Veterans' funeral benefits unchanged for 11 years

Impoverished veterans' funeral benefits haven't been increased since a $3,600 cap was set in 2001, an amount insufficient to cover the costs of a funeral up to the standards the government sets, critics say.

Families, funeral homes end up shouldering extra costs

A single poppy lies atop the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Ottawa. (Pawel Dwulit/The Canadian Press)

Impoverished veterans’ funeral benefits haven’t been increased by government since a $3,600 cap was set in 2001, nor has the $12,000 limit allowed on assets of veterans’ families (minus the family home, vehicle or pensions) in order to qualify for coverage.  

Serving members of the military and the RCMP have costs covered for over $12,000.

In spite of the low cap, the government is very particular about what kind of a funeral a veteran receives. Assistance may be granted "to the maximum amount" for a solid wooden coffin, or one of wood veneer, a public viewing room for up to two days, a hearse and one other automobile, graveside services and the expertise of one or even two funeral directors.

It won't come as a surprise to anyone who has had to pay for a funeral that all this usually adds up to more than $3,600. What happens, according to some funeral directors, is that the funeral home or the family ends up footing the bill for the surplus costs.

"I've never heard of a funeral director rejecting a Last Post [veteran’s] funeral, and I've been here for 12 years", said Suzanne Scott, executive director of the Funeral Service Association of Canada.

"We have to provide something that doesn't look like a pauper's funeral," said Phil Fredette, a funeral home manager and government relations specialist for the FSAC. He said that a cheap option for a casket, something made of particle board and covered with cloth, can't be used.

Last week Fredette met with 22 MPs on Parliament Hill about the 11-year freeze on funeral costs. "Every MP that we've spoken to, and this was my fourth trip to Ottawa this year — including the minister's office — is all in favour, and thinks it needs to be changed. They all understand it's far below what it needs to be."

The costs for government-subsidized veterans' funerals are administered by the Last Post Fund, an organization funded by the Department of Veterans Affairs and private donations.

The fund's executive director, Jean-Pierre Goyer, said he wants three changes from government.

  • An adjusted amount for funeral costs of about $5,000 with a cost of living index.
  • The asset ceiling for a veteran's family raised to $18,000 from $15,000.
  • Funeral costs for eligible post-Korean war vets, who currently aren't covered at all.

Goyer added, "We're not asking for the moon. It's less than $5 million will make this happen." The reason, he said, is that those he terms "traditional vets" — service people from the Second World War and the Korean War — are dying off, while those he calls "modern day vets" — anyone serving after the Korean conflict — are relatively young.

Modern day veterans aren’t covered at all for funeral costs, unless they receive a disability pension from the military.

Goyer said that last year the Last Post Fund received 3,125 applications for funeral costs; 1,325 were approved. But the numbers are going down, he said, because in previous years the average was 1,700.

Everyone in government is on board about improving the system, he continued, but "it doesn't make the cut when the budget comes around. It's now in the hands of our prime minister and our government to decide this is important."

"It's our last payment that we are doing for them in their lives. Let's ensure that we do give them a decent burial."

On Monday in question period, NDP MP Peter Stoffer asked if the minister of veterans affairs believed that "every veteran of this country deserves a decent burial service." The minister, Steven Blaney, replied that the opposition was "sitting on its hands" when it came to doing things for veterans, and added, "We will keep on improving all the services we are providing to our veterans."

Liberal MP Sean Casey pointed out that the question was being debated "while the prime minister tours India in an armoured limousine." The Liberals are calling for an independent task force to review the Last Post Fund.