NEWS

George Westwood, Haida Gwaii man, forced to stop unlicensed funeral services

03/06/2015 07:23 EST | Updated 05/06/2015 05:59 EDT
After its only (unlicensed) undertaker was forced to stop operating, the islands of Haida Gwaii on B.C.'s north coast have been left without funeral services — a situation causing distress to some of its elderly residents.

George Westwood says he has been helping residents of the remote islands ​deal with their deceased loved ones "in some capacity" — and for free — since 1991.

Westwood became involved with death in his community through doing body removal for the Coroners Service, and once held the licence for the local cemetery, since taken over by the municipality.

He says it was natural for him to start helping the community through the funeral process, as the nearest undertakers are on the mainland in Prince Rupert and do not pick up bodies from Haida Gwaii, making things very costly for locals.

"Fundamentally, with little or no strain on myself, I can walk them through whatever it is they need to get," Westwood told CBC News.

That means everything from explaining the bureaucratic paperwork and arranging for the casket to be built, to meeting with the gravediggers and helping with the funeral service.

Complaint filed

But in December last year, after receiving a complaint that he was performing unlicensed services, Consumer Protection B.C., the body responsible for enforcing the province's funeral services laws, issued a warning to Westwood and, they say, provided him with information on how to proceed lawfully.

"It's our understanding that he has chosen to not become licensed and has ceased providing funeral services," a statement from Consumer Protection B.C. reads.

Westwood told CBC News that he has no interest in going through the lengthy process of becoming licensed, as this has never been a job for him, just a way to help the community he has been part of for 30 years.

"At my time in life I’m not going through an apprenticeship in a funeral home," he said. "I don’t want a piece of paper that says I’m a licensed anything.

"Personally I don’t see a real major issue to it," he says. "Much as you have provincially-controlled marriage commissioners, why can’t you have a non-profit, non-embalming provincially-controlled funeral commissioner?"

Elderly residents fearful

"George has been a godsend," said Greg Martin, Mayor of Queen Charlotte, a village on one of Haida Gwaii's more than 150 islands.

Martin told CBC News that one elderly resident said he is now scared to die, not knowing what will become of him.

B.C. Justice Minister Suzanne Anton says the ministry has contacted Consumer Protection B.C. to try and help find a solution, something North Coast MLA Jennifer Rice says needs to be found soon.

Meanwhile, Rice says, families are left having to handle things by themselves, or use off-island funeral services at a minimum cost of $7,000.

'Hurt to the core'

"Truthfully I’m hurt to the core," Westwood admits.

"When you give so much of yourself and someone comes up and kicks you in the ribs, it’s just like, 'Is this really what we've become, this is how low we've stooped?' That you cannot help your neighbour when they’re at their worst, they need it most? And you need a piece of paper to be able do that?

"Burying the dead is one of the basic obligations of humanity," he notes. "You can tell a great deal about society with how they deal with their dead."

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