Thoughts and Prayers for Saskatchewan Ministry of Social Service’s Last Shred of Compassion, Dignity #RIP

For years, the Saskatchewan Ministry of Social Services has been paying a flat rate of $3850 to cover the cost of funerals for people who die while on some form of income assistance, or for anyone else who dies broke – for example, a senior citizen on a fixed income without savings.

In the 2017-18 provincial bloodbath budget, that rate was reduced to $2100.

Now let’s be clear from the outset – $3850 does not send anyone off in style. In fact, it barely covers dignity. At that rate there are no flowers, no soloist, no funeral cards, no obituary, no headstone, no lunch… not even a cup of coffee after the service.

What $3850 does cover: the cost of transferring the deceased from place of death; embalmment; a viewing and a memorial service (either in the funeral home’s chapel or local church); a super-cheap casket (pictured below) or urn; all the paperwork and regulatory fees, and final ride to the cemetery in a hearse.

Screenshot (1049)
Who wouldn’t want their loved one to rest for all eternity in this beauty?

Here is how Social Services described the cut from $3850 to $2100 in their budget media release:

“Income Assistance will continue to cover the cost of basic burials or cremations for SAP (Saskatchewan Assistance Program) and SAID (Saskatchewan Assured Income for Disability) beneficiaries…(and) people without financial resources who are not income assistance clients prior to their death. As of July 1, optional costs such as viewings or services will be the responsibility of the family.”

First of all, what the hell is are “basic burials”? Is that like choosing a package for a mani/pedi? Is there a luxury burial option? Spa burial?

Second, what kind of consultation did the Ministry of Social Services undertake with the funeral services industry to determine that a $1750 reduction equals the cost of a viewing and service?

Spoiler alert: zero.

The Imperial #2 Grey casket above, which is the industry-standard across Canada for bargain basement funerals, is worth $450. Embalming, inclusive of a licensed technician and supplies, runs around $600. Throw in wages, supplies, overhead, the cost of cremation or burial, and administration fees (many of which are paid back to the provincial government) and it becomes clear real quick that at $3850, funeral homes (which are private businesses) have not been making money off the Saskatchewan government.

If anything, these businesses are subsidizing the Saskatchewan government.

They’re subsidizing – and they’re doing it with compassion. It takes very special people to work in the funeral business (I would rather die than do it) (pardon the pun), people who are trained, and regulated, to impossibly high standards.

Yes, it’s a business – funeral homes have wages and bills to pay like any other retail operation, all while preferably turning a profit (it’s not a dirty word).

A funeral home’s product and services, however, are not something one shops for on a regular basis. Dignity, first and foremost, is their top seller, with compassion and respect right up there with it.

It is not in the funeral industry’s DNA to lower their standard of service for any departed soul, regardless of wealth or status at the time of their passing, therefore they suck up the costs that the Saskatchewan government has downloaded on them and treat even the most “basic” client the same as any other.

But, there’s a limit.

At $2100, we’re no longer talking subsidies. At that rate, the provincial government is asking the funeral industry to compromise their professionalism, nevermind potential ethical and public health and safety standards.

Because here’s what’s not optional for a dead person:

A proper ID. Do you honestly think that a Saskatchewan hospital has never incorrectly labelled a corpse? Once it’s turned over to the funeral home, that home is liable for what happens next, meaning big problems if they send Joe off to the crematorium – rather impossible to undo – only to find out later that Joe was actually George.

That’s why a visual ID, as well as a next-of-kin signature is required before cremation. If those things can’t be obtained for a few days, Joe has to wait.

Decomposition. It starts as soon as the second day after death, and in under a week Joe’s corpse is doing things I really don’t want to write about. Some, but not all, funeral homes have coolers, but even after just a couple days those present their own set of challenges. In the absence of a cooler, or in the event of a death by communicable disease, the only other option to embalmment is a sealed container, which has to be cracked open eventually, possibly with family present.

Can you imagine?

So no, embalmment is not just necessary for the viewing, which Social Services has cut. It’s necessary for pretty much anything but immediate disposition (which is exactly what it sounds like and not particularly practical, nevermind compassionate).

Choice. Okay, technically dead people can’t make choices – but no funeral home, nor (god forbid) the government, can make cremation mandatory. You can’t just burn people up because they’re poor and it’s easier to erase their existence that way.

Cremation or traditional burial, as often as possible, should be predetermined by the individual before they die, or at least be determined by their next-of-kin. If traditional burial is chosen, for religious reasons or otherwise, we absolutely cannot deny them their chosen resting place, because…

Dignity. Do I really have to say more?

Regarding the reason for this cut, here’s what the Ministry of Social Services said in that release:

“To ensure that programs remain sustainable, Government (sic) is making changes to focus on meeting the basic needs of the most vulnerable people.”

Translation: they cut out remotely passable funerals for Saskatchewan’s poorest residents to save money.

In recent news stories and committee meetings, the Saskatchewan government has insisted that the change to funeral coverage for income assisted clients brings the province in line with what others are doing.

Radio host John Gormley also dutifully regurgitated that talking point, saying over and over here (the April 24th discussion begins in the 10 o’clock hour at the 5:08 mark) that “most provinces do not” fund a funeral service or viewing; the cut means Saskatchewan falls “in line with other provinces” and takes us “back to the level of virtually every other province.”

Really? All over Canada, people on social assistance are just being (literally) unceremoniously disposed of, without the privilege of even the most minimal of memorial services included as part of the process?

Of course not. That messaging/excuse is categorically, emphatically wrong.

Brent Quinton, vice president of the Ontario Funeral Service Association, didn’t mince words about the changes in Saskatchewan.

“You must have some really unhappy funeral directors around there,” were some of the first words out of his mouth when I spoke to him on the phone earlier this week.

“Oh no they aren’t,” he replied, when I told him the Saskatchewan government was suggesting that these changes were just bringing us in line with other provinces.

He explained that in Ontario, rates for funerals for people who die while on social assistance, or who couldn’t otherwise afford it, are set and paid for by each municipality. This means the flat rate is negotiated by City Hall with only four or five funeral homes, as opposed to hundreds at a time.

Quinton said that the approved range of government-paid rates in Ontario varies anywhere from $1500 to $8000 per service. Ottawa, at $1500, is the only municipality in Ontario that does not cover a viewing or service, but funeral homes in that region don’t offer that rate as a standalone package. Instead, they treat it like a grant, and families are required to pay above that cost – if they can’t, they go elsewhere.

Outside of Ottawa, virtually ever other funeral home in Ontario offers a package to their poorest clients that includes some combination of embalming, viewing, and a service.

“If the idea of going to a provincial rate ever comes up again,” said Quinton, “I’ll be using this scenario as a prime reason that’s a terrible idea.”

“It is understandable why funeral providers are upset – those rates are truly unreasonable,” said the Manitoba Funeral Service Association in an emailed response to my request for their opinion on Saskatchewan’s new $2100 rate.

The note went on to detail that Manitoba absolutely provides their poorest residents with a funeral that includes a viewing and service – either in a chapel or graveside (which is slightly cheaper).

In fact Manitoba positively spoil their deceased by allowing for things like cosmetics and hairdressing – often nice to have if your loved one, say, got shot in the face, because they don’t tend to look their best.

Yeah, that’s right, I said it, and know it’s harsh. But it’s also reality, and if we’re going to do this to the most vulnerable people in Saskatchewan, we don’t get to whine about the fact that facing it makes us uncomfortable.

According to the nice lady in Funeral Benefits at Alberta Human Services, “of course” that province pays for visitation and service, which is itemized as a “ceremonial farewell” on their fee schedule:

“…an event that meets the needs of any culture of the deceased through a gathering for family and the community at a facility (community hall, religious facility or funeral home chapel, at the cemetery/crematorium and/or other location selected by family) within the service provider’s municipality…includes a combination of a ceremony at the facility and/or a committal service at the gravesite/crematorium, if required by the family.”

Positively lavish, by Saskatchewan’s new standards.

In a recent committee meeting – one studded with painful, prolonged pauses as Social Services Minister Tina Beaudry Mellor and her officials tried to get their shit together conferred on their responses to questions regarding this cut, it became clear that British Columbia is the jurisdiction that Saskatchewan is attempting to emulate.

The BC Funeral Association (BCFA) thinks that’s ludicrous. Their base fee may be $2100, but they’re also expecting an increase from the BC government of “several thousands of dollars” very soon.

Here’s what else the BCFA had to say:

“For the government of Saskatchewan to base their new, reduced rates on our current (yet outdated) Ministry rates is unacceptable… to expect funeral providers in Saskatchewan to accept a pay cut to their services is extremely short-sighted and ignorant.

The Funeral and Cemetery Providers in the province will have no choice but to band together to send a very strong message to the Government of Saskatchewan that no provider in Saskatchewan has an obligation to provide services at these ridiculously low rates.”

Whoever sold Minister Beaudry-Mellor on the notion that this is the norm in Canada should probably lose their job, and the Minister should probably do her damn due diligence, since this isn’t just about cutting perks for people who have way too much awesomeness in their life already, for god’s sake.

It actually terrifies me that the Minister of Social Services looked at this and thought “hmm, yeah this seems reasonable and a thing I’m okay with.”

So, think about a person you love more than anyone in the world. Perhaps that’s your precious toddler, or your spouse, or your mom or dad.

Now imagine they die.

Not only that, but imagine not having the means or support to do anything but hand your beloved’s cold dead body over to a funeral home, for good, with only a single goodbye.

Nothing else. Not an opportunity to ever see that person again, or for anyone else that loved them to do so. No sitting down, even just for a few minutes, with a caring, compassionate and skilled funeral home employee to allow some of that pain and grief to disseminate through planning a proper goodbye. No arriving, relatively unburdened by having to organize it or worry about the details, into the arms of friends and family gathered for a modest, but dignified service of remembrance.

Nothing more than a signature, and if you’re lucky, a few moments in a morgue, with your child, partner or parent, and then they’re gone forever.

What the f**k Saskatchewan?

Let’s pause for a moment and think about what was prioritized ahead of this unbelievably thoughtless and heartless cut – namely a decrease to our personal and corporate income tax rates.

Those weren’t necessary – not at all.

Sure, they’re nice to have, but I think this government grossly misjudged the people of this province.

I like to think that the majority of us would have gladly kept that half a point on our personal income tax rate in exchange for the $82 million it would have kept in the public purse for 2017-18 – easily eliminating the need for cuts like this one, which amounts to a saving of one dollar per year per Saskatchewan resident.

There’s a rumor flying around right now, largely perpetuated by partisans, that the SaskParty government’s 2017-18 budget was sabotaged by the very civil servants tasked with putting it together, because they’re either secret-NDP hacks, or disgruntled with their boss.

This, of course, is horseshit.

Yet this is a prime example of more 2017-18 budget f**k-uppery.

There’s no way this change to funeral rates is going to go through, as planned, on July 1, 2017 – it’s just not. Funeral home owners, many of whom are key community leaders in that rural base the SaskParty depends on, will either revolt or refuse service, which could lead to god knows what (abandonment of the deceased, for starters).

The inevitable change to this cut will put a damper on Premier Wall’s emphatic assertion earlier this week to reporters that there would be no more walk-backs from cuts levelled in this hot mess of a budget – one that smacks of incompetence at the top, not the bottom.

Note: For the past seven years I’ve written a weekly newspaper column for the Saskatoon Express, which often runs as a truncated version of these posts. In researching this piece, I emailed the Ministry of Social Services asking for some information. The request somehow ended up in the hands of the employee in Exec Council (let’s call that person Pookie) in charge of messaging for the entire government.

Pookie apparently had nothing better to do than email my editor to confirm that I was not only was writing a column, but that it was about this subject. The reason, Pookie claimed, was that the Saskatchewan government doesn’t give information or interviews to bloggers. Which is, of course, ridiculous, and also very 1997.

My awesome editor went to bat for me, and an abbreviated column based on this post will indeed run next week, however I used none of the useless information you gave your lackeys permission to send me, Pookie, so the full deal is running here first.

I’ve carved out a weird role for myself, in that I’m not media, nor am I a publicist. Instead, I consider myself a storyteller. Writing and research have been my passion since I was a little kid, so I love to tell stories here that way.

Unfortunately, writing doesn’t pay the bills. Behind the scenes I consult, helping people, corporations or organizations tell their stories, using whatever means necessary to ensure it gets to you, which could mean social media, an event, advertising, or traditional media. On the latter, trust me when I say we have some of the best in Canada.

It’s not the easiest place to be, but under the umbrella of storytelling, I think I’ve figured out how to reconcile it all together, and I feel confident that I’m good at it.

When it comes to telling stories of transparency, accountability in governance, whether on this site or elsewhere, this isn’t the first time in recent months that SaskParty hacks have made some lame-assed attempt to suppress what I do. Rest assured that it will never, ever work, and every time one of them tries it, my resolve to tell accurate, unvarnished and unbiased stories about our monolithic and virtually unopposed government multiplies exponentially.

Because democracy.

So keep it up, Pookie.

For those of you who care, I’m Tammy Robert. I’m a writer, but pay the bills consulting in media and public relations. Email me anytime at tammyrobert@live.ca

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10 comments

  1. I would suggest that ppl should contact the memorial society. These good people provide information and services for both the indigent and the well-to-do.

    http://www.famss.ca/services.html
    Funeral Advisory and Memorial Society of Saskatchewan
    Dedicated to simplicity, dignity and economy in preplanned funerals

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  2. I noticed that you spoke with funeral associations from other provinces, not Social Services or another Government identity, couldn’t that lead to inaccurate information? Plus the box you are buried in doesn’t matter, they all decompose within a year, (ask anyone who has worked at a cemetery.) I am curious about how many people require this service? If it was an important family member, I am sure that the family would be willing to chip in? ( I wouldn’t expect the government to pay for my funeral). So that would leave people without family or friends requiring this service, and if you don’t have family or friends then you won’t need a viewing. Anyways, though your reporting was very biased, I wouldn’t complain about these cuts. We have nurses and teachers working enough for three people. Being a mother I’m a lot more concerned about the education my children will receive, not what box they will put me in when I die.

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    • As a funeral director working in Saskatchewan I’ll have you know at least like 75% of caskets would not just disintegrate in a year. And the other 25% would be like extreme circumstances like wood casket with no vault and a cemetery with a very high water table. But the point of a casket is not what it does in the ground it’s about providing a dignified and respectful interment; no matter what your station in life is. There are a couple things I’d change the wording on in this article, but the facts are basically spot on.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for your comment. I quoted heavily from both the Saskatchewan government news release and watched hours of committee meeting video – if you want to start writing a blog, feel free to do things your way. Frankly, your comments about the “decomposition” of caskets (which is wrong, for starters, and if your know people who work in cemeteries and are digging up caskets, please call the cops), family “chipping in” for an “important family member” (presumably you’ve advised all of your own that you’ll be donating to their sendoff) and your general callousnes and lack of empathy are kind of disturbing. As for bias, I think I make it pretty clear from the outset that I think this cut is ridiculous, so congratulations on sleuthing that one out.

      Liked by 1 person

    • I would like to point out that she did attempt to speak to government officials, and likely received the same vague statements the rest of us received when the budget was released. I’m also curious about what mechanism you imagine the ground holds that would decompose steel within a year? Your statement about having no family or friends negating the need for a viewing is also false. In Saskatchewan you cannot cremate someone without a visual identification. Seeing or smelling someone who has been dead for a couple of days without preservation, is enough to give anyone nightmares. I do understand how a person outside the industry would not realize the importance of that dignified goodbye, or the significant psychological benefits that the viewing gives, but I wouldn’t be so quick to write off the concerns of the author.

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  3. I think this is a bunch of bull crap that the government is doing this. My friend is on the SAID program and it is hard enough as it is for him to afford things let alone think about leaving some money in his will for his own funeral. Also it is difficult for the family, they’re basically screwed if they can’t come up with the money for the loved one to be buried or cremated.

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