Saskatchewan move to cut funeral service for poor is dehumanizing: advocate

Tyler Gray, an employee at Carmichael Outreach, a community-based charity organization in Regina, Sask., poses for a photo on Friday, April 21, 2017. Gray says government cuts to funeral services for low income people further dehumanizes those living, and dying, on the margins of society.
Image Credit: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Mark Taylor.

REGINA - By all accounts, Robert had a tough life that included a struggle with addictions, poverty and homelessness.

But when he went to Carmichael Outreach in Regina, he knew everybody's names and took time to learn something about each person.

Tyler Gray, who works at the charity, said when Robert died, his family, friends from the street and Carmichael staff got a chance to speak at his funeral, to say goodbye and to be heard about how the loss affected them.

"All of a sudden, the whole identification of a person shifts from what somebody sees on the outside, that they see in passing, to the actual core identity of who this person was, and those moments are so valuable," he said.

It's the moments that Gray fears could be lost for the poorest in Saskatchewan.

As of July 1, the provincial government is cutting what it will pay for at the funerals of people on social assistance.

The government said in its March budget that it will cover basic preparation of a body, transfers, a standard casket or urn and regulatory fees. Viewings or services will be the responsibility of the family.

"It's just ... dehumanizing people who are already living on the margins of our community," said Gray.

The government says the change brings Saskatchewan in line with what most other provinces are doing. The move is expected to save the cash-strapped Saskatchewan government $1 million this year as it tries to tackle a $1.3-billion deficit.

"It's a refocusing of that basic benefit to focus really on the disposition costs of the funeral," said Elissa Aitken, executive director of program and service design with the Ministry of Social Services.

"One of the difficult choices that was facing government in this budget is really to look at the benefits that we offer that extend beyond providing for those basic needs, which is really focusing on helping people keep food on the table, a roof over their heads when times are tough, keeping the lights on."

The province pays for about 400 funerals a year.

Tom Geiger of the Saskatchewan Board of Funeral Homes said the group understands the government's need to find savings, but this move will affect the most vulnerable in society.

"The need for a funeral goes beyond just dollars and cents. There's some emotional importance to having a funeral," said Geiger.

"A lot of us are from small towns, so we know the people that are affected with it. They need our services. We certainly never want to say no to a family, regardless of what pricing we're offered from the government."

Gray said services weren't elaborate — traditional viewings at a funeral home or practices more rooted in aboriginal traditions. They've been held in community centres too.

It's wrong to eliminate space for remembrance, he said.

"It behooves us as a community to take a look at ... whether that's the way that we want to approach the deaths of people who suffer in our community, or if we want to find a way to come around families and come around people who are experiencing marginalization and suffering and be able to actually work towards something better," he said.

"And that would be what my hope is, that we would look at some of these things and realize that they're relatively callous and seem hard-hearted and maybe we would have a bit of a different perspective and a change of action."

Gray spoke at Robert's funeral. Gray asked that Robert's real name not be used in this story because Gray didn't have the family's permission to talk about the man's death.

He said his last memory from that day is hugging the man's mother when the service was over.

"The thing I remember ... was thinking that it would almost be too hard for his mom to have heard some of those things, so you're hesitant to share," he said.

"But her response was literally to say, 'Thank you for giving me something to remember about my boy.' "


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