The Islands and The Undertaker

By Angela Gutzer –

The islands of Haida Gwaii had been calling me back after seven years. A local told me that it’s a sign you will live here if, when you are leaving the island you see a whale on your way out. It happened to her and she never looked back. On the ferry seven years ago, after a visit to Haida Gwaii I asked for a whale sighting on my way home, uninformed of the consequences. Far in the distance I saw a whale tail, but I questioned the vision wondering if my eyes had seen correctly. I know I will be coming back but will I stay? Only the ocean and the whale knows.

George Westwood, Haida Gwaii. Photo: John Lehman/Globe and Mail-CP

I recently travelled there as a veterinary locum for Dr. Dane Richardson. Of course, like everything else on the island, the hospital was a wonderful place to work and was family oriented. It is located on the Richardson Ranch in Tlell, where Polled Herefords play by the ocean—I’m serious; they have toys! Each day a wonderful lunch was made by the matriarch of the family, Alice. Alice and I had wonderful conversations. She used to be responsible for the Tlell cemetery, now taken care of by her daughter-in-law, Penny. We talked about what a death doula was and, lo and behold, George Westwood came up in conversation. I had never heard of this man, but I was eager to meet with him as he was known to the locals as the undertaker.

Before I met George Westwood, I did some research. Since 1991, he was helping families with death by explaining the bureaucratic paperwork, arranging casket building, meeting with gravediggers,transporting remains, and helping with the funeral service—all done as a volunteer service. There was no other option as there were no funeral homes on the island. Someone had filed a complaint against George through Consumer Protection BC (CPBC) stating he was acting as a funeral director without proper licensing. In December 2014 he was sent a letter by CPBC issuing a warning and information as to about how to proceed lawfully. To end the story gracefully, George was brought into the legislation and given the okay to continue his services by Justice Minister Suzanne Anton. He was thanked for his continued support for the community (2017). Because of this event, there is hope that the laws will change regarding rural funeral services. Yay, George!

His lovely home was nestled between the ocean and the Tlell River and conveniently right down the road from where I was staying. After our warm greeting he took me directly to the ocean where the wind made our eyes fill with tears. I was brought right into dreamland looking into his expressive blue eyes with long wayward white eyebrows typical of his kin, the Scots. He spoke poetically and masterfully about his upbringing, how he came to be the undertaker, the moon, religion. I listened avidly as the waves crashed and his words turned into stories bringing me to another realm of imagination.

We strolled around his expansive yard meeting the dogs, ducks, and geese. Although the sound of the ocean was loud, the cacophony of sound from the geese superseded the crashing waves. We settled into the living room with a glass of wine shared with his lovely wife, Heidi. He spoke humbly and with emotion about his adoption into the Haida Nation, wearing regalia gifted to him when brought to the legislation for an apology.

He invited me to stay for supper and I obliged although embarrassed for I did not offer anything and he delivered one of his famous quotes: “Burying the dead is one of the basic obligations of humanity … to feed, to give drink, to clothe, and to shoe. To visit, to console the sick, poor, and afflicted and to bury the dead. That’s all that’s requested of us; the rest is either trim or greed.”

The basic theme brought out from the evening is that death is a community effort here on the island. Everyone volunteers. There are no charges for a gravesite nor the digging. The only charge is if you require transport (low fee) with the island hearse. If you choose cremation the closest available is in Terrace requiring fees along that route. The motto of Haida Gwaii Funeral Services is, “Non moralis ad lucre mortise.” In George’s words, “It’s not good to get fat off the dead.”

George and I talked until late into the night. His dedication and courage are of considerable honour.

Over the next year Angela will be focusing on transitioning from the veterinary world into death doula services. She is interested in home funerals and Green burials in respect to both animals and people and is one of the co-organizers of the Cariboo Community Deathcaring Network helping the community with their needs relating to death and dying.

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