Okanagan funeral operators working with fallout from overdose deaths

“I would guess we’ve had about 12 overdose cases this year which is a substantial increase for us,” said a director on the BCFA board.

Okanagan funeral homes dealing with an uptick of overdose deaths.

The stress of dealing with fentanyl related overdose victims is hitting home with funeral service operators in the Okanagan.

“It’s definitely something that is a concern. When this families of victims walk through your door, you can’t imagine the magnitude of grief they are experiencing, no matter what age the person is who has died,” said Charlotte Poncelet, executive director of the B.C. Funeral Association.

“And it’s not just a case of one area or one or two funeral parlours being inundated with overdose related funeral services, it is something happening right across the province.

“Certainly the compassion fatigue factor is something we are concerned about for our funeral service frontline staff that have to help these grieving families through the process.

“The difficulty comes from the emotional viewpoint and the workload. It’s hard not to take it home with you when the circumstances are so tragic.”

Poncelet said the association has carried out compassion fatigue workshops for funeral service industry workers and the topic will likely generate much discussion at the association’s annual convention next May in Kelowna.

She said a media report last week saying the association was advising B.C. funeral parlours to stock naloxone kits to reverse possible overdoses among mourners at services or embalmers who handle bodies of overdose victims was blown out of proportion.

Poncelet said she sent out a routine bulletin in November advising about that possibility just a best practices idea to be aware of, and was surprised how it came back to her through media reports with a heightened sense of health safety alarm.

“We just want to make sure our member funeral homes are educated on what to do, keeping in mind that we sometimes don’t know how someone passed away,” Poncelet said.

Jason Everden, funeral director for Everden Rust Funeral Services in Kelowna, said the increased in overdose related deaths is readily apparent to him.

“I would guess we’ve had about 12 overdose cases this year which is a substantial increase for us,” said Everden, a director on the BCFA board.

“We don’t always know the cause of death, but sometimes we can figure it out, and sometimes the family will say in the process of planning the service.

These fentanyl related overdose deaths come as a complete shock to families because they are unexpected, and often involve recreational drug users as opposed to hardcore drug addicts, he noted.

“It’s so unnecessary and tragic,” he said. “It’s devastating for everyone concerned, including our staff, to deal with these tragedies. It’s hard to see a funeral service where little kids come to say goodbye to a parent who died from an accidental drug overdose.”

Everden added it’s also an added strain to pay for funeral services that are unexpected. Financial support is available from the provincial ministry of income assistance to cover basic funeral service costs.

“The ministry had 30 requests a day coming from across the province during the month of November resulting from the spike in drug overdoses,” he said.

“Most people don’t have a safety net to deal with this kind of situation because you just don’t expect it to happen. It’s all so sudden and tragic.”

People on income assistance will get coverage for funeral service costs, but those with income- particularly people who exist on paycheque to paycheque- don’t often get that same assistance.

“We do the best we can to help and will forward their requests for funding assistance to try and get them financial coverage help anyway,” he noted.

Everden’s brother Jeff runs the company’s funeral parlour in Penticton, and he echoes his sibling’s comments about the tragedy of the loss.

“It’s quite shocking how frequent (overdose deaths) have become,” he said.

“In Penticton, we had a town hall meeting earlier this month to discuss this issue with local community and social service agency groups, to share information and for people to talk about what our community can do moving forward.

“It’s definitely stress for us to deal with, especially when it involves younger people, and so unnecessary.”

Jeff said the issue with fentanyl’s plague is easy access and low cost to acquire it, and how it can be mixed in with other drugs.

“You want to be very careful in taking any sort of drugs because you never know if fentanyl might be a part of it,” he said.

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