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The business of graveyard shifts from a former gravedigger. (PETER HOLST for Report on Business magazine)
The business of graveyard shifts from a former gravedigger. (PETER HOLST for Report on Business magazine)

The battle for your bones: Death goes corporate in Canada Add to ...

My mother was Jeff Glendinning’s first gig as an undertaker, in October, 1988. Jeff was fresh out of embalming school and had taken over his grandfather’s funeral parlour in the village of Plattsville, Ontario, not far from Kitchener. He owned a crow-coloured suit and tie, a pair of black Florsheims, and a couple of white shirts–but did not yet own a hearse. On the day after my mother’s funeral, he slid her remains into the back of his Dodge Caravan and drove north some 300 kilometres to the verdant little cemetery in Torrance, where years earlier my mom and dad had paid $300 for an ant-ridden double plot overlooking Muskoka Lake. Like anybody, my mother would, in life, have preferred a van to a hearse, and I believe she would have enjoyed her last trip into the forests and watersheds she loved–all the more had she not been on the floor, in the back. In a box.

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By the time Jeff buried my dad in 2001, double plots in Torrance had risen in price to $350. By the time he buried my Aunt Ruth, in 2013, in the churchyard at Chesterfield, also not far from Kitchener, the cost of a twin berth in that cemetery had touched a historic high of $400. It seemed plenty to pay for some 60 square feet of twitch grass and woodchuck droppings–not to mention the field dust from the tillage and corn crops across the fence to the south. But it was still a lively bargain measured against the $2,400 she and my Uncle Don would have paid had they chosen to park their bones in Kitchener at the municipally owned Woodland Cemetery; or the $4,600 the best tandem plot would have cost them at Breslau’s Memory Gardens, a sprawling facility owned by Arbor Memorial Inc., the country’s largest cemetery chain; or the $32,000-plus they would have paid had they been buried in one of the spiffier doubles in grand old Mount Pleasant Cemetery in Toronto.

That great variance in price pretty much defines the differences among the three species of cemeteries in this country: the village or churchyard grove (Chesterfield); the municipal burial ground that must, if possible, pay its way, if not much more (Woodland); and the cemetery as business, as builder, as corporation (Breslau). Even non-profit corporations such as the Mount Pleasant Group (MPG), which owns its namesake site and nine other graveyards in the Toronto area, must make money, lots of it: not for shareholders or owners but in order to thrive, to expand–to put money into better ways of incinerating your grandmother, into more inviting mausoleums, into the epic maintenance of hundreds of thousands of graves long after the plots are all occupied and not another nickel can be wrung from the sod; and, of course, into paying its dozens and dozens of employees and administrators.

Where the churchyard and corporate plots connect is that the lyrical little boneyards of the countryside are not just the historical roots but the entire tonal model for almost everything of value that the country’s proliferating cemetery corporations compete feverishly to sell: the implied dignity of the churchyard, the sylvan bower, the detachment from quotidian chaos–a restful fern-bank (or at least a hillside of euphemisms) on which to lie down and sleep.

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Against the implied immutability of granite, oak trees and eternal peace, just about everything else about the cemetery business in Canada is in roiling flux these days. And is about to roil harder. Even had my relatives made different choices as to their final resting places, they would have been dropped into a storyline–let us say a plot–that even 20 years ago they could never have imagined. The twists and turns of that narrative involve land shortages and radical changes in the way people perceive the fate of their remains–and push the hoary old graveyard industry up against the jittery realization that it may not be able to fulfill its fiduciary or grave-tending promises for the future. This in a business where the future goes on and on. And on. And requires ever-more capital to plug the financial holes it has dug in the past, and in some cases continues to dig.

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