The New Brunswick government has changed the way it pays for the funerals of people on low incomes, removing the cost of visitation and a funeral service from the standard benefit, although these can still be covered.

'We're going backwards.' - Nancy Matthews, New Brunswick Funeral Directors and Embalmers Association

After paying more than $7.4 million over the past five years to cover funeral costs for people who could not afford them, the province recently signed a new agreement with funeral operators.

The contract will see the standard benefit reduced from $3,979 to $3,179 for a casket funeral. If families opt for cremation, the benefit is $3,019.

The province will pay $300 for visitation services and $500 for a funeral or memorial service if families request them. Under the flat fee of the old contract, the government says, it had to pay for these services even when they weren't provided.

Funeral homes say they lost money under the old contract and had hoped to get a significant raise this time. 

They say paying customers would have to spend roughly twice as much for the same services.

"We're going backwards," said Nancy Matthews, vice-president of the New Brunswick Funeral Directors and Embalmers Association, who was involved in negotiations after the last contract expired.

Stephen Horsman, the minister of families and children, took the position that he wanted to save money on funerals to find more dollars for "the living," she said.

Funeral homes carry the cost

Matthews said many of the 64 funeral homes and 500 licensed funeral directors in the province were already taking significant losses under the last contract, which expired more than a year ago. 

She said regular clients pay at least twice as much for the same casket, transportation, documentation and clinical services, including embalming.

"But we've done it, because we help the less fortunate in our community," she said. "We're here to help people in the community, whether they have the money or they don't."

Casket in hearse

The contract will see the standard benefit reduced from $3,979 to $3,179 for a casket funeral, (Austin Grabish/CBC)

The new three-year contract goes into effect July 1, at a time when other provinces are also looking for savings on subsidized funeral services.  

For example, Saskatchewan's new funeral benefit will no longer cover any costs for viewings or memorial services. 

Slow process

New Brunswickers have to apply for the benefit within 15 days of a death.

They are screened over the telephone before they get an in-person meeting, where applicants must provide documentation, such as verification of income. 

Relatives who are not part of the household will also be asked if they can contribute toward the cost.

Exchange Cremation Revenue

Families have to apply for the benefit within 15 days of a death but they might not get a decision until long after the funeral. (Chris Zuppa/The Tampa Bay Times/Associated Press)

Matthews said some regions are slow to process the files. 

Families in Moncton and Fredericton sometimes wait weeks for their appointments, which then take place after the service is provided. 

And if an application is denied, the funeral home operator loses out on the money, she said.

"Northern New Brunswick, it's awful," she said. "Those funeral operators, they get nothing. The funeral's long done."

When asked why operators accepted the contract, Matthews said they felt they had no choice. 

"Most funeral homes are small operations," she said.

"In a small town like Chatham, for example, do you want to be the guy who said, 'No, I'm not going to pick up my neighbour because I'm not going to get paid for it?'"