As the Covid-19 pandemic continues to make social gatherings a risky affair, Yellowknife’s funeral home has been working hard to provide a safe space for those grieving a loss.
McKenna Funeral Home, owned and operated by Janice McKenna, has offered funeral services to the territory’s capital and surrounding communities since 2008.
“We, like many other businesses, were scrambling to find out what the heck we are supposed to do to create safety for families,” McKenna said of Covid-19’s initial impact.
“I can tell you that I did not close my door for one minute.”
Gathering restrictions can be tough for families who are grieving, McKenna said. A moment typically marked by togetherness and physical comfort now brings a safety risk.
“People are closer physically because they’re compassionately embracing each other, or crying,” McKenna said. “I think there’s that safety [concern] involved, of limiting transmission.”
In smaller communities, restrictions are even more of a problem.
“The difficulty is, when we transfer a loved one home to their community, we can’t help them with their gatherings in their communities,” she said.
“We just hope for the best for them to follow their guidelines. We can’t really do much outside of what my business is offering here.”
For the funeral home, maintaining a safe environment during the pandemic means constant disinfection and trying to get families to distance as much as possible. It also sometimes means only a couple of people are allowed to physically attend a service at a time.
Thankfully, clients have been amenable to the circumstances, McKenna said.
“I think people are understanding that [we] want our territory to be safe and well from Covid,” she said.
Janice McKenna, owner of McKenna Funeral Homes. Photo: Submitted
The digitization of the funeral industry has also helped McKenna to weather some Covid-19 gathering restrictions.
Funeral homes across the country already offered options for video calling long before the pandemic, allowing people far away to tune in and pay their respects.
McKenna has an iPad and tripod she can use if people want to connect virtually.
“A family can hook up their own FaceTime, and families in other parts of the world can hook into their FaceTime, and they can all gather in one house and participate in the funeral service,” she said.
“I’ve had this a long time before Covid. Now, with Covid, it’s more – let’s say, enhanced.”
Alongside adjusting to the pandemic’s new normal, the funeral home has been preparing a crematorium.
In June, Yellowknife city council officially approved cremation in the city by amending a bylaw to allow such services – something McKenna had been lobbying to achieve for nearly a decade.
Yellowknife’s approval followed the introduction of relevant territorial legislation earlier in the year.
Instead of cremation using fire, McKenna will use a water-based system known as “aquamation,” which is considered more environmentally friendly.
“When incineration is used, we create emissions,” McKenna explained.
Aquamation uses potassium hydroxide and water to cremate remains without creating emissions.
McKenna has ordered the crematorium and is awaiting its expected arrival in late October. It should be operational by the end of this fall.
“I’m very pleased that persistence wins over defeat,” she said of the battle to have cremations approved in Yellowknife.
“Very soon, I’ll be able to have this crematorium up and going and provide this necessary service for people here.”
When asked if Covid-19 has potentially changed society’s perceptions of death, McKenna took a moment to think.
“The virus has not changed the way in which people grieve,” she began. “The loss of a loved one creates intense sadness, and it doesn’t matter if there’s a pandemic or not.
“[But] I think that if we think, worldwide, how many hundreds of thousands of people have died because of this virus, then perhaps it has shifted the way people live their lives.
“Maybe they live every day as if it’s their last.”
This coverage of the NWT’s business sector during the Covid-19 pandemic is sponsored by the NWT’s Department of Industry, Tourism, and Investment. Visit Buy North for more information on businesses near you.