Two Visits to Paperman, and a Lesson: Always Bring Your Camera


If you are Jewish, and you live in Montreal, sooner or later, you will die, and end up at Paperman and Sons Funeral Parlor. Naturally, I had heard of it since I was a kid, but since nobody close to me had ever died, I never went there except to attend other families’ funerals. That means, I never knew what went on upstairs – I knew nothing of the business of death.

That changed in 2001, when my mother died at the age of 92. Suddenly I had to go to Paperman and Sons and “do business.”

I phoned and made an appointment to see Ross Paperman, who of course was one of the elder Paperman’s sons. Of course everybody in Montreal who was Jewish knew where it was, but this time it was a bit different. I went in the entrance and for the first time, I went to the elevator instead of the chapel. The elevator doors opened (just like the gates of heaven) and I entered. I was swiftly transported to the second floor, and when I exited, there was a pretty young lady with dark hair, a dark suit and dark eye makeup. She was deathly thin. She walked up to me, extended her hand, and said very formally, “My extreme sympathies, Mr. Saxe. If you will have a seat, Mr. Ross Paperman will be with you shortly.” I sat down and looked around. The whole place was decorated in Jewish Gothic with dark paneling, black sofas and mahogany desks. Everybody who worked there was dressed in black. I felt I was paying a visit to the Munsters.

Where Was My Camera?

In a few moments a young-40ish man in a dark suit came out and introduced himself as Ross Paperman. “I am deeply sorry about the loss of your late mother,” he said. (Actually, it was not such a tragedy. She had lived a long, healthy life, her cancer was diagnosed three weeks before her death and she suffered no pain. She told me she was ready to go.)

We walked down a dark-paneled corridor, past mahogany doors and an endless bevy of employees – all wearing dark suits. He stopped at a dark-paneled door, opened it and said, “Please go in.” Sharon and I walked into this huge mahogany-paneled office. Instead of being dark like everything else, it was brightly lit by an array of fluorescent ceiling lights. I felt I was about to “beamed” somewhere. Every shelf, tabletop, bookcase was adorned with miniature G.I. Joe figurines. Yes! G.I. Joe figurines! I smiled. Sharon smiled.

“This is such a gloomy place sometimes, I keep my collection here to cheer me up. I hope you don’t mind. If it bothers you, we can move to another room.”  All I could think of was, “Where was my camera?!”

A Second Visit to Paperman

Two years later, my father passed away. Again it was no great tragedy. He was 96, institutionalized, in dementia and passed away peacefully in his sleep. For the second time in my life, I had to go to Paperman’s to “do business.”

Sharon and I walked into the building, past the chapel and entered the elevator. When the doors opened, everything was as it had been before except that this time, I brought my camera.

The woman with the dark hair, black suit and dark eye makeup motioned for us to sit on one of the black sofas in the reception room. As I waited, I thought I was so clever for bringing my camera this time. I eagerly anticipated meeting with Ross and photographing his office with himself surrounded by 10,000 G.I. Joes. After a few moments, he came out, gave his sincerest sympathies and we followed him to his office. We walked in, and I could not believe it. There was no trace of any G.I. Joe except for a small glass case on the wall containing four figurines.

“Where are all your GI Joes,” I asked. He told me that some of the customers had complained and his brothers and sister and father thought it was not “professional”  enough for Montreal’s finest funeral parlor, so he reluctantly removed them.

A Chance Meeting with the Elder Paperman

Saddened, I sat down in one of the black leather chairs and “did business.” I signed some papers, received the death certificate and performed other “pleasantries.” At some point, I had to pee and asked where the bathroom was.  “Use the chapel restroom. It is much more comfortable. It is on your right at the bottom of the stairs.”

I left the office, walked down the dark hallway and entered the staircase. As I was walking down the stairs, I saw this very old man standing at the bottom staring at the wall. “Hello,” he said. “How are you?” I introduced myself and told him I was here to arrange for my father’s funeral.

“I am very saddened by your loss. My name is Herbert Paperman.”

I introduced myself. At that point he noticed my camera around my neck. He said he used to collect them, and at one time he had about 100, including a few Contax cameras. He rambled on and on about cameras, and although he knew his stuff, he was not entirely connecting with me. I asked him if I could take his photograph and he said “of course.” Screen shot 2013-04-29 at 9.07.03 AMHe seemed to be a bit fuzzy on some matters and on others, such as his Leica collection, he was very lucid. He was elderly, and his mental state reminded me of my late father in his final years – dipping in and out of reality, punctuated by strong moments of lucidity.

A Family of Collectors

“Everybody in my family liked to collect things.” he said. My sons like to collect exotic cars. They spent a fortune on their Ferraris and Lamborghinis.” “Really,” I answered, suddenly understanding why the costs of funerals in Montreal were so high. “Oh ya,” he continued, “they were buying and selling so many we had to build a separate garage for them to store them. They take up a lot of space you know. At one time they…”

Suddenly the door to the staircase was flung open and two women with black hair, dark eye shadow wearing black suits rushed in and grabbed him and ushered him away. As they were dragging the old man out the door one of them turned to me and tersely asked if I was lost.

“I have to pee,” I answered. “I was on my way to the bathroom.”


5 Responses to “Two Visits to Paperman, and a Lesson: Always Bring Your Camera”

  1. MARVELOUS! I love this story. What is photography if not storytelling in one fashion or another. You are a wonderful storyteller with words as well, David! Re: this topic and to continue on the theme of infusing creativity into every situation: My husband wrote a book several years ago. Shortly after the book was published, he was on his way to the cemetary after a funeral and agreed to give some other mourners a lift there in his car. Rather than reviewing the funeral or discussing the departed, he spoke about his recently published book which he had in the car and which he sold them when they got to the cemetary! ALWAYS be prepared! Sorry for your losses, David, but thanks for the great post!

  2. MARVELOUS! I love this story. What is photography if not storytelling in one fashion or another. You are a wonderful storyteller with words as well, David! Re: this topic and to continue on the theme of infusing creativity into every situation: My husband wrote a book several years ago. Shortly after the book was published, he was on his way to the cemetary after a funeral and agreed to give some other mourners a lift there in his car. Rather than reviewing the funeral or discussing the departed, he spoke about his recently published book which he had in the car and which he sold them when they got to the cemetary! ALWAYS be prepared! Sorry for your losses, David, but thanks for the great post!

  3. Thank you Ellen.

  4. This experience happened in 2001? What camera's do you use?

  5. To Bruce,

    It was 2003. I used a Leica M7

Leave a Reply