Funeral Practices in Canada | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Funeral Practices in Canada

Funeral practices consist of customary observances for the dead and arrangements made for disposition of the body. There is a network of social and legal requirements to be met that usually involve the services of various professionals.
Dawson City cemetery
A historic cemetery from the early days of Dawson City, Yukon. Photo taken on: August 26, 2010
Necropolis Cemetery Chapel, 2012
Necropolis Cemetery Chapel, 2012 (photo \u00a9 by James Marsh).
St James
Chapel at St James' Cemetery, 2012 (photo James Marsh).

Pre-Death Protocols

Many arrangements can be made prior to death, from wills to donation of body parts, but Canadian laws and customs restrict how a person's wishes are implemented after death. There is a growing tendency, supported by memorial societies and the medical fraternity, to donate body parts for transplant or for medical research, but an individual's wish to donate may be countermanded by the family. Religious attitudes and traditions influence these decisions. A person may dictate the nature and type of funeral, arrange for the final disposition of the remains, and even prepare the newspaper announcement ahead of time.

Today, prearranged funerals are more the norm in Canada than they were in the last century. In addition, memorial societies run by volunteers, and non-profit consumer-information organizations, are found in most major cities and have had an impact on public attitudes toward funeral costs. Their function is to encourage preplanning and to ensure that simple, low-cost funeral options are available from the funeral industry.

For highly placed individuals, or for a member of the armed forces or the police, public protocols about funeral arrangements may take precedence over individual or family customs and wishes. In all arrangements, both group values and professional organizations play a significant role. State funerals are held to honour public officials including governors general, prime ministers, and members of parliament. These public memorials are formally arranged and offer citizens an opportunity to mourn and commemorate national figures.

Thomas D
On April 13, 1868 thousands lines the streets to pay their respects to Thomas D'Arcy McGee, one of Canada's Fathers of Confederation. The nation witnessed an outpouring of grief, and in this photo his catafalque makes its way through the streets of Montreal (courtesy Library and Archives Canada/C-89689).
Funeral of Sir John A. Macdonald at Cataraqui Cemetery.
Credit: Library and Archives Canada.
John McCrae
Glossy black and white photo. Rows of mourners (nursing sisters, officers, soldiers) are seen in the background. In the foreground, five officers have their backs to the camera. Two officers at the beginning of the procession are holding flowers and are pulling the cart holding McCrae's coffin. McCrae's coffin is covered with the Union Jack flag and flowers. General Morrison (left) and General Aime (right) are in the front row of mourners, seen between Bonfire (the horse) and the coffin. Arthur Currie is standing at attention in the line of officers. He is right at Bonfire's nose.

Pre-Burial Procedures

An individual may be pronounced dead if the vital signs are missing or if brain waves are no longer detected. If sudden death is involved or if there is no clear reason for death, the provincial coroner or medical examiner requires an autopsy to be performed. Since health care is a provincial responsibility, the legal requirements are specified in provincial legislation. In all cases, legal requirements take precedence over religious views.

Conventional codes are observed in announcing a death. Immediate next of kin take precedence over relatives who may be nearer to the scene of death, and it is a breach of etiquette not to notify a close relative about a death. Since nothing can be done until the physician signs the death certificate, hospital protocol requires this step. With Orthodox Jews, there may be a delay in announcing a death (especially just before the beginning of the Sabbath) and arrangements for interment have to wait until after the Sabbath. (see Judaism)

Deaths caused by infectious diseases are treated differently from other deaths; a death from a communicable disease like anthrax or rabies requires that the body be immediately sealed in a steel container or steel casket. In such cases no embalming can take place. Furthermore, if a body is to be shipped abroad, the local board of health must certify that the body is not a carrier of a communicable disease.

Funeral Home

Funeral homes are a service industry in Canada and most funerals in remote areas take place in funeral homes. Some provinces require a funeral director to supervise an interment, though in most provinces these services are optional. Being a funeral home worker was once entirely a male occupation, but female funeral directors are now increasingly a trend in the industry.

Provincial licensing is required for embalmers, and though embalming the body is not a legal requirement in Canada, it is an accepted practice. Some provincial legislation requires embalming or sealing of bodies that will not reach their place of burial within 72 hours of the death. Educational requirements for embalmers differ throughout Canada, with a one- to two-year apprenticeship being the minimum; some jurisdictions accept a correspondence course and on-the-job training.

Akali Singh Sikh Temple
Winter view of The Akali Singh Sikh Temple
Cremation of a Hindu labourer near Victoria, British-Columbia. June 15, 1907

Certain religious groups, such as Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims (see Islam), may require preparation of the body to be done by the eldest son or by a designated individual, but for the majority of Canadians the funeral director prepares the body, washes it, ejects blood from the veins and substitutes embalming fluid (thus removing the discoloration of the skin), cleans and disinfects the chest and abdominal cavity, applies makeup, fixes the hair and dresses the body in clothes provided by the next of kin. Restorative work, if the face has been damaged, may also be done. Most Muslims are an exception to these alterations, since they traditionally wrap the body in a shroud immediately after washing the body and the burial occurs the same day as death, whenever possible. Islamic custom dictates that a burial should occur as soon as possible after death.

Funeral directors have several options regarding cost and services. Some provide a casket and all essential services for a fixed price. This unit pricing system is popular with prearranged funerals and requires less time and decision-making for the bereaved. Another option is the functional pricing system, in which the price of the chosen casket and the desired services are added to the basic price.

Widespread criticism of the industry's costs prompted some changes such as the introduction of "no-frills" organizations and companies; however, elaborate caskets and expensive services may still be purchased by relatives. Funeral costs vary from region to region or from urban to rural areas.

The Visitation or Vigil

What was at one time called "the wake" is now a visitation or vigil. It is held in the presence of the deceased prior to burial. In the past, it commonly took place at the home of the family of the deceased. Although this custom still exists, especially in families that have recently come from Europe, vigils have commonly been replaced by viewing times at the funeral home with members of the family who respond to the condolences of visitors. First Nations people may choose a casket with Indigenous designs, especially if the ceremony includes an open casket. For many years it was customary for friends and relatives to buy flowers, and the size of the floral spray varied according to the relationship with the deceased. In recent years a marked trend is to request gifts to charities in lieu of flowers.

Funeral of an Inuit child, Port Burwell, Quebec [Nunavik], 13 May 1928.

Funeral services differ according to religious and cultural practices. For Muslims, if there is no local mosque, the last prayer over the body may take place in the deceased's home prior to transportation to the cemetery. For this tradition no embalming was practised and the final prayer was held the same day; therefore, a quick interment was in the hands of the men in the community. For Roman Catholics, Anglicans and Eastern Orthodox Christians (see Orthodox Church), as well as for those who were closely connected to a church during their lives, the norm is to have the service at the church with the body present. For some of these faiths, the church is the only sanctified location where a mass may be held, but in many communities the church is regarded as the proper place for funerals, no matter what the denomination. In urban settings, the funeral chapel plays a much larger role. A more recent trend is the memorial service, where the dead is honoured through a celebration of his or her accomplishments, often with specially selected poetry or music reflecting something of the deceased's tastes. Such services may be devoid of any religious reference. A trend towards no funeral service has increased notably over the last two decades, (ie, because of cremation, delayed burial or private celebrations) though it is impossible to quantify the extent of this development.

A Chinese funeral, Victoria, British-Columbia. 13th Dec., 1890

Funeral processions are headed by cars containing the mourners and followed by the hearse and friends of the family. The lights on the motorcade were traditionally the signal for bystanders to pause to show respect for the departed, a custom that has gradually eroded. Traditionally, Chinese Canadians mourners insisted on an impressive funeral procession to reflect the status of the individual in the community.


The norm for interment is ground burial in ethnically and religiously appropriate cemeteries. Cremation (reducing the body to ashes by burning) is increasingly common in Canada. Early Canadian Buddhists, based on the model of the Buddha, uniformly cremated the deceased; currently some Buddhists have departed from this tradition and utilize ground burial, or interment of the ashes in a grave. Some Orthodox Christians, traditional Muslims, Jews and Indigenous people resist cremation on religious grounds. Even among Roman Catholics the trend toward cremation is growing, especially since 1963 when the Pope lifted the official prohibition against the practice. Furthermore, direction for burial is important for Sunni Muslims, who are typically placed facing Mecca. Funeral directors suggest that the mode of disposal is defined culturally, not religiously. Lack of space available for burial use has also encouraged the trend to cremation.

The "greening" of the industry is another recent trend, affecting everything from the wood stain used on caskets to reducing the gas costs for cremation. A new kind of preservative is being promoted to replace the formaldehyde that is used in the embalming process because of the longevity of formaldehyde and its impact on phreatic zone and on the soil in cemeteries. Some funeral homes now cater almost exclusively to the green market.

Cemeteries may be either private or public, though there are legislated restrictions on private cemeteries. A gravesite is regarded by law as a piece of real estate and a deed is issued for the lot. The "deed" is frequently a form of rental and not a complete transfer of title. Most cemeteries have regulations regarding tombstones, markers and even flowers; contemporary cemeteries often try to create a park-like setting rather than traditional rows of graves. Ethnic, religious and even sectarian cemeteries are common in Canada and have restrictions based on memberships.

Cemeteries may impose time limits on the use of plots or may reuse a plot for a relative after a specified period of time. The trend away from ostentatious monuments continues, sometimes at cemeteries' insistence, but also because of high prices for materials such as marble. Some memorial parks with special theme areas or ethnic gardens have been established across the country, and costs for their plots include a percentage for perpetual care.

Funeral Casket

The graveside service with the committal to earth, historically completed with a symbolic toss of soil on the lowered casket, is the last act of the mourners. Closing the grave is left to the cemetery workers. Disposal of ashes from cremation is left to the family of the deceased, and since there are no laws requiring specific placement of deposits, the ashes may be spread anywhere. Some people arrange for the ashes to be placed in an urn, and some cemeteries sell niches in a vault for this purpose.

Post-Burial Rites

No set period is allocated for the bereavement process; traditional Jewish law specifies one week of mourning, after which reintegration with the community is enjoined. Widows in some traditions, such as Coptic Christian, are required to wear black clothing for a year, at the end of which a memorial service is held. Some Catholics adhere to the practice of holding a mass on the first anniversary of the death and some have masses said for the deceased, but Protestants have eschewed this remembrance of the dead. Some Muslims have a memorial dinner annually, especially if the individual was well-known in the community.

Mormons often initiate special rituals designed to elevate to a state of grace the souls of those who have died without being initiated into the faith. Various Orthodox believers have an annual day for remembering the dead, when the names of all the dead from the community are read, and prayers said, after which the family will visit the gravesite.

For most Canadians, the funeral service is the last public occasion for relating to the dead. Among some Indigenous peoples of the Yukon and northern British Columbia, small houses surrounded by a fence are built over a grave, with symbolic offerings for the journey to the land of the dead. Mausoleums may also be erected for the wealthy or distinguished deceased, but cost and a resistance to glorifying the dead has kept the practice from becoming widespread. For those who leave a will, an executor will call the beneficiaries together for its reading, and the memory of the deceased lives on in the disposal of the inheritance. Private grave visitation may serve to bolster the memory but, except for those who follow ancestral traditions, there is little overt link with the dead.