Majority of Iqalummiut can't afford burial expenses, says funeral director

Iqaluit's only funeral director says he has $350,000 worth of unpaid invoices for burials dating back to 2013.

Jaffar Gebara says 30 families a year are on their own to pay burial costs

'I’m at zero now. If there’s no income coming in, I can’t keep providing a service,' says Iqaluit's funeral director, Jaffar Gebara. (David Gunn/CBC)

Iqaluit's only funeral director says he has $350,000 in unpaid invoices for burials dating back to 2013.

Jaffar Gebara handles about a body a week and says the costs of most burials are never paid.  

He estimates that of 50 deaths a year, 30 families are on their own to cover his $6,000 fee per burial, and most cannot afford it.

The rest are covered under medical travel, income assistance or work health benefits plans. However, Gebara said that in the case of work benefits, he is often forgotten by the time the paperwork is filled out and the money comes in.

Gebara is paid by the city to maintain both graveyards in town and dig the graves, so his $6,000 fee, he said, is about half for the casket and the other half is split between transportation, corpse preparation and administration.

Gebara is paid by the city to maintain both graveyards in town. Pictured is the newer cemetery in Apex. (Angela Hill/CBC News)

He said he flies the caskets up by air cargo one at a time because he doesn't have space to store them. His business operates out of a home office and the morgue at the Qikiqtani General Hospital.

'I can't keep providing a service'

But the business is not doing well. Last year, Gebara said, he closed his clothing store, Qikiqtani Outfitting, after he poured all the resources from it into the funeral home business.

"I'm at zero now. If there's no income coming in, I can't keep providing a service. I don't know how to say it, but my back's up against a wall now. There's no more resources for me to use. I'm done."

In 2009, when he started learning the business from the city's first undertaker, Bryan Pearson, all burials were covered by the territorial government. But the government has since stopped paying for them.  

In communities, compassionate committees have come together to help bury the dead at minimal or no cost to families, but Iqaluit is different.

Gebara said people were shocked when he started asking them for money for his service.

"It's the most awful thing I've had to do in my life, and challenging, to ask someone who's crying who's lost a loved one ... to say I'm sorry for your loss but give me money ... it's really hard on everyone," he said.

"We're all behind. We're all struggling and trying to survive, and to try to come up with a large amount of money during a very emotional time is not easy for anyone."

He said funeral homes in other parts of Canada can hold onto a body for months until clients pay, but he doesn't have that option. Gebara wants to see a full-service funeral home in town. Gebara tried to take out loans to build a funeral home, but never found the funding.

There is only storage for three bodies in the hospital's morgue and for health reasons, bodies should only stay in the morgue between three and seven days.

Last month, though, a series of blizzards kept an Iqaluit man's body in the morgue for three weeks. Lucien Junior Ukkalianuk, 46, was eventually buried, but his family hasn't paid the bill.

Family feels weight of unpaid bill

Natasha Ukkalianuk lived with her uncle, Lucien Junior Ukkalianuk. Last month, a series of blizzards kept his body in the morgue for three weeks before he was buried, although his family couldn't afford the bill.

Ukkalianuk was employed, but his family said he did not qualify for benefits, so they are on the hook for his burial fees.

With his salary, Lucien Ukkalianuk supported his mother, Theresie Ukkalianuk, as well as his niece, Natasha Ukkalianuk, and her son.

Natasha Ukkalianuk said she often sees families running 50/50 draws on Facebook to raise money to bury a deceased family member, but she didn't run one.

"It's really a struggle, and I didn't want to go public because it's a family situation," she said.

It's also against the law.

Community and Government Services, the territorial department responsible for managing lotteries, said private citizens cannot legally raise money this way — only religious and charitable organizations with a licence are permitted to run a lottery.

The family can apply for the Canada Pension Plan death benefit, which was recently set at a standard $2,500, but that won't cover the full bill.  

The Qikiqtani Inuit Association will pay for flights for two family members to attend a funeral, but it will not cover burial costs.

The organization has a $600,000 annual bereavement budget program funded by Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. This year, 148 Inuit took advantage of the program.

Gebara said he doesn't think he will be able to continue burying bodies, unless Nunavut Tunngavik starts helping with funeral costs or the city declares him an essential service.

For Theresie Ukkalianuk, being unable to pay for the burial of her son is a challenge on top of the grief. 

"The feeling of carrying him in my amauti when he was a child, that same feeling of the weight, I am burdened again, as if I am carrying him again and my back is so tense," she said.