Making a difference: Denton Harlan

Carolyn Schultz-Rathbun
For ClarkCountyToday.com

BATTLE GROUND — Denton Harlan is tired. Harlan, 70, and his wife, Barbara, own Layne’s Funeral Home in Battle Ground. He estimates he works 60 to 80 hours a week.

But it’s more than that.

“In the last two weeks,” he says, “we’ve had a kid accidentally shot by his cousin. He was 13. And a little girl hit by a van out by Daybreak Park. She was 11.” He’s quiet for a bit.

“And their lives are done. You think of all the things they’ll never do.”

A 1964 graduate of Battle Ground High School, Harlan began working for Thomas Layne in 1969, and became a licensed funeral director and embalmer in the early 1970s. In 1976, he moved to California to attend college, but returned to manage Layne’s in 1980. The Harlans bought Layne’s in 1981.

Denton Harlan
Denton Harlan, co-owner of Layne’s Funeral Home in Battle Ground, has spent 48 years in the funeral business. Photo courtesy of Carolyn Schultz-Rathbun
Denton Harlan
Denton Harlan, seen here in the chapel, says his business philosophy is, “Treat people fairly. Try to make things easier that are very difficult. And create a more familial atmosphere than an electronic one.” Photo courtesy of Carolyn Schultz-Rathbun

Harlan says 48 years in the funeral business has changed him. “My values are somewhat different than a normal person’s. Relationships over stuff. And I’m a little more serious-minded about life. Life is a valuable and priceless commodity. Once we spend our time it’s gone.”

He also thinks about his own mortality. “When I turned 50, it didn’t bug me. I bought a Harley. A Fat Boy. Sixty didn’t bug me. Seventy is more thought-provoking. I don’t have a lot of time. I think about that all the time.”

Harlan says his business philosophy is, “Treat people fairly. Try to make things easier that are very difficult. And create a more familial atmosphere than an electronic one.”

His job, he says, is to help someone deal with the end of life of someone close to them. “To make it something they can cope with. Sometimes that’s viewing, sometimes it isn’t. It’s whatever brings comfort. And what that is depends on the individual.”

Harlan recalls a woman killed on her 30th birthday in a high-speed police chase. She suffered the traumatic amputation of her right arm when the car in which she was a passenger sideswiped a tree. Shortly after that she was ejected through the windshield and died on the scene.

The coroner’s office recommended that the family not view the body. Her sister couldn’t accept that.

“I didn’t want to just see Julie,” says former Battle Ground resident Karen Baye. “I wanted to wash her. I washed her when she was born.”

Denton Harlan
Denton Harlan says he has advised people against viewing or participating in the care of their loved one, when he thought it would not be helpful. He has also encouraged people who were hesitant to go ahead, when he thought it would be healing. Photo courtesy of Carolyn Schultz-Rathbun
Denton Harlan
Denton Harlan says almost five decades in the funeral business have taught him to value relationships over stuff, and to see life as a valuable and priceless commodity. Photo courtesy of Carolyn Schultz-Rathbun

Harlan was hesitant. But he met with Baye, talked with her, and agreed.

“He gave me some time alone with her,” says Baye. “Then he came in and we washed her together. He even plugged her nose to wash her face. It meant so much to me. He showed so much respect for her body and such compassion for me through the whole process.” She pauses.

“It was very healing for me. To unfold her hands, and look at the hand that I held when she was a little girl and we went to the park. He understood that for me it was a need. I needed to wash her.”

Baye says that, years later, she still thinks of Harlan with great affection. “He made the experience so much better than it would have been otherwise.”

“But you have to be careful with that,” Harlan says. “Sometimes I talk people out of it.” Then he corrects himself. “I advise. They have the right and duty to decide.”

Harlan says he has advised people against viewing or participating in the care of their loved one, when he thought it would not be helpful. He has also encouraged people who were hesitant to go ahead, when he thought it would be healing.

Being the only funeral director in Battle Ground is draining. Harlan says he and his wife haven’t had a real vacation in 16 years.

“We want to get to Hawaii one more time. That’s where I’d like to conk out.”

But he has several hobbies that he pursues at the funeral home: metalworking, woodworking, leatherworking, reading.

“I like junky stuff,’’ he said. “My favorite authors are Robert Parker, Ace Atkins. Dick Francis. [Brian] Haycock. And junky Westerns. Louis L’Amour. Zane Grey.”

He also likes to cut and split firewood. “I like the peace of the outdoors. I like the leaves coming down in the breeze. I’m probably most relaxed when I’m by myself.”

Harlan says his greatest fear –“everybody’s in the funeral business, I think” — is making things worse for someone.

But, he says, “It’s an honor to serve everybody. They’ve placed trust in me. Mr. Layne told me, about the dead, ‘You have to help them, because they can’t help themselves.’ We have a moral obligation. That’s kind of an old-fashioned concept. But then I’m a dinosaur.

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