In recent months, Northridge Funeral Home Ltd has seen their workload triple, leading to the last remaining funeral home directors in northwestern Ontario to sound the alarm to provincial leaders and voice concerns to their licensing body.
Jason Lilley, founder and funeral director at Northridge Funeral Home, said they typically served around 100 families a year.
“And now we are tripling that,” he said.
As one of the few remaining funeral directors in the district, many concerns are raised as to the future of the funeral service industry in northwestern Ontario. Northridge currently has 13 on-staff, most who work on a part-time basis, but only one licensed funeral director in charge of the establishment.
“And that’s me, and that’s the problem,” said Lilley. “If something happens to me, then that's the end of funeral services in the Rainy River District.”
Lilley said that besides him, there is currently one funeral home director at the Dryden Community Funeral Home, and two others at the two locations in Kenora—Brown Funeral Home and Alcock Funeral Home. All which require a seven-hour, round-trip drive from the Rainy River District.
“Less than 10 years ago, this district was served by no less than six funeral directors. And now we have one funeral director actively working—that's me. So we've gone from six to one actively,” Lilley said.
“That means there's no holidays. You know, that means that if somebody gets sick, the funeral home has to shut down because you can't operate without a licensed director.”
Lilley hasn’t taken a day off since 2006 when he first opened Northridge.
“Northwestern Ontario is in a very concerning situation,” he said. “If one of those funeral directors goes down, then all of Dryden could have to come here, or all of the Rainy River District could have to go to Dryden, or down to Thunder Bay.”
John-Bryan Gardiner, a fourth generation funeral director at Everest of Thunder Bay, reached out to members of parliament on behalf of northwestern Ontario indicating that there is an urgent need for local funeral director training.
“We're really worried about that. And we have reached out to our members of parliament, and also our licensing body to voice our concerns that Northwestern Ontario needs help to get people into positions,” Lilley said.
Northridge’s recent increase in workload comes in multiple parts, Lilley said, mentioning both the closure of Green Funeral Home located in Fort Frances and the increasing death rates.
He was officially made aware of the closure of Green Funeral Home located in Fort Frances last November through the press release that indicated the funeral home was closing due to staff storages. However, during early July that year, Lilley said he felt like something was going on because families from the far east end of the Rainy River District started contacting his funeral home.
Lilley said they were saddened by the news as they had “good harmony” with Green Funeral Home and their services often overlapped.
He said that Northridge is working hard to honor pre-arranged funerals that were arranged with other funeral homes.
“I think families need to be aware that we are here, we will do our best to serve them. With the volume that we're seeing, we will endeavor to make sure that everybody is served at their time of need,” he said.
While Lilley and his team at Northridge are up for the task, he noted that it isn't an easy one. Northridge now provides funeral services for a substantial area on their own. Rainy River may not be the largest population-wise; however, geographically, many communities are dispersed.
“Covering from Rainy River to Nestor Falls to the other side of Atikokan. And also, our Indigenous communities that many of them are off the Highway 11, to distanced areas,” he said. “It certainly started spreading us very thin.”
Death rates have been increasing in the Rainy River District, he added. And where Northridge and Green Funeral Home once shared the responsibility of partnering with police investigations for unexpected deaths and looking after “coroner removals,” Northridge now carries the weight of responsibility alone.
“We're seeing a lot of youth,” Lilley said, adding that he has seen a tremendous increase in opioid-related deaths, causing another source of strain for families when the closest location for post-mortem examination is in Toronto. “[This] delays things by a week, maybe two weeks, for the families that we're serving, which just puts undue stress on those families. And for us to do the logistics of that.”
The pathology department in Kenora closed down as of September 1, 2022, he said. Those requiring autopsies had to be transferred to Toronto, adding the burden of coordinating logistics with airlines and distant funeral homes to Northridge's daily operations.
“So now all of northwest Ontario, including for the most part Thunder Bay, all post mortems are going to Toronto. It's not unusual to see 30 people leaving the entire Northwestern Ontario every month to go to Toronto.”
Finding enough staff is an issue not only for funeral homes but also for many other industries in the northwest, Lilley said. However, unlike other industries, funeral services provide support to families when they are at complete loss.
“And the reason for some of that shortfall is that it's an industry that's not for everyone. You have to have a certain vocation that you're up to this task—the grieving part of it, the long hours, being on-call 24 hours a day,” Lilley said.
“That takes its toll, and then there's also the financial remuneration to those employees, you know, we only have so much to work with. So many times people aren't going into the field, and they're going into other industries where there's better benefits, there's better pay, there's better hours, and so far, we've seen that.”
Most of the staff members from Green Funeral Home retired after its closure, Lilley said, except for one staff member who has now joined Northridge and will soon take the funeral director class at Humber College.
The new addition to Northridge is Bryce Kabatay, who Lilley described as the district’s “silver lining.”
“We're hoping that he's going to come through and finish things and be able to work with us and the community,” Lilley said.
Fort Frances Times/Local Journalism Initiative