Funerals and Indigenous protocols disrupted in Sask. due to COVID-19 restrictions

As the COVID-19 outbreak restricts gatherings of 20 people or more, many are postponing funerals, or practising safe distancing if they do have to attend one.

Families choosing to hold funerals, celebrations of life at later dates due to the restrictions on gatherings

Shawna Oochoo and her daughter Serenity are in the midst of trying to plan a funeral for Serenity's father, while also attempting to follow traditional Indigenous protocol, including burying their relative within four days of the death. (Shawna Oochoo/Facebook)

Shawna Oochoo was there when her daughter's father passed away in a hospital in Edmonton. Her daughter is his next of kin, so they started planning his funeral back home in Saskatchewan. 

"It's a very difficult time, especially with loss in the family, and stuff like that," Oochoo said. "But also, the current COVID-19 pandemic has really pushed things back."

She said in her Indigenous culture, a relative who has died is normally buried within four days.

"Every day that he spends out, spiritually speaking and traditionally speaking, his spirit is still wandering," she said. 

"His spirit is not gone on to start his next journey in the spiritual world."

Oochoo originally planned on having a huge celebration of life event for the man with all his friends, family, and fans, as he was a local underground music artist and rapper. 

Those plans have been halted for Oochoo, and many other families planning funerals, because of the state of emergency that has been declared by the province of Saskatchewan.

Gatherings of over 50 people have been banned — so the celebration of life Oochoo planned will have to be cancelled or postponed.

"Tensions are very high, and we understand that," Oochoo said. 

"We just hope that everybody practises the safety precautions — but also take care of their spiritual selves as well."

That's a concern for Indigenous families like Oochoo's.

"It's very important for us to put him to rest and to give him those end of life ceremonies that are are going to help him move on, and to help everybody else move on as well."

Families cancelling events: funeral home VP

Jeff Christiansen, the vice-president of operations at Speers Funeral and Cremation Services in Regina, said he is now faced with situations like Oochoo's daily.

He said that Speers has appointed an employee to ensure COVID-19 developments are getting to their clients as they occur. 

"We're abiding by all the recommendations the province has made and we're also sort of in there trying to proactively look ahead, and help families understand … that we know the size of gatherings will continue to be limited going forward."

He said that a number of families have already cancelled funerals and celebrations of life, in part because of recommendations about social distancing.

"One gentleman who I spoke with the other morning said to me, 'If we're going to have a gathering like this, I don't want to be distant from people. I want to be able to hug them, and hold them, and greet them with warmth, and so I don't want to have this gathering right now.'"

Christiansen's voice choked up as he spoke about the families who have to make those decisions during their time of grief. 

"That was a pretty touching observation by him — that this was a time where feeling apart from people didn't feel like the right thing, so even if they could have done it, he didn't really want to." 

Christiansen said that there are options for people who want to go ahead with a small gathering, using technology that is free of charge at the moment. 

"We are able to offer webcasting, and so we're encouraging families to consider including others remotely by using that service," Christiansen said. 

He said that the funeral home would normally charge for that service, but has decided to provide families with access to it at no cost.

"These are difficult times for people, obviously," he said.

"We're having those kinds of difficult conversations," he said, "but anything that complicates that process of grieving — and of remembering and honouring the person who you're saying goodbye to — that's difficult for families."