Space to mourn: Cambridge Bay considering a funeral home

A coalition of wellness groups in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, are floating the idea of a funeral home or designated space for visitations and funerals. Their first step was to bring elders together to talk about traditional Inuit practices.

Elders talk about Inuit burial practices and the need for a respectful space to mourn

Cambridge Bay elder Harry Maksagak shared his thoughts on traditional Inuit burial practices and values at a meeting in Cambridge Bay this week. A coalition of social service providers there is looking into whether the community would benefit from a designated space for funerals and visitations. (Loren McGinnis/CBC)

Harry Maksagak has childhood memories of what it was like when someone in his community died.

"It was a very solemn time.  A very quiet time and a very reflective time. You go back to when you first met that individual ... and you talk about how they were always there for you."

Maksagak met with other elders in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, this week to talk about a seed of an idea: Creating a funeral home, or some kind of designated space in the community where families can visit the body of a loved one who has died, and be comforted by family and friends.

Currently, when someone dies in Cambridge Bay, family have to visit their body at the hospital morgue, and any kind of wake or family visitation usually happens at the home of the grieving relatives.

"We're able to break bread, have tea, and visit and just give general support," says Maksagak.

However, he also says it can be crowded if 25 to 30 people gather in a three-bedroom house. Visitors may feel pressured to leave, he says, to make space for others.

The need for a respectful, warm space

In 2018, the hamlet lost two community members in July, around the same time.

If there's more than one death in the community "it could be quite challenging," says Charles Zikalala, who directs the hamlet's department of healthy living.

Charles Zikalala is one member of a coalition that is looking into whether a funeral home would benefit people in Cambridge Bay. He's the hamlet's director of healthy living. (Loren McGinnis/CBC)

"So while we had a family at the health centre, we had to place one of the bodies at the Elders' Palace for families to go and view the body," Zikalala says.  

He says there's talk of building a new funeral home or renovating a space that "provides a lot of warmth."

"Just having that emotional support piece. Well-supported, well-acknowledged."

Funerals don't have to be Christian 

Zikalala says a coalition of social service providers, which includes groups like his healthy living department, the RCMP, and the Embrace Life Council, decided to bring the community's elders together, in an effort to find out more about traditional Inuit practices around death and burial and get feedback on the idea of a funeral home.

"When we do funerals in the community it's mostly done in the Christian format, but we are highly interested in incorporating the Inuit traditional values," says Zikalala

"Funerals don't always have to be conducted in the Christian way. There could be other alternatives, such as the old ways in which Inuit used to conduct a funeral."

The elders suggested talking to youth as well, and will meet later this week to talk about a name for the potential project.

An emotional topic 

Maksagak says he thinks it was hard for elders at this week's meeting to talk openly about how they feel about a funeral home, and about traditional practices around death and burial.

He described how one elder broke down and cried out loud.

"A little discussion around ... do we need a place? It brought back memories for him. They didn't have that when he was a young man, at the loss of a loved one. A trigger went off and — poof — he broke down."

Maksagak says he learned about traditional practices around death and burial by observing and listening to his parents and his grandfather.  

Some of the community's elders gathered Tuesday at a meeting to talk about Inuit burial practices, and whether the community needs a funeral home. (Loren McGinnis/CBC)

"You did everything you could to make it as comfortable as possible, not not necessarily easier, but as comfortable as possible for people with this loss."

'Grieving is a process'

These days when someone dies, their body goes out for autopsy and comes back, the funeral is held, and "everybody goes about their business," says Maksagak.

"Part of the thinking of wanting this particular structure is for us to be able to sit together and have the time of reflection, not just at the point of death, not just at the point of return of the remains, but for maybe a couple of days after that because grieving does not come and go like that," he says, snapping his fingers.  

"Grieving is a process."

With files from Loren McGinnis