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Leslie Buck stands in front of a columbarium at St. Paul's Anglican Church in Vancouver.

Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

Municipal officials in Lake Cowichan want their residents to feel they can plan their lives in the Vancouver Island community. And their deaths.

The town is working to install a columbarium, an above-ground structure for housing urns of cremated remains. With the cost of burial plots skyrocketing across B.C. municipalities, a shortage of land designated for cemetery use and an increasing preference for cremation, columbaria are solving several problems at once.

The town is planning to install its own columbarium in the next few years, said Lake Cowichan Mayor Ross Forrest. Residents currently need to travel to other neighbouring towns to bury their dead.

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"In discussions last year, we had a public meeting and people were saying, 'You can live your whole life in this community but you can't die here,' Mr. Forrest said in an interview.

"We do want people to remain in their community."

B.C. has the highest cremation rate in North America, said Richard Ryan, manager of park business operations and support services for the City of Surrey. He said 85-per-cent of Surrey residents opt for the service.

The demand for cremation is pushing the city to consider in-ground urn interment and the installation of columbaria in the seven acres of unused land in one of Surrey's three city-owned cemeteries.

A columbarium niche is more affordable than a grave plot. The cost of a niche at St. Paul's Anglican Church in Vancouver goes for $500, while a casket grave in Mountain View Cemetery with space for two caskets and eight cremated remains starts at $22,500.

Rezoning for a cemetery is a complicated process in Vancouver.

Glen Hodges, manager of Mountain View Cemetery, said zoning for a cemetery is a greater barrier in expanding or building a new cemetery than rising land prices.

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Vancouver does not have a category for cemeteries in its zoning bylaw, said Tobin Potma, a City of Vancouver spokesperson. It is rare for the city to get requests to zone land for cemetery use and no request has come through in several years, he said.

Mountain View, Vancouver's only city-owned cemetery, ran out of room on March 27, 1986, when it sold its last burial plot. The cemetery spent the next 22 years providing service only to the families who had already purchased burial plots, said Mr. Hodges. Only in 2008 did they start selling new spaces in their first columbarium.

"By the time we got into the '90s, the cemetery market had changed," said Mr. Hodges. "Cremation was much more prevalent, these columbaria … were starting to appear in other cemeteries as options."

By the time Mountain View started offering space in their new columbaria, Mr. Hodges said they had a waiting list of several hundred people waiting to purchase niches.

There is still room left in the columbarium at St. Paul's Anglican Church, in Vancouver's West End. The facility is nearly 40 years old and holds 270 niches.

Leslie Buck, the church's parishioner, said the vacancies are probably because the West End is now a transitory neighbourhood and not a place where families spend their whole lives.

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"They don't think in terms of St. Paul's as being the place where they've always been and where they'll stay where they die," he said.

But people still express interest in buying the niches. Mr. Buck has bought a slot for him and his wife in the columbarium.

"I've made it clear to my children that the final decision is theirs, but if that's what they choose to do, the place is there," he said.

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