For more than 20 years, George Westwood has been the go-to guy when someone dies on Haida Gwaii. He has dressed bodies for burial, arranged for caskets to be built and supervised the digging of graves.
Now the man known as Mr. Undertaker has been forced to lay down the tools of the trade. And residents of Haida Gwaii, a secluded and spectacular B.C. archipelago that some call heaven on Earth, find themselves without anyone to do what is necessary when people pass on.
Recently, Mr. Westwood has been warned that carrying out such duties without a licence – and charging for them – puts him at risk of breaking the law. Mr. Westwood says the only fees he accepted were from funeral providers to cover transportation costs, including ferries, when bodies were transported for cremation or burial. But he has reluctantly agreed to stop offering his services, disrupting a community routine and raising questions about who will provide them now.
The crackdown on Mr. Westwood – which followed a complaint to B.C.'s Consumer Protection Branch – has left neighbours fuming and Mr. Westwood suggesting a new role of "funeral commissioner" that would allow people in remote communities to perform some death-related duties without running afoul of the law. Local residents say they now have the option of either taking on some of those duties themselves – in what as known as a private transfer, which requires a permit – or paying a funeral home on the mainland to have bodies transported there for cremation or embalming. (Previously, Mr. Westwood would co-ordinate such arrangements.)
Justice Minister Suzanne Anton, whose ministry is responsible for British Columbia's funeral laws, has acknowledged there is a gap in service on Haida Gwaii, where Mr. Westwood typically attends to about 10 deaths a year – not enough to support a full-time funeral director.
But she has also noted the laws, which are enforced by the Consumer Protection Branch, require funeral directors to be licensed.
"I think it's very sad," said Carol Wagner, a Sandspit resident who has relied on Mr. Westwood's help several times over the years: when her first and second husbands died, the latter in 2003, and when two friends she had been caring for died and needed funeral arrangements. On each occasion, Ms. Wagner says, Mr. Westwood helped with paperwork, logistics and emotional support, "and he never took a penny."
"I haven't talked to one person who thinks that George should lose this position," Ms. Wagner said. "Everybody says, 'Have you heard what's happening to George?'"
Mr. Westwood, a part-time bookkeeper, has been dealing with the dead since 1991, when he and a friend (since deceased) decided Queen Charlotte City needed a dignified way to move bodies and bought a limousine for the task. Over time, his duties came to include helping dig graves at the village cemetery – where hidden bedrock means graves can't be placed in conventional rows – and, on occasion, arranging transport of bodies from the hospital's two-person morgue to the mainland for cremation or embalming.
Hospital staff and local clergy came to depend on him. Nurses at the Queen Charlotte City hospital warned Mr. Westwood that, when he died, they would prop him in a corner and tell people he was still working.
"George Westwood has provided a special service on the island for many many years. Without funeral parlours, or crematoriums, we take care of our dead ourselves and George helped us," Carol Kulesha, whose husband died in 2010, said in an e-mail. "There is a great void to be filled and I don't know how we will fill it."
B.C.'s Consumer Protection Branch, which regulates cemetery and funeral services in British Columbia, says it got a complaint about Mr. Westwood in March, 2012. Other than a few exceptions, including court proceedings, such complaints are confidential, so the identity of the complainant is not public. An investigation followed. A compliance officer visited Mr. Westwood last October, and in December he got a letter from the branch reminding him of licensing requirements under provincial laws.
Mr. Westwood took that letter as a warning and said in a letter to the local newspaper that he would no longer be able to provide death-related services. Asked why he doesn't get a licence, he cited the time and costs involved.
"I'll be 65 in June and there's not much chance I am going to go do an apprenticeship," he said.
The Consumer Protection Branch says it rarely comes across unlicensed funeral providers. Mr. Westwood suspects there may be other people in remote areas who, like him, step in to help when death comes. He'd like to see a "funeral commissioner" program for volunteer, non-embalming funeral directors.
British Columbia introduced a marriage commissioner program in 1982 in response to public demand. The program has since grown to comprise more than 340 commissioners who perform about 57 per cent of the 22,000 marriages each year in the province.
The province, meanwhile, says the law already allows an individual to provide funeral advice to friends, family or community members as long as they are not doing so in a business capacity – as the province maintains was happening in Mr. Westwood's case. The government also emphasizes the importance of licensing for funeral providers because of the sensitive work they do, including handling human remains. And the government this week got in touch with Queen Charlotte City Mayor Greg Martin offering to "review information about funeral director services in your community."
That drew a tart response from Mr. Martin, who, in an e-mail response that he shared with The Globe and Mail, said "the short answer is that the Village of Queen Charlotte no longer has any funeral director services to review," and suggested the province should rethink its position on Mr. Westwood.
Mr. Westwood, in turn, remains proud of his role over the past two decades, saying that much can be gleaned about a society and culture by the way it treats its dead.
"When it becomes illegal to help friends when they need it most," he said, "there is something seriously wrong."