Haida Gwaii’s community undertaker will finally have a roof over his hearse.
Thanks to the Village of Queen Charlotte and the Gwaii Trust Society, the islands’ volunteer funeral services group now has an open storage building west of Kagan Bay and a $5,245 grant to enclose it. The former water-treatment building will be renovated to store a hearse, coroner’s supplies, and morgue equipment.
For Matthew Pierce, it is one more step to make sure Haida Gwaii continues to have a volunteer-run, non-profit funeral service once he and long-time community undertaker George Westwood are fully retired.
“The way of death here on Haida Gwaii is quite special,” Pierce said while standing by the building with his dog Jasper.
“There’s no artifice involved. There’s no AstroTurf, people bring their own shovels to burials. It’s very special what we have here compared to what you get in the big cities.”
In June, Pierce, Westwood and a third director formally registered Haida Gwaii Funeral Services as a non-profit society and several others have come forward to help. One of them is Jean Marc-Cyr of Sandspit, who recently milled and donated new cedar planks to hold caskets and help steady pallbearers during burials.
The motto of Haida Gwaii Funeral Services is Non moralis ad lucre mortuis. In the words of George Westwood, it means “It’s not good to get fat off the dead.”
The group provides free funeral services islands-wide, with the exception of a flat-rate rental for the hearse. After a legal kerfuffle that reached the floor of the B.C. legislature a few years ago, the province is working to formalize a community undertaker licence that will bring such non-profits out of what it still a legal grey zone.
“We basically do all the services the big boys do, except we don’t do embalming,” Pierce said, adding that it’s rarely necessary even for open-casket funerals.
Pierce said Haida Gwaii funerals are evenly divided between burials and cremation. The closest crematorium is in Terrace, he added, and many families are unaware they can get a permit to bring their loved one’s remains there by themselves, saving money and keeping families involved.
Unless open-air funeral pyres are allowed again, Pierce said he himself would prefer a burial.
“There’s a really special moment during burials,” he said. “After the remains are lowered into the ground, you see smiles finally come on people’s faces.”
“They relax. They’ve been under tension that long — since when that person got ill to when they died. And now they’ve been laid to rest.”