Funeral for COVID-19 victim in La Loche, Sask., sparks concern about public gatherings
'This video footage clearly shows why La Loche Saskatchewan won't be opening up so soon,' says Rita Briggs.
The funeral for an elder who died of COVID-19 complications in La Loche has touched off a concern about public gatherings in northwest Saskatchewan — just as the region grapples with the largest of the province's many outbreaks.
Agnes McDonald died on April 28 at the age of 85. She was the sixth Saskatchewan resident to die a COVID-19-related death, and the second resident at La Loche Health Centre to succumb to what Health Minister Jim Reiter has called "an insidious disease."
According to the website for J.E. Thomas Funeral Home and Crematorium Ltd. in Meadow Lake, McDonald's funeral service took place in La Loche three days after her death, on May 1.
McDonald's daughter, Rita Briggs, said she could not be there. She lives in Ontario. But she has seen a video showing part of the service and she's concerned.
"Her funeral burial [was] to be no more than 5-10 [people]," Briggs said via email, referring to the current provincial ban on public gatherings of more than 10 people. "This video footage clearly shows why La Loche won't be opening up so soon."
The video, which only shows about 20 seconds of the service, shows more than 10 people standing around the grave. Some mourners can be seen in small clusters.
Watch the video clip, which was obtained by CBC News.
Briggs said she has spoken to the regional health officer for La Loche and even alerted police about the event.
"Please tell these residents and reserve residents to abide by the instructions [and] to follow the health regulations and restrictions," Briggs wrote in her email to CBC News.
Outbreak situation is dire, mayor says
Briggs' concern comes as La Loche and nearby communities struggle to contain a virus that continues to spread among locals.
On the day of McDonald's service, health officials announced 29 new COVID-19 cases in La Loche and the rest of the far north. It was the largest single-day increase for the region since the pandemic hit the North.
The virus has not let up since. On Wednesday, the region recorded another 24 new cases.
"It's dire," said La Loche mayor Rober St. Pierre, who has urgently called on residents to stay home and avoid non-essential travel between communities.
"Look at your family. If they go to the hospital, you won't see them for weeks. Or if they get sick, you could lose them," St. Pierre recently said on the village's Facebook page for COVID-19 updates. "We're pleading with you for your help and support."
St. Pierre said he did not attend McDonald's service. But he said the event took place outside and some attendees appeared to keep their distance.
"People still want to pay their respects to their loved ones," St. Pierre said.
Holding off on funerals 'unheard of': chief
Peruse the obituary page for the Eternal Memories funeral home in North Battleford and you'll see what St. Pierre means.
Some people's families are putting off services. The obituary page for Isobel Jones, who recently died at age 79, says "a celebration of Isobel's life will take place at a later date when family and friends are able to join together once again."
"That's probably something that's unheard of in our First Nation," said Chief Peter Beatty of the Peter Ballantyne Cree Nation in northeast Saskatchewan. "I think it's very important [for] people to pay some sort of final respects."
Beatty attended the wake for his sister-in-law Jeannie Beatty three weeks ago at St. Peter's Anglican Church in Deschambault Lake and described its unusual circumstances.
A sign warned that only 10 people could be inside the church at once, forcing mourners to wait in cars until others came out. Security people stood watch. Pews were taped off so that people wouldn't sit close together. Only locals and immediate family attended.
"The traditional way of holding our wakes and our funerals has changed. People are quite aware of what the dangers are," Beatty said.
It was still difficult for people, Beatty added.
"A lot of extended family wanted to be there as well," he said. "In times before the pandemic, people would come from other communities as well."
'Up to the bands to control'
Funeral homes that serve Saskatchewan's north have also been forced to alter course during the pandemic.
Trevor Watts, the president of the Eternal Memories funeral home in North Battleford, said his staff have stopped going inside community halls during services.
It's just one way the company is trying to keep staff members healthy "so that we can continue serving families," Watts said.
Watts said he's instructed his staff to stay inside the hearse while local pallbearers take the casket into the hall.
"It's basically up to the bands to control their own wakes," Watts said, adding that his staff are educating families on current best practices and requirements.
Saskatchewan's ministry of health is asking people to postpone "unplanned events" such as wakes and funerals during the pandemic.
"Where a postponement is not possible, the event shall have no more than 10 people in attendance and social distancing shall be practiced," reads the province's "COVID-19 Mitigation Measures" page.
Beyond those guidelines — which apply to any public event in the province — no other specific advice is provided for those who chose to proceed immediately with wakes and funerals.
"I think, at the end of the day, everything falls back on us as leadership to make sure we give those instructions out and make sure that they're followed," Beatty of Peter Ballantyne Cree Nation said.
Local health services staff also play a key role, "because they're the ones that people would listen to," Beatty said.
Body was not embalmed
The COVID-19 pandemic also threw a curveball to J.E. Thomas Funeral Home and Crematorium Ltd. when it came to the late Agnes McDonald of La Loche.
Normally, a Northern family would bring a body down to the Meadow Lake-based funeral home, where staff would embalm and prepare the body for its return to the north for services organized by the family, said owner Darcy Thomas.
Agnes McDonald's body never went to his funeral home, Thomas said.
Embalming, which slows down a body's decomposition, "was not an option this time around," Thomas said.
"Because of her being [COVID-19] positive and such, transporting the body out of town, to Meadow Lake, and transporting the body back to La Loche, [there's] a lot of movement and such there," Thomas said of the 347 kilometres separating the two communities.
McDonald's family purchased a casket and burial vault and took them back for the funeral service in La Loche, he said.
"I did caution them on the fact that, you, no more than 10 people at the service," Thomas said.
"Once they left our facility, it was kind of outside our control."