He’s very much a people person.”

It’s great to just be able to be there for people going through a hard time, Denton Harlan said.

“A lot of families come in and they’re tragically broken up about what’s taken place,” he said. “It’s an honor to be able to take their hands and help them through things.”

Sue Vorenberg: 360-735-4457; sue.vorenberg@columbian.com; http://www.twitter.com/col_suevo