For the Record – The crisis of BC’s graveyard real estate

Ali Pitargue – May 17, 2019

Graveyards in BC are struggling to accommodate spaces for traditional burials. Joy Real / Unsplash

The prices of BC land are notorious, and unfortunately for Lower Mainland residents, this could follow them after they die.

BC is also experiencing a housing crisis for the dead. Cemetery managers and designers are struggling to create space for burial plots in cemetery land. This has resulted in inflated prices for interment, making it harder for those dealing with grief to lay their loved ones to rest.

A typical burial plot in the City of Vancouver’s Mountain View Cemetery costs $25,000. It is the sole cemetery within Vancouver city limits and it is just as old as the city itself. The spots in Mountain View have filled up before, previously undergoing a closure in 1964, until it was re-opened again in 1986.

Erik Lees, who is the principal of LEES+ Associates, is a landscape architect that designs open spaces like cemeteries. He calls cemeteries ‘the forgotten landscape’, citing how the crisis is due to a lack of urban planning. He advocates for the importance of cemetery lands for a whole and healthy community.

“We give lots of thought to where our schools, hospitals, roads, and bridges go. Where retail and commercial spaces go, and where we house our citizens. But we have given precious little, and in many cases, no thought to where we bury our dead.” — Erik Lees, Principal of LEES+ Associates

Mountain View cemetery manager, Glen Hodges, continually faces challenges to free up space. He spoke about the challenges of consolidating the availability of cemetery land and implementing alternative methods such as building columbaria, mausoleums, or more burial ground.

As of the current provincial policy, burial spots are bought and reserved in perpetuity—once someone claims a grave, it is theirs forever, where they can reserve it for themselves or sell it as they please.

“[The perpetuity policy] really inhibits and negatively impacts the sustainable, ongoing operation of a cemetery. The lack of space and the cost of forever have both combined to an expensive option today.” – Glen Hodges, City of Vancouver Manager of Mountain View Cemetery

Hodges is currently working on a reclamation project that attempts to recover unused graves that were reserved decades ago. He also told BCIT news that they will propose a bylaw revision to have families to have the option of sharing grave space with non-family members.

Established in 1886, Mountain View is the only cemetery located within the city of Vancouver. @CWGC / Twitter

What are some alternative options?

Columbariums

A columbarium is like an above-ground structure containing niches that house cremated remains. Think of it as like a condo building for urns. A typical space is able to accommodate 30 to 40 families.

Green Burials

A green burial is pertains to using a burial site to grow natural habitats. The body buried will be allowed to decompose naturally, without undergoing embalming or being placed in a coffin. The burial space is then used to grow plants and trees. This option also decreases the carbon footprint of cemeteries; no fossil fuels are dispensed for creating monuments and altering soil chemistry.

Gravesite Rental System

Countries like Greece, Singapore, and the Netherlands have adopted a rental system for grave spaces, where a body can only occupy a burial plot for several decades until it fully decomposes until they are replaed with another body. If a family wants to keep the gravesite, they can pay rent. The burial plot can also be used by another family member afterwards.

Listen to the full ‘For the Record’ interview with Erik Lees below:

Listen to the full ‘For the Record’ interview with Glen Hodges below: