'I'm not a heartless person': Social services minister says cuts to funerals a tough decision

A funeral home operator says the Saskatchewan government's plan to stop paying for the funeral services of those on social assistance undermines its own legislation.

Province to no longer pay for costs of funeral services, viewings

Minister of Social Services Tina Beaudry-Mellor said her priority has been to pay for food, clothing and shelter for the province's most needy. (Mike Zartler/CBC)

Saskatchewan's minister of social services says she feels for people who will no longer have funeral services provided for their loves ones in the province. 

"I'm certainly not a heartless person," Tina Beaudry-Mellor told reporters after the issue was raised in question period on Monday afternoon.

"My priority was really to keep the lights on and food on the table and roofs over people's heads in this budget and unfortunately this was one of a number of difficult decisions that we had to make."

Funeral homes concerned

A funeral home operator says the Saskatchewan government's plan to stop paying for the funeral services of those on social assistance undermines its own legislation.

Jeff Christiansen, vice-president of operations at Speers Funeral and Cremation Services in Regina, cited Section 93 of The Funeral and Cremation Services Act, which specifies a body must be visually identified before it's cremated.

"Under the new proposal, that visual identification or that viewing opportunity isn't being even accommodated for something that's required under the act," Christiansen told CBC Radio's Morning Edition on Monday.

Saskatchewan will no longer pay for funeral services or viewings for people on social assistance as of July 1. (Alberto Pizzoli/AFP/Getty Images)

Minister to meet with funeral industry

Beaudry-Mellor is meeting with representatives of the funeral industry this week. She said she is willing to pay for embalming, to allow for visual identification, when it is necessary.

But Beaudry-Mellor said any change she makes to this budget cut could have a ripple effect elsewhere.

The Opposition's critic for social services, Nicole Rancourt, calls the government's cut short-sighted.

She noted it will affect more than those who receive social assistance. 

"It also impacts the working poor and seniors who need that financial assistance to have their funerals and the family to say their good-byes to their loved ones," Rancourt said.

Fees dropped in budget

As part of its 2017-18 budget, the Ministry of Social Services plans to cut what it covers for the funerals of people on social assistance. The change is to take effect July 1.

Blogger Tammy Robert has researched and written on the topic since the province's announcement.

She believes the cut, which she calculates amounts to $1,700, down from the flat rate of $3,850 currently paid to funeral homes, doesn't cover the cost of preserving a body.

That is problematic when it comes to ensuring a body gets the proper visual identification if it takes several days to track down a next-of-kin, Robert explains, saying it seems the government expects someone to be disposed of immediately.

Viewings, services no longer provided

Christiansen said the government's proposed $2,100 subsidy will cover the transfer of a body from the place of death to a funeral home and pay for the basics — a simple casket and preparation of a body for cremation or burial.

"No opportunity for a viewing; no opportunity for a service of any kind, unless the family had the means to pay for that," he said.

"Our experience would tell us that very few of the families who are requiring assistance to deal with funeral costs have very much additional capacity in terms of contributing to the costs."

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Emotional toll

Christiansen said the province's move will make the lives of many families more difficult during an already painful time in their lives. 

Since the budget, he said many families that have applied for this government subsidy have been asking what this means for their loved ones.

He explained that a viewing is an integral part of the grieving process for the families and loved ones of the deceased.

"If you think about the case where someone dies suddenly or perhaps in an accident, you can imagine how much comfort that can bring to someone to be able to see their loved one just one last time to say goodbye," he said.

A service also allows a space for communities to gather and comfort one another, which is especially important for those who face social isolation in their lives, he added.

with files from Stefani Langenegger