The burial business
Respecting cultural traditions vital to the job

by Nancy Gardiner
Northern News Services

NNSL (Mar 19/97) - Percy Kinney has a new part-time job. He's just started Family Funeral Services, along with a silent partner.

Kinney is also a volunteer coroner with the GNWT. And it was during the past few years that he's noticed a need in this area.

"But there's not enough business to warrant making a full-time living at it," he says.

There are a number of factors working against full-time demand.

"Primarily, Yellowknife is very transient and people come here from other places," he says.

Of the 50 to 60 people who die in Yellowknife each year, only 15 or 20 have funerals here. The rest go elsewhere to be buried.

Of those 15 to 20, some are sent to Edmonton for autopsy and funeral preparations are made there. So, only about 12 a year remain in Yellowknife and require funeral services, he says.

"There's no chain funeral parlor here -- the workload's not there," notes Kinney.

The big difference between the South and Yellowknife is that embalming isn't done here very often.

Often, families look after preparation of the body and may even make their own traditional casket, says Kinney.

So, there may only be four or five conventional funerals here each year.

"We're there to do as much or as little as the family wishes. If the family wants to come in and do the preparation that's great -- we want to be sensitive to those desires."

The partners are visiting Edmonton and Vancouver this week to finalize contracts and supply deals for materials. They should be fully operational in the next week or so.

There is a fully-licensed mortician and embalmer available to them in Yellowknife and one in the wings, says Kinney.

Neither partner has worked as funeral directors previously, but they do have management skills, experience as coroners, and have dealt in the past with licensed suppliers. "We're sure we can provide a very professional service," says Kinney.

Kinney is intimately involved with the community. He has worked for more than a decade as a volunteer emcee at community functions. He's a Rotarian and supporter of many non-profit volunteer events.

He also performs the services of a marriage commissioner. His full-time job is manager of Community Access Programs with NorthwesTel cable TV.

Kinney is currently reviewing protocol and procedures for transportation and costs of cremation. He says it's only asked for on occasion.

For cremations, bodies are sent south to Edmonton or Vancouver.

"We don't have a traditional funeral parlor where a body lays in state for a few days of viewings," he says.

In Yellowknife, viewings are usually done at the hospital or at the churches.

Kinney has also written to the Dene Cultural Institute and Multi-cultural Institute for insights on different cultural requirements with the process.

"Certain ethnic groups have "Hell money" that's made out of newsprint and put on the body." Some cultures believe in paying the "boatman" a fee to get across to the other side," says Kinney.

Since he's uncertain about all the details involved, he's trying to acquire more information "so that we can be sensitive to that."

Family Funeral Services has a late-model Buick funeral coach. "We don't call it a hearse in the business," says Kinney. It's an older model because new ones run about $90,000.

"Urns we don't stock, but we can have them here in a day. People go through catalogues to make their selections," says Kinney.

"We do have some caskets in stock for immediate use if people need one."

Referrals are given to professionals if family members require counselling.

It normally costs between $2,000 and $3,000 for a basic funeral in Yellowknife, Kinney says.

Higher-end funerals involve more expensive caskets or urns. The most expensive caskets are between $12,000 and $15,000. However, most expensive funerals usually run at about $7,000.

"I'm sure there's a danger of the amount of money spent on funerals being equated with the amount of love for that person," says Kinney. "I certainly don't encourage people to spend more if it means more -- that's bogus."

Kinney met with city officials last week to make arrangements regarding Yellowknife's Lakeview cemetery.

Due to freezing ground in winter in the North, graves are pre-dug in summer. Most importantly, "people want respect and dignity in treatment of the deceased's family. That's what people look for here in the North."