• Photograph by Upstream

Defunding funerals makes us sick

Giving our loved ones dignity and honour in death is an important part of individual, family and community well-being. The new Saskatchewan budget cuts funeral services for those on social assistance, but it bears asking — can we afford these "savings"?

willow_unvibe_file_add.jpgMy adopted daughter Willow attended her birth father’s funeral last year. It was a frigid day in October.

Brandon was a beautiful man who shared the light within him and made friends wherever he went. He was Indigenous, deeply spiritual and in touch with his culture. He was a homeless person in Saskatoon living in and out of shelters, dependent on the food bank and Friendship Inn for meals. He survived on social assistance, and when he died suddenly in his 50s the funeral was funded by the Ministry of Social Services of Saskatchewan — a service that was abolished in the 2017 provincial budget.

Willow came to us at Brandon's request. We were chosen to be her parents by him and her birth mother. It was the greatest gift any two people ever could have given us. Brandon was aware that his life circumstances meant he wouldn’t be able to provide for her, so he made the greatest possible expression of love and let her go to us.

We visited him at times when he was stable enough to connect with us. He always found a way to give her a present, like a dream catcher he made by hand, or a stuffed toy. Even though in her 3 years of life we only saw him 4 or 5 times, we all connected with him deeply.

Brandon was able to have a funeral service after his sudden death because he was on social assistance. We were notified by one of his outreach workers to attend. There was beautiful Indigenous ceremonial singing, but no flowers or cards.

He was dressed handsomely in traditional clothing in an open pine casket. There were 20 people in attendance, community support workers who knew him well because of his friendliness. A city police officer delivered his eulogy. Brandon interacted with the police often while he was living rough on the street, but he befriended them and made presents for their children. He always gave of himself. 

"What will happen to people like Brandon now? He would've been unceremoniously tossed in the ground, with no celebration for all he was to our world."

Willow was his only family member in attendance — no others could be found. As we stood over his open casket and she laid her small, three year-old hand on his chest, I wept deeply. Tears of sadness for his hard life, his years of being marginalized and isolated, for the loss of him, his culture and his wisdom from Willow's life. They were also tears of joy — for Willow, for the honour of being gifted with her as part of our family, and for the legacy of kindness and light and joy Brandon left in the wake of his death.

What will happen to people like Brandon now? He would've been unceremoniously tossed in the ground, with no celebration for all he was to our world. With funeral services defunded from social assistance there our community members without wealth will no longer be honoured.

"We can’t afford these savings."

Don’t their lives also matter? Because they're poor and can't afford to the closure of a funeral, so that's their fault? Brandon was an enormous part of Willow’s life, but if he’d died a few months later, she would’ve never been able to properly say goodbye.

In a society where the marginalized are held down by a classist, racist and unjust system, this decision by our leadership is simply heart-breaking. Funeral services are a deeply intimate part of humanity's history — the final respect, the final goodbye and the final celebration of a life lived, even if not lived to what society has deemed worthy. 

We can’t afford these savings. No matter what one's political orientation or creed, how can we not agree that this small expenditure, this final gift of dignity for hundreds of long-suffering people is worth every single penny?

My wish, my demand, is that we as a provincial community and our government overturn this tragic oversight in the budget. If honour and dignity in death are not important to all of us, then what is?




Dr. Larissa Pawluck is a family physician in the inner city of Saskatoon.