Death and Burial in Winnipeg

Dr. Esyllt Jones

At the height of the 1918–19 influenza pandemic in Winnipeg, a poor family struggled to bury their eldest daughter with dignity. The father was crippled with rheumatism and could not work, and the mother was employed outside of the home to support the family. They and their five children contracted the flu and were cared for during their illnesses by their fourteen-year-old son, but the eldest daughter was unable to recover and perished of the disease. Without the resources to afford the escalating cost of burial during the epidemic, the family was “loath to have their daughter buried at the city’s expense.” Rather than turn to municipal social welfare, they received the assistance of the Salvation Army, who drove the young woman’s body to a family plot fifteen miles outside of the city, in a truck, where they buried her. This family’s experience was not unique: theirs and the stories of others confirm the class and ethnic nature of burial and death during the extreme circumstances of the influenza epidemic in Winnipeg. In an ensuing public controversy over funeral costs, tensions over the rights of the worker and immigrant body were laid bare.

The influenza pandemic that crossed the globe at the end of the Great War may have been the most devastating of all pandemics in history, killing as many as 50 million people in the span of a few months. The disease rolled across Canada in two waves: the first, and most deadly, from September to December 1918; the second, less serious wave, in March 1919. Although Canada and the United States were able to avoid the extremely high death rates experienced in less-developed countries, such as Africa and South Asia, more than 50,000 Canadians perished; Winnipeg alone recorded 1,200 deaths within a population of approximately 180,000. The death rate in Winnipeg was comparable to that of the United States as a whole: 6.0– 6.5 deaths per 1,000 people. Most victims of influenza actually survived the disease. Infection rates, while difficult to determine with certainty, may have been as high as one-third of the population. Influenza caused widespread suffering, loss of income, and family disruption, effects that were not shared equally by all sectors of society. For both the living and the dead, influenza proved to be a marker of social division.

In Winnipeg—a multiethnic and socially stratified community—urban working people and immigrants fell ill and died in greater numbers than did the better off. Although the disease affected all social groups, killing the prominent as well as the lowly, residents in the city’s north end, the center of working-class and immigrant life, suffered severely. According to the city health department, in the north end there were 6.73 deaths from influenza per 1,000 people, whereas prosperous south Winnipeg had a death rate of 4.02 per 1,000. The poor were also the most likely to die of the disease, if infected—90.5 of every 1,000 people infected in the north end died of the disease as compared to 45.6 per 1,000 in south Winnipeg.

The social inequities of disease did not end with death but extended to the fate of the corpse. In November 1918, as the influenza epidemic reached its peak, burying the dead suddenly became very expensive. Many working families wondered how they were to afford a respectable funeral and were horrified to consider the potential alternative—the “degrading spectacle” of a pauper’s burial by the state, to borrow from Thomas Laqueur. Widows were seen as being in a particularly vulnerable position after the death of a male breadwinner. Their needs were at the heart of the ensuing burial controversy and the public inquiry into funeral practices during the epidemic.

Mourning and burying the epidemic’s dead became socially contested; like so much else about the disease experience, it reminded workers and the poor of their inferior social status, offended their dignity, and threatened their bodily autonomy. Historians of death have argued that by the late nineteenth century, tending to the dead had developed into a product of the capitalist market. Funerals became commodities, markers of class, racial, and ethnic distinction. With the commercialization and professionalization of death, the markers of a respectable funeral—an appropriate funeral procession, a hearse, clothing, an elaborate casket and headstone—became consumer products affordable for some and not for others. In that sense, the issues raised during the influenza funeral controversy were not new. The circumstances, however, were far from ordinary. In the streets of a tension-fi lled city, the meaning of death and burial became overtly politicized as working families asserted their version of social responsibility in a context of crisis. Working-class women activists played a key role in this politicization, allowing us to draw connections between the symbolic and material vulnerability of the working-class body, the intimate bonds of family and community, and struggles over political representation and citizenship.

Winnipeg was Canada’s third largest city and a cosmopolitan metropolis. As the center of Canada’s grain and livestock export trade and the transportation hub of the West, it had experienced tremendously rapid growth at the turn of the century.

Like many North American urban centers, Winnipeg had not successfully settled and integrated its new immigrants; inadequate housing, poverty, and disease were common to immigrant life. During the Great War, social gospel, reform, and suffrage movements gained a powerful presence in the city. Manitoba was the first province in Canada to grant women the right to vote in 1916. Winnipeg was also the activist stronghold of western trade unionism and socialism. Although the public face of the labor movement belonged to British immigrant men, it was in reality deeply rooted among ethnic communities (German, Eastern European, and Jewish) and among working-class women, who were themselves effectively organized by the Women’s Labour League (WLL). This was the equation for the success of labor radicalism in 1918 and 1919 and the scope of the Winnipeg general strike, the most significant of the strikes that occurred across Canada at the end of the Great War. In Winnipeg, the strike shut down the city for six weeks in May and June 1919. Socially and politically, Winnipeg was an unsettled place, in the midst of significant social transformation and poorly placed to address the upheaval and fragmentation influenza visited upon it in fall 1918.


Workers lived out the epidemic in a grueling material context. Housing was often overcrowded, of poor quality, and lacking in adequate ventilation. In many rented accommodations, for example, windows were painted shut. These were ideal conditions for the spread of an extremely infectious disease such as influenza. Keeping the sick clean, dry, and comfortable was difficult when the majority of homes in the north end, for example, had no baths or hot running water. Homes were cold. It was prairie winter, coal prices had risen precipitously during the war, and there were regular fuel shortages. Renters were forced to stay in their kitchens near the stove in order to stay warm and avoid becoming chilled. Living standards had deteriorated for many in the later years of the war. Households lost considerable purchasing power relative to wages as a result of inflation. Basic commodities such as milk were often unavailable. It is reasonable to assume that families were hungry, perhaps malnourished.

When the epidemic struck, many workers lost income because of their own illness or because they stayed home to care for ill family members. Quite virulently contagious through droplet infection, the flu had a habit of running through entire families. In this way, families temporarily lost all potential sources of income.

There is evidence that many occupational sectors were heavily hit by the flu in Winnipeg. Although public health authorities had closed various sites where the public gathered, including schools and universities, churches, and places of entertainment such as movie theaters and billiard halls, most workplaces stayed open. Those who worked in service occupations, particularly doctors, nurses, and health department employees, were at high risk of contagion. So, too, were the police and firemen, who were struck hard by the disease. The Canadian Pacific Railway reported in early November that more than two thousand of its western line employees were ill. By Armistice, one-quarter of the telephone company’s “phone girls” were off work. The women and men employed in the knitting and sewing trades, who worked in poorly ventilated and crowded factories, which provided ideal conditions for disease to spread, drew public attention. It is of interest that these particular workplaces were to become centers of resistance during the general strike, including the garment factories and the telephone company, which were centers of militance among women workers.


During the influenza epidemic, the body and its burial occupied an important economic and symbolic place in working-class and immigrant society. Burial was considered one of the most important life events for which the community could help prepare and share responsibility. The influenza epidemic put this process at risk. The market economics of the funeral industry had a severe impact upon the poor during the influenza epidemic. Coffins, interment, and the various other goods and services surrounding modern burial were in unprecedented demand. For the most part, local health officials and funeral homes were able to deal with the epidemic’s twelve hundred dead efficiently, which was itself remarkable, given that the majority of deaths (approximately nine hundred) occurred within a very compressed time frame, during October and November 1918. Although there were some disturbing accounts in the press of the bodies of victims laying undiscovered for some time in their homes, there is no evidence of bodies having been buried in mass graves or collected by health officials en masse. Despite the official ban on public gatherings, funerals were allowed to continue. But they did become much more expensive. Almost inevitably, it seemed, the cost of burying the epidemic’s dead escalated and became unaffordable for many working families.

Organized labor made death and funeral benefits a priority and allocated union membership dues to these purposes. Like ethnically based mutual aid, however, unions did more than just pay the bills. It was considered important that the union have a presence at funerals and publicly honour the worker through a large turnout. Some union membership bylaws in Canada and the United States stipulated that members must attend the funerals of their brothers and accompany the bodies to the graves. In other cases, unions wrote specific prayers to be read at the funerals of their members. Prayers said for the dead spoke to the values and social commitment of union members. Consider, for example, the standard burial text from the Handbook of the Western Federation of Miners:

We do not understand life, how then can we understand death. . . . Our presence here today and our tokens of respect would be mere symbols if we did not believe that out of the great infinity beyond the comprehension of mankind, the soul of our departed brothers are looking down on us today, conscious of our reverence. Our departed brothers shared the ambitions and hope that are common to most of us: the right collectively to work and live in peace, getting that portion of this world’s rewards that would keep them and those they loved in comfort and decency, and at the end that their brother workmen would tenderly place them to rest in the graves of their fathers.


Although many immigrants and workers could draw on mutual assistance, many more could not. And there was no guarantee that death benefits would pay the rising cost of funerals during the epidemic. Families who had exhausted their options turned to state assistance. The city, through the Social Welfare Commission (SWC), provided relief for those families who could not pay the cost of burial, and many desperately needed this assistance. At least 120 families (about 10 percent of all deaths) received free graves and burials.

However, burial by the state was nothing like what families wanted and expected for their loved ones. As opposed to a service at the funeral chapel, a hearse, burial clothes, and mourning cars or a procession, the poor flu victim was summarily disposed of, with little ritual observed. The body of the deceased was placed in a plain box and taken directly from his or her home (or place of death) to the cemetery in what was referred to as the “body car.” Modest services were held by arrangement at the vault in the winter and at the graveside in spring and summer. Poor influenza victims suffered a dehumanizing denial of socially symbolic and communal rituals.

The poor who applied for a municipal burial normally could not bury their dead before the SWC determined whether they legitimately required aid, which was an upsetting bureaucratic requirement. During the peak of the epidemic, however, investigations were set aside, probably to facilitate the prompt burial (or cold storage in a vault) of diseased bodies and to avoid a bureaucratic backlog. It is important to be aware of the cumulative impact of not one or two pauper burials but more than one hundred of them, many occurring in the space of several weeks. The issue was highly visible and served to highlight the social inequalities of death. Burial was simply less often disrupted for the wealthy, who had the resources to afford inflated funeral expenses and who could avoid a pauper’s burial with its attendant loss of social standing and respectability.

Poverty and a family’s inability to pay for burial might also mean a loss of bodily autonomy in death. Ultimately, pauper death could result in the dissection of the body, a fearful result. Legally, the body of anyone who died in a publicly funded facility in Manitoba (this included not only hospitals, but also prisons, mental hospitals, and other social welfare institutions) who personally or whose family was unable to pay for the funeral, or whose body was unclaimed, could be turned over to the medical school for dissection, regardless of the wishes of the deceased. Family members had to be able to demonstrate to the institution that they could pay for burial in order to prevent the use of the body for medical experimentation and education.


Although there were obviously exceptions, men of all classes had the greater security of future earnings from which to finance a costly funeral for spouses and children. Women, with fewer employment options and generally earning lower wages, faced drastically changed financial circumstances with the death of their spouses, in the short and long term. Therefore, the high price of burial posed a particular threat to working- class widows and their families. Male workers acknowledged this reality and interpreted the plight of influenza widows through gendered ideals of working class family life. In the sympathy and support of male unionists for these women, we can hear the echoes of working-class masculinity and an awareness of the particular hardship facing women without male breadwinners.

The influenza epidemic had a harsh impact upon men and women in the prime of life, many of whom had young children to care for. In Winnipeg, 60 percent of all deaths from influenza were among those twenty to thirty-nine years of age. There were also more recorded deaths among males than females. Hundreds of women in Winnipeg were left widowed by influenza. A significant portion of these women could not sustain their families without state support. In 1919, Manitoba’s Mothers’ Allowance program was supporting 116 families who lost husbands and fathers to influenza; these women and children constituted nearly one-third of the program’s caseload. Most of the women had working-class, or perhaps lower-middleclass, husbands: they were laborers (30 percent), tradesmen (40 percent), or clerks (10 percent).


Workers and immigrants in Winnipeg responded to the influenza epidemic by marshaling their common resources to help those most affected. But labor also made the cost of burying the dead a public and political issue and in so doing made obvious the meaning of socioeconomic difference to the citizen body.

Government at all levels failed to adequately provide for the exigencies of the influenza epidemic. No social supports were put in place to help families through the epidemic or recover afterward. Victims relied upon charity and existing social welfare programs, which tended to be meager and punitive. Over the course of the epidemic, labor came to see the precarious economic situation facing workers and their families as unjust and pressured municipal and provincial governments to address their specific needs. One of the key points of tension between organized labor in the city and state health authorities during the winter months was the denial of wage compensation to the hundreds of entertainment workers (in theaters, bowling alleys, billiard rooms, etc.) laid off during the epidemic as part of the mandatory closure of public meeting places. Labor claimed that $23,000 in wages was lost by these men alone. “Men cannot be allowed to starve in a time of epidemic,” the Western Labor News argued.

The chair of the provincial Board of Health responded that “the whole community had to suffer a certain measure of inconvenience” and denied labor’s demand for wage compensation, as did the municipal government. Government’s attitude was particularly difficult to swallow because school teachers, who were also laid off when all schools in Winnipeg were closed, continued to receive their salaries. Thus, the issue from organized labor’s point of view evolved from one of basic need for the family wage and defense of the male breadwinner to one of “British justice” and fairness to the working man.

Hypothetically, a relatively inexpensive funeral and burial were possible, although when one considers the costs relative to workers’ wages, even the cheapest funeral could cost the equivalent of several months’ rent or food for a family. Plain wooden coffins could be had for $25 to $30, but more elaborate caskets ranged in price from $40 to $125 and upward. Cemetery charges then had to be paid; these varied according to cemetery from $17 for an adult at Brookside Cemetery, where many of the working class were buried, to $32 at Elmwood Cemetery.

Additional charges abounded. Cemeteries charged extra for a death during winter. If the ground was too frozen for the grave to be dug, the body had to be stored in a vault until spring. (Many influenza victims must not have been interred until spring 1919.) Embalming (described as a “luxury” in the SWC report) cost $25. Washing, shaving, and dressing the body were extra. Fifty percent of funeral accounts showed expenses for burial clothes, a reflection of how important was observance of the proper burial rituals, as well as, perhaps, the lack of formal clothing among workers. A significant and unavoidable expense was transporting the body. A hearse to the funeral service cost $10 to $15; an additional $6 per car was charged for mourners. The cars only held four people, so often two were needed. Some families paid for black gloves to be worn by the pallbearers, at a cost of $1.50–$3.00. Finally, there were the death notices to go in the papers. Seventy-five percent of families paid to have one, and they cost from $1 to $5. All of these additional expenses were what made the difference between respectability and embarrassment for family members, who desired to bury their deceased with dignity.


The SWC inquiry was not an unequivocal success for working-class and immigrant victims of influenza, because no action was taken in response by the provincial or municipal government. There was no attempt to regulate the funeral business or any compensation for families. The conduct of the funeral business was held up to public scrutiny, which was an achievement. And the report provided clear evidence of how class, ethnicity, and gender structured the epidemic experience, even in death.

The burial controversy allows us to integrate our understanding of the social experience of the laboring body with the body in other, more private, spaces. It highlights how seamlessly integrated were questions of the workplace, politics, and economy—the public spheres of labor activism—with private and domestic concerns. Epidemic disease played a key role in deepening that process, in extending the significance of class and ethnic solidarity for collective survival, and in elaborating the poignancy of workers’ social situations. The involvement of labor in the quest for respectable burial during the epidemic makes clear that dignity in death was as important as dignity in industrial work. The question of a decent burial, central to being a respectable member of the working class and central, too, to ethnically based mutual aid and communal values, took on a powerful symbolism during the epidemic, because the disease highlighted the economic and social vulnerability of the body.

These experiences, too, foregrounded the family as a key site for the struggle over the autonomy and dignity of the body. Within the family the politics of fostering life, the dreams and goals of labor and politics, and the means of achieving comfort and pleasure—or their alternative, deprivation, pain, suffering, and death—were worked out. In denying the working family sustenance, health, and life itself, the social order deprived men, women, and children of dignity. When this denial was extended into death, families experienced it as violation. The fear of losing dignity and bodily integrity was made more palpable by the historical fate of the bodies of the poor, who without the protection of family and friends, were cut, probed, and defiled. For spouses, mothers, fathers, and friends of working-class and immigrant victims of influenza, burial had multiple meanings, all of them deeply felt and all of them threatened during the epidemic.

Gary Laderman and David Cannadine have argued that one response to the brutality of modern war and its massive death tolls (the American Civil War and World War I in Britain, respectively) was a disconnection between the living and the corpse and a diminished sense of the centrality of the corpse to spirituality and the afterlife. Such a cleavage is, itself, one might argue, characteristic of the twentieth century way of death: an abandonment of the corpse, a stripping away of its liminal position between the worlds of death and life, its sacred qualities and its lingering power as an object of both horror and fidelity. Yet working-class and immigrant experiences of the influenza epidemic demonstrate how incomplete was any separation between struggles for the rights of the living and those of the dead, the continuing valance of social distinction in death, and the centrality of “bodily matters” to both everyday life and movements for social change. The loved ones of influenza victims felt keenly the desire to provide for the deceased respectable rituals, complete with the accoutrements of death, and outrage at the funeral industry was a reaction against the power of the market to deny them the symbols of meaningful life and death and the signifiers of community membership. To their indignation, the response of the state was deemed inadequate.


For a full list of citations, please see the full version of this article: “Politicizing the Laboring Body: Working Families, Death, and Burial in Winnipeg’s Influenza Epidemic, 1918–1919” by Esyllt Jones (Labor: Studies in Working-Class History of the Americas, Volume 3, Issue 3, 2006).