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2012, Class Work, Social Issues

Dying on welfare

By Aaron Rathbone
arathbon@uwo.ca

Susan Eagle, a minister and former London city councillor, remembers a time when she officiated over a funeral for someone who couldn’t afford the costs.

“We did the funeral with the dollars that (the city) provided. When I went to the funeral home to set up the funeral, I was informed that the money did not include visitation.”

The woman who died was young and left behind three little children. Eagle told the people at funeral home that it was terribly important that there be a visitation for the sake of the children so they could have some closure. “At the time, I remember thinking who sets the rules that says visitation isn’t included as part of the basic package because isn’t that stupid.”

The funeral home agreed to her suggestion.

Rev. Susan Eagle says it’s important for the poor to be treated fairly in their last rites. (Photo courtesy of ISARC).

In Canada, dying can be an expensive affair. For those who are financially unstable, a funeral can be a daunting expense. But poor families are not without options when it comes to saying goodbye to loved ones, as municipalities offer financial assistance to those in need.

According to Statistics Canada, the funeral business in 2010 was worth approximately $1.66 billion. In that same year, Ontario accounted for nearly half of that total. The Registered Persons Database for the Ontario ministry of health and long-term care indicates the annual death total in the province to be more than 80,000 people.

The costs of a funeral vary greatly depending on the type of service a family asks for and the associated items selected. For example, caskets can range from $1,000 to more than $10,000, and the average costs for a full service funeral are just under $5,000, says Doug Manners, funeral director at Donohue Funeral Home in London, Ont. If you add those prices together and include taxes, the cost of a funeral can be considerable.

From 2008 to 2011, London provided funding for between 170 and 190 individual funerals each year, says Jackie Van Ryswyk, manager of intake and discretionary benefits.

The amount of money provided for funerals varies between municipalities, but in London $3,605, excluding taxes, is granted to eligible families, in addition to the cost of the burial or cremation, which can cost another $1,000. The $3,605 covers the removal of the body and the basic care of the deceased, a two-hour visitation, a service – with the possibility of a member of the clergy – a newspaper notice and other documentation, says Van Ryswyk.

Manners has been a licensed funeral director for 20 years. For as long as he has been in that job, municipalities have provided assistance for people who cannot afford a funeral. Manners estimates Donohue Funeral Home served about eight or 12 families through the funeral program offered by discretionary benefits last year.

“With any family we don’t make any assumptions or considerations from a financial standpoint,” says Manners. “Our first priority is looking after that family.”

Before a person can receive funding, discretionary benefits must deduce that the person is eligible. “We look at assets and bank accounts. We need to verify that type of information,” says Van Ryswyk. “If they’re receiving assistance we know that, and they may be approved right over the phone.”

Once a person is approved, discretionary benefits provides a funeral home of the family’s choice with a funeral order number. After this stage, the family is left to decide how the funeral will be carried out. “We provide the funeral home with the order number and then the bill will come to us,” says Van Ryswyk.

Eagle, who now lives in Barrie, remembers there being a showdown between the city and the funeral homes in her last year on council in 2010.  She says the funeral homes sent a joint letter demanding an increase in the amount of money the city offered for assisted funerals. “They were basically demanding that there be an increase or they were going to refuse to do funerals on behalf of people in the community.”

This past February, the city raised the amount of funding it will provide to the current $3,605. Before then the city paid up to $2,270, a price that was set in 2004, according to numbers provided by John Donohue, manager of Donohue Funeral Home. Before then the amount was $1,823, a price that had been around since 1992.

Van Ryswyk believes providing funeral assistance is an important aspect of discretionary benefits. “We deal with a very vulnerable population that doesn’t have a lot of resources. So I think it’s important that we provide that service for families like that in their time of need.”

“People need closure, they need the opportunity to deal with death,” adds Eagle, who has been a minister in the United Church for 30 years. “Most of us know that a funeral is not for the person that died; it’s for the family.”

Manners believes it’s the duty of the funeral home to look after each family no matter their individual financial situations. He says he knows of many times when the funeral home would provide a service that was not part of what was provided through social assistance, including additional time for visitation or transportation.

Doug Manners believes that every family in need should be treated the same. (Photo courtesy of Donohue Funeral Home).

In broaching the topic of expenses Manners says experience counts. “You learn a lot about people in spending a bit of time with them,” he says. “People make comments, or they may have a look on their face, or they may ask, ‘you know, how do you want to be paid, or when do we have to pay, or I don’t really know how we can do this.’”

“The last thing I’d want anyone to do is to find themselves in financial hardship to provide a funeral for a member of their family,” he says.

But the discrepancies between the actual cost and government provisions are significant. By providing the exact same level of service for families receiving assistance, the funeral homes operate at what ends up being a financial loss, says Manners.

“Our concern is not the quality of service or the level of service. We’re here always to look after the families that come to ask us for help, regardless of their financial situation and regardless for who is paying,” he says.

The rates and terms of assistance for families who cannot afford to pay for a funeral varies between municipalities. In London, the city does not dictate to families what they are entitled to but offers a base level from which the family can upgrade at their own expense. This differs from the GTA for example, where Manners also worked, where the cities decide what the family gets and does not allow for variation.

When Eagle was still in London, she was at odds with the policy of setting restrictions on what was provided by the city. “Most of our clergy are willing to volunteer to do something. But on the other hand here’s the government expecting that everybody else will pick up the pieces,” she says. “There’s a little bit of thought there, like, what’s in it for the government to make it that undignified for people. It makes it a different funeral than a regular funeral.”

It’s difficult to define just what a dignified funeral is, because it’s all based on the impression or opinion of the individual, says Manners.

In his opinion, it shouldn’t matter whether the family is receiving assistance or is paying $10,000 or more — everyone is entitled to the same treatment.

“What I know for certain is the way that things are done here, regardless of the type of funeral someone is having, our approach to provide that dignity is the same. So everyone in my mind receives a dignified funeral.”

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About Western Journalism

We're members of the University of Western Ontario's master of arts in journalism program. Our blog represents a common theme in stories through our third term.

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