It's some of the hottest real estate in one of Vancouver's most in-demand neighbourhoods, and it's up for sale for the first time in nearly a quarter century.
Located in the heart of Mount Pleasant, it features winding walkways, mature trees and tasteful gardens, quiet neighbours and heritage charm, and offers a veritable oasis from the non-stop din of the city.
But before you pull out your chequebook, be aware that the property does have its downsides. The view from inside is terrible, the price isn't cheap – at $703 a square foot, it's steeper than many of the area's more luxurious homes – and it comes with one decidedly unfortunate residency requirement: You must be dead.
Ever since 1986, when the city's only cemetery, Mountain View, reached its maximum capacity and cut off sales, anyone wanting to buy a burial plot in Vancouver came up cold. Their only option was to head for the suburbs and secure a spot in Burnaby, New Westminster, Coquitlam, North Vancouver or beyond – places they may never have even visited in life, let alone chosen as locales to rest in peace.
But a section of B.C.'s Cremation, Interment and Funeral Services Act allows cemeteries to "reclaim" graves and sell them to new buyers – and Mountain View saw it as an opportunity to get business back up and running.
So as of this year, those wanting to stay in Vancouver even after taking their last breath of salty sea air can once again secure a plot in the picturesque 106-acre locale, for a price.
"When we were closed, we used to say you could be born in Vancouver, live your whole life in Vancouver, but when you died, if you didn't have a space here you got kicked out of Vancouver," says Mountain View manager Glen Hodges, who moved from Saskatchewan to Vancouver in 2002 to begin the process of reopening the cemetery and turning it into a more viable business. "And I think being laid to rest where you spent a significant part of your life is a natural tendency."
In order to be reclaimed, a casket plot must first meet several conditions. First and foremost, it needs to be vacant. ("That's the first thing people always want to know, no matter how clearly it's stated," Mr. Hodges says.) The act also stipulates that the graves must have been purchased more than 50 years ago – although Mountain View opted to only resell plots that were bought prior to 1940.
"In the late 1800s and early 1900s, it wasn't uncommon for families to buy four, eight, or even 16 graves at a time. So they would buy a family plot, bury a couple of people, then move away," says Mr. Hodges, who explains that family members would often leave for work, for love, or after a loss, then put down roots elsewhere, leaving extra burial plots behind.
Before it can put the sites up for sale, the cemetery must try to contact the previous owners – a tall order given that they often only have pre-1940s street addresses, many of which have long since been replaced by condos and businesses. The cemetery has also placed ads in newspapers in an attempt to reach early buyers or their families. (And if someone comes forward after a plot is resold, the cemetery must offer them another of equal or greater value.) The process so far has netted more than 150 casket plots; but like any piece of terra firma in Vancouver, it'll cost you. A single four-by-eight-foot plot, which allows for up to two caskets to be placed one on top of the other and as many as eight cremation urns, is $22,500 plus HST.
"It's partly based on market pricing," says Mr. Hodges, who looked at nearby cemeteries such as Forest Lawn and Ocean View in Burnaby, where prices range from $10,000 to $30,000 – and don't allow for the same number of cremation urns. "But they are land-locked as well, and running out of space."
Nilo Rey was among the first to pay the considerable sum to secure his long-term resting place at Mountain View. Having lived across the street from the cemetery since immigrating from the Philippines in 1994, he has always felt a strong affinity to the grounds, even teaching his kids how to ride bikes – and his wife how to drive a car – on its dead-quiet roadways.
He jokes that if he'd bought space in Burnaby or Surrey, his wife likely wouldn't visit, ironically because she doesn't like to drive. He also chose a plot near a tree and a fountain so "when people sit there, they won't get bored."
Since he still rents his home on Fraser Street, Mr. Rey – who works in a local dental office – is just happy to have a small piece of land to call his own. "I tell my friends that I now own property in Vancouver," he says with a laugh, admitting that his wife wasn't as keen on the purchase. "But the economy, jobs, they can go anytime. Death is the only thing that is for sure."
The other thing that is almost as sure is that space in Vancouver – both for the living and deceased – is running out. Mr. Hodges expects that the current reclamation process, which is slated to continue for many months, will yield anywhere between 700 and 1,000 casket graves – not many when you consider the city's population is well over half a million.
"If you want to be in Vancouver, which a lot of people do, we're the only option," says Mr. Hodges, adding that casket space is increasingly rare – especially in densely-populated areas where developers would never dream of buying land to build a cemetery. Also, many religious and cultural groups prefer, or even require, casket burial, which further ups demand.
For now, however, people can choose plots in the historic Masonic area of the cemetery, where long-term neighbours include former premiers, mayors, early pioneers, business tycoons, an RCMP commissioner and at least one lieutenant-governor. In the coming months, sites in the Old and Horne areas closer to 33rd Avenue will also become available.
Since they first went on sale to the public at the end of January, more than a dozen of the casket plots have been sold, as have many of the much smaller – and, at $2,500-$3,200, much less expensive – in-ground cremation spaces that were created by narrowing roadways and removing trees and shrubs.
People with bigger families and deeper pockets also have the option of purchasing one of eight custom family columbaria that can house up to 20 urns and overlook a serene new water feature – but it will set them back $40,000.
For Mr. Hodges, the main aim is to not only recoup the $14-million in cemetery upgrades that allowed for many of the new spaces; he hopes the 126-year-old cemetery will once again become a self-sustaining business – one that will no longer need the $800,000 annual subsidy it receives from the city.
Still, the cemetery manager says he won't be among those lining up to purchase one of Mountain View's 32-square-foot plots. "There is definitely a big part of me in this place," he says, overlooking the newly opened Masonic area as a chilly wind blows through. "But I say that every day I get to go home from the cemetery is a good day."
Notable residents of Mountain View
Known as "Old Black Joe" or "English Bay Joe," the beloved Vancouver lifeguard taught countless kids to swim and saved dozens of people in distress.
World record-setting track and field star who represented Canada in the 1960, 1964, and 1968 Olympics. His grandfather and sister were also Olympians.
Sawmill tycoon and East Side park namesake whose daughter's wedding forced him to cancel his passage home on the Titanic.
Popular businessman who became the 15th lieutenant-governor of British Columbia, UBC chancellor, and son-in-law to John Hendry.
Sarah Anne McLagan
Telegraph operator and co-founder of the Vancouver Daily World who became Canada's first female newspaper editor.
Robert Gordon McBeath
Heroic Victoria Cross recipient who survived the First World War, but died at 23 years old while working as a police officer in Vancouver.
Robertha Josephine Marshall
Survived the sinking of the Titanic when she was 12 and recalled watching the ship slip under the inky surface as she sat in a lifeboat in a nightgown, slippers and fur coat.
Chinese-Canadian who began in business by selling coal door-to-door and went on to found one of the region's largest import-export businesses. His company also supplied the Canadian Pacific Railway with much of its workforce.
Sarah Emily Service
Mother of famed poet Robert Service.
Young Shaughnessy nanny who was murdered in 1924. Suspicion fell on houseboy Wong Foon Sing, who was reportedly infatuated with Smith, but the case remains unsolved.
Edward Evans Blackmore
Notable Vancouver architect who designed the Pantages Theatre, Lord Nelson Elementary School, the St. Francis Hotel, the McLennan and McFeely building and more.
William Carey Ditmars
Businessman whose ironwork company built the Granville Street and Lion's Gate bridges, and who brought the first car – or "horseless carriage" – to Vancouver.
Jennifer Van Evra is special to The Globe and Mail.