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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.

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.

Asked what he imagines the business might look like 50 years hence, Gary Carmichael, the amiable vice-president of Arbor Memorial, pauses and admits quietly that he simply doesn’t know. Nevertheless, he casts a speculative eye forward, mentioning among other nightmarish possibilities freeze-dried bodies that will disintegrate like angel dust for convenient disposal; bodies dissolved in solvent (again for convenient disposal); and cyberspace, a realm in which Internet memorials might well supplant granite and gardens. Carmichael is bold in drawing into question “exactly what we mean when we use the word perpetual”–as in the “perpetual” maintenance of graves that many cemeteries promise in their plot contracts. “I can see a time,” he says, “when some people in the industry will be looking for a redefinition.” Or will be looking to what Carmichael calls “term burials,” what the wags of the industry call “rent-a-graves,” a commodity that has been around for centuries, particularly in parts of Europe where there is not enough land for a corpse to claim an underground home in perpetuity.

Long before Canadian cemeteries became the brisk corporate businesses they are (but do their best not to seem), church and village graveyards were all there were in this country. A plot in most of them cost next to nothing. During the 19th and early 20th centuries, even larger church or municipal cemeteries (St. John’s Norway in Toronto, Notre-Dame-des-Neiges in Montreal, Mountain View in Vancouver) were not so much money-makers as a sort of necessary gift to the citizenry or to the congregation. The cost of being buried in such places was limited to the value of a few yards of sod and the coins paid to gravediggers to excavate the soil and fill in the hole when the horse-drawn funeral wagon had exited the premises. By one estimate, there are some 7,000 such graveyards in Canada, more than 3,000 of them in Ontario alone–although many of them, like their inhabitants, have slipped into “inactivity,” a word the trade uses to describe graveyards that no longer welcome the dead.

For most Canadians, country cemeteries are the sort of relic they might visit during a rural family reunion, or on a pilgrimage to a cultural hero’s grave–say, that of the explorer Simon Fraser in the churchyard at St. Andrew’s, Ontario, or the novelist Margaret Laurence in the town cemetery in Neepawa, Manitoba.

But where the cemetery business is concerned, they are still a player, albeit one that could use a little facial wax. While Arbor Memorial Inc., with its 41 cemeteries across the country, accommodates some 18,000 deaths a year (by my estimate; the company will not provide a figure), and Service Corporation International (SCI), the biggest graveyard chain in the world, headquartered in Houston, accepts about 5,000 in its 10 Canadian cemeteries (again, my estimate), the churchyards and village cemeteries still do an estimated 12,000 traditional burials. Between the biggest commercial and municipal cemeteries, some of which command nearly 100,000 graves, and the pipsqueaks, a number of which harbour fewer than a dozen, there is an eclectic array of regional operators across the country. These include the publicly traded Park Lawn Group in Toronto, with its six cemeteries; MPG with its 10; and chains such as Urgel Bourgie, Magnus Poirier and Alfred Dallaire, which operate exclusively and profitably in Quebec.

The most basic of challenges facing many of them at the moment is that they are filling up, or are already full. The owners of urban cemeteries in particular are increasingly unable to acquire land. “Oh, it’d be great for us if we could still make cemeteries out of agricultural land as we could in the past,” says Glenn McClary, the youthful and engaging president of the Mount Pleasant Group. “But the zoning laws in most urban areas won’t allow it.” In a nutshell, governments deem it more important to feed the masses than to bury them. “Or at least feed them first,” jokes McClary.

In the Toronto area, other land-use regulations prevent cemetery companies from acquiring land on protected natural spaces such as the Oak Ridges Moraine and the Niagara Escarpment. “They don’t want us,” says Arbor’s Carmichael, “even though we clearly offer them something of value–a kind of park in which they can bury or memorialize their loved ones.” At least part of the municipalities’ resistance to cemeteries is that they pay no land taxes and can thus reduce a massive chunk of real estate–often as much as a hundred acres on which tax-paying apartment buildings or, say, a mall might be built– to a kind of budgetary black hole.

Even if there were areas in a city where a graveyard might locate, most cemetery organizations lack the financial clout–or at least the available capital–to compete with wealthy property developers for residential, commercial or industrial land. “In the not-too-distant future,” says McClary, “families in Toronto and many other big cities will have no choice but to look way out beyond the suburbs if they want to have a traditional land burial.”

At the moment, MPG’s flagship property, Mount Pleasant Cemetery in central Toronto, sells just 100 plots annually (with enough inventory to last 10 to 20 years), while another of the company’s historic holdings, the Toronto Necropolis, has even fewer spaces. Montreal’s historic Mount Royal Cemetery, a non-profit corporation, is down to less than a decade’s worth of stock, while in Edmonton, five of the city’s seven municipally-run graveyards are unable to accommodate another burial.

“In the old days,” says McClary, “a cemetery might conceivably bury your grandparents, your parents, you, your children, their children, and so on. Now, with the population density so high, a single generation might fill an entire cemetery.”

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What brings the developing shortage of space into focus–and provides the second stirring chapter in this Plight of the Living Dead–is that baby boomers are about to begin invading Canada’s graveyards in hecatombs. It will be an onslaught that one might think would create an unparalleled requirement for plots and mausoleum space–at least in the country’s dozens of newer, less-populated cemeteries. Mount Pleasant Group’s Meadowvale facility in Brampton, for example, has 40 undeveloped acres, veritable pasture land–this in a business where a single acre can support as many as 900 traditional plots, meaning 1,800 corpses if the bodies are buried two deep, as they frequently are in these competitive and penny-pinching times. Less scrupled cemeteries will sometimes shoehorn in so many plots that digging a new grave can bring the contents of a neighbouring grave tumbling into the pit.

Like MPG, Arbor Memorial’s cemeteries have thousands of plots available, at least to those willing to spend eternity far from the neighbourhoods in which they lived, not to mention under the company’s conservative (and no doubt cost-saving) aesthetic: no planted flowers or shrubs at graveside on most company acreages, a preference for standardized and dreary brass grave markers, and prosaic statuary that bears striking similarity from one Arbor cemetery to the next.

Ironically, what is dampening the potential sales boom is the boom babies themselves, among whom there has been a landslide to cremation. In 1962, a mere 5,000 of the nearly 150,000 Canadians who died chose the fiery last passage. By 1985, around some 50,000 (26 per cent) of the 190,000 who died that year chose cremation. Cemetery analysts predict that, in 2015, between 70 per cent and 85 per cent of the quarter-million Canadians who die will be reduced to ash.

But cremation is not nearly as profitable as a traditional burial. “One of the big current challenges for a corporation like ours,” says MPG’s McClary, “is that a little container of ashes does not require a cemetery–or at least not much of a cemetery.” For some families, a container of their loved one’s ashes requires no more than a mantel or rock garden–or, at the outside, dispersal at sea or from the window of a Cessna 150 over familiar forests or fields. Predictable opportunism has also led to showier options for disposal: For the right price, you can spread your loved one’s ashes in outer space or along the Jesus Trail in Israel.

Canadian cemeteries have not taken cremation lying down. Many have countered with crematoriums of their own–great edifices with blackened chimneys that are at best a competitive necessity, at worst an affront to those quietly walking a cemetery path. These days, it is a rare cemetery that is not selling tiny, or not-so-tiny, cremation plots, or the rights to bury urns above existing remains. Most have constructed what the Romans called “columbariums,” showy stone enclosures or walls in which cremation urns can be entombed in glass-fronted or stone-sealed pigeon holes (columba means pigeon).

In their broader efforts to stay in the black, the likes of Arbor Memorial and MPG have added lavish reception and visitation centres–basically funeral homes–to several of their properties. Indeed, most of the major players have become vertically integrated, owning as many or more funeral parlours as they do cemeteries. Arbor Memorial owns 90 funeral homes to go with its 41 graveyards, while SCI, the great consolidator of the American funeral-home business, keeps 166 parlours in Canada, complementing just 10 graveyards. To soften the perception among bereaved clients that their loved ones are being handed over to the great faceless death corporation, companies take pains to preserve a sense of community at their acquired properties, generally keeping the original family or historic names on their now-cost-effective mortuaries or cemeteries.

Until 20 years ago, cemeteries in Ontario and several other provinces could not legally own funeral homes; it was considered a compromise of interests. But to the chagrin of existing parlours, the barrier has been swept aside in the name of cemetery survival, allowing for what McClary calls “one-stop shopping–visitation, funeral, and on-site cremation or burial.” One Toronto cemetery executive quipped recently that the day was coming when funeral and burial services, and perhaps plots too, would be available at Amazon.com. The idea is not so far-fetched, considering that the online retailer already sells embalming equipment, coffins and cremation urns. Even Walmart sells the “graciously appointed Ambassador casket,” shippable to funeral homes everywhere for $899, about half of what the model would cost if purchased through a funeral parlour.

“We have lots to compete with,” laughs McClary, who leads me with affable enthusiasm around the warrens and waypoints of the company’s capacious new visitation centre at Meadowvale Cemetery in Brampton: right this way along the tastefully carpeted halls, through the discreetly lit showrooms for coffins and tombstones, into the vaulted sanctuary where, on this day, a gathering composed largely of young women is sobbing quietly, plucking at the Kleenex boxes spread liberally around the room. The only shudder-spot on the tour is the kitcheny-looking cold-room, with its gleaming stainless steel, where the palpability of the unspeakable hangs a little too heavily even for McClary’s well-honed professional tolerances. “Since I came to MPG in 2001,” he confides, “I’ve gotten very comfortable with most aspects of the business, but I still have a little trouble around the bodies.”

McClary has no trouble around the cemetery’s new “natural burial” section–a tract in which bodies are interred unembalmed, in biodegradable coffins, under sod untainted by herbicides. So far, there have been few takers–perhaps because environmental purists would prefer to be a little further from the six-lane howl of the 407 expressway.

In the ongoing struggle for survival and against complacency, MPG has extended itself not just to environmentalists and “cremationists” but to Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus and Buddhists, all of whose populations have expanded dramatically in Canada during the past quarter century, and whose beliefs stipulate highly specific cremation and burial procedures.

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For centuries, cemeteries were impervious to worldly concerns. Then, following the Second World War, came the age of consumerism. It soon dawned on the more aggressive cemeteries and funeral parlours that commodities and services once considered sacrosanct could now be pimped up and marketed. Operators learned how to shame aggrieved families into purchasing more in the way of plots and services than they could afford or wanted. Until the practice was banned more than a decade ago, some cemeteries sold prepaid plots through high-pressure phone marketing or even sidewalk buttonholing.

During the mid-’60s, writer Jessica Mitford shamed the industry, in return, with her book The American Way of Death, deftly pointing out that funeral homes and cemeteries were not so much meeting their clients’ needs as inventing preposterous new needs that the consumer was being pressured to pay for. “Gradually, over the years,” wrote Mitford, “the death industry constructed its own grotesque cloud-cuckoo-land where the trappings of Gracious Living were transformed, as in a nightmare, into the trappings of Gracious Dying.”

Not long after Mitford’s book appeared, I worked for a summer in an immense Toronto graveyard and witnessed a range of peccadilloes and illegalities that for me, as an 18-year-old, inspired an impressive, sometimes hilarious, reconsideration of the erstwhile “cloud-cuckoo-land.” The field boss was a crusty old Scot who consumed an outrageous amount of whisky in the course of a workday, while the underlings, caught in the updraft of the ‘60s, smoked equally outlandish quantities of marijuana. Graves were often dug too close to one another; bodies were dropped into a foot or more of groundwater (a “slurpy” in the lingo of the trade); and on one occasion a body was buried in the wrong plot and, to my knowledge, was never relocated. Cremation containers were sometimes not buried at all but were simply left to sit in the maintenance shed, gathering dust among the stacks of old equipment catalogues and junk that had been excavated during gravedigging. On one occasion, an indigent from the city morgue was buried in a U-Haul box, and rumours persisted that perennially untended graves had, over the years, occasionally been “scooped”–which is to say emptied of human remains–and offered up for resale. At least twice that summer, neighbours found what they perceived to be human bones on their lawns–presumably carried there by raccoons or skunks, which tended to burrow in the open excavation where spent flowers and surplus soil and garden prunings were tossed as compost. In July of that year, a city-wide gravediggers’ strike left a heap of boxed bodies piled like cordwood in the cemetery chapel in temperatures of up to 95 F.

It is impossible to think such practices and impertinences could go on in today’s better-regulated and more sterile urban graveyards. However, in Chicago in 2009, operators of a cemetery were charged with and convicted of disinterring old remains, tossing them in common graves, and blithely reselling the plots.

Cemetery executives have heard it all, and are stoic about occasional knocks on the Canadian industry, which is big enough to withstand the odd fly bite. (No one seems to collect industry data in Canada; applying the 10 per cent-of-the-U.S.-market ballpark estimate points to sales of about $1.6-billion a year.)

With its transcontinental reach, Arbor Memorial (valued at $375-million in 2012 when it was taken private) claims a large chunk of those sales. Owned jointly by Scanfield Holdings of Toronto and insurance conglomerate Fairfax Financial Holdings, the company, founded in 1947 by Dan Scanlan, was taken public in 1973 and taken private again in 2012. “There was a need for investment in order to get some things done in ‘73,” says VP Carmichael, “and a desire to go private again a couple of years ago in order to get other things done without having to defer to shareholders.” The company is chaired by the founder’s son, David. Co-owner Fairfax, meanwhile, is run by legendary investor Prem Watsa.

By comparison, the Mount Pleasant Group is a non-profit. So MPG’s revenues-beyond-expenses must be poured back into the operation rather than distributed as earnings. The company was founded in 1826 by a consortium of civic-minded families who raised a kitty of $300 (which today would buy a 9-inch-by-8-inch square of the company’s more expensive digs) and cleared a potter’s field at what is now the corner of Yonge and Bloor Streets.

Today, Mount Pleasant Cemetery, a successor to the original holding, is the guardian of a veritable Toronto who’s who: Frederick Banting and Charles Best, Timothy Eaton, Glenn Gould, Foster Hewitt, Charlie Conacher, William Lyon Mackenzie King, and hundreds more.

At $16,000 a plot, it is also the guardian of some of the most expensive real estate in Canada: The $533 cost of a square foot in Mount Pleasant makes the choicest raw land in, say, the city’s Beaches neighbourhood ($83) look positively affordable.

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Graves, of course, are only real estate until they are occupied, at which point they become sacred ground, beyond mutability or the marketplace.

Or so we’ve come to believe. But there is a tipping point approaching.

North American cemeteries have been selling “eternal maintenance” since the mid-20th century–as a competitive marketing device but also as a form of reassurance to customers. The spectre of graves being opened or moved, meanwhile, goes back at least as far as Elizabethan England, when the remains of local personages were buried inside the walls of their churches, beneath the floor. However, at some point (say, when the family of the deceased stopped paying for the privilege), the remains were often disinterred and moved to less prestigious surroundings in the churchyard, or sometimes to the local charnel house, where they were tossed into subterranean pits together with the bones of other corpses.

During the early 20th century, in San Francisco, every city cemetery was uprooted and moved to rural ground on the bogus premise that graveyards were breeding grounds for disease. It turned out that certain city fathers wanted to develop the land commercially–and of course did.

No subject stirs Carmichael like that of eternal maintenance. “I ask you?” he says, throwing out his hands. “In what other business in the world is the buyer given a warranty that extends to the end of time?” He points out that tires and mufflers are sold with “so-called lifetime warranties,” but that the people who buy them are driving cars that they probably won’t even own in another five years. “Somebody opens a pizza shop, it doesn’t go well, they turn it into a bakery. That fails and it becomes a health-food store or a bicycle shop. The cemetery business is the only one anywhere in which you cannot quit no matter what happens. Once the first body is in the ground, you cannot go out of business!”

In reality, cemeteries have gone out of business–or have at least been abandoned by their owners. In Janesville, Wisconsin, for example, the Oak Hills Cemetery Association dissolved in bankruptcy a few years ago, leaving the company’s 24,000-grave cemetery to a decidedly ungrateful municipality.

In support of long-term maintenance–and the survival of cemeteries generally–most provinces have laws that force owners to put money aside in untouchable trusts, the interest from which is to be used for upkeep. In Ontario, an all-but-prohibitive 40 per cent of every dollar spent on a traditional plot must be put into trust for the future. For a mausoleum crypt, the allocation is 20 per cent; for a cremation niche, 15 per cent. Other provinces’ rates vary from 15 per cent to 35 per cent–except in Quebec, which, like many U.S. states, has no cemetery trust laws at all.

Arbor’s Carmichael acknowledges that even in provinces such as British Columbia, Alberta and Ontario, income from the company’s trusts does not cover the cost of upkeep. Like anyone, cemeteries find that investment returns are not what they used to be. “There’s a myth that this industry is recession-proof,” says Carmichael, “but I assure you it is not.”

Meanwhile, the Mount Pleasant Group, which controls 1,220 acres of land in the Toronto area, holds more money in trust per developed acre than any other cemetery corporation in North America. During the late 1800s, long before trust laws were passed, MPG’s trustees foresaw the challenges that cemeteries would eventually face and established a voluntary trust that now holds more than $350-million. The last time Arbor Memorial reported publicly in 2010, its trust stood at $240-million–from which it must maintain four times as many cemeteries as MPG. According to McClary, combined income from trusts and operations will, if all goes well, produce overall operating income of between 8 per cent and 12 per cent of annual gross income at a cemetery company.

Meanwhile, in the absence of obliged trusts, Quebec has by no means left its cemeteries to long-term chaos. In 1995, the province amended its contract laws, so that contracts for cemetery plots, like all other civil agreements, could not exceed 100 years in length.

Notre-Dame-des-Neiges Cemetery has, since 1995, been offering 100-year plot leases that, upon expiry, will have to be renewed by descendants in order to prevent the bones of their ancestors from being reinterred in less valuable ground elsewhere–or in the same ground, but a few feet deeper, so that a new tenant can be dropped in on top. After the laws were changed, Notre-Dame offered 10-year plot leases for $1,000, but quit selling them because, in the words of the cemetery’s manager, Yoland Tremblay, “they lacked dignity”–and perhaps lessees, although the cemetery has never confirmed how many of the short-haul plots were ever bought, let alone occupied.

Asked how close Arbor Memorial might be to introducing term burials, Carmichael submits that it’s not up to Arbor to decide. “We try to keep an eye on our constituencies, listen to what they want, and respond to it. Right now, I don’t think most of themare ready for short-term plots.”

Glenn McClary says that the introduction of term burials in Ontario would depend not just on public demand but on approval from the provincial government, “which has tended to be conservative on such matters in the past.”

Both men insist that the survival of Canadian graveyards depends not so much on one innovation or another but on a broader imperative to “stay relevant”–to “keep finding ways of providing bereaved families with what it is they want or need,” says Carmichael.

If we can keep finding land,” smiles McClary.

Meanwhile, out in the country, the cemeteries and churchyards are in the same bind as their urban counterparts. Dwindling space, dwindling dollars, long futures. “For decades,” says rural undertaker Jeff Glendinning, “these hundreds of little cemeteries have been maintained by volunteers who are only too happy to tend the graves of relatives or of people they knew.” However, “a lot of these volunteers are 70 years old, or more. Who’s going to look after things when they’re gone?”

Like the biggest of corporate cemeteries, little ones such as the cemetery at Chesterfield put a percentage of their modest plot fees into trust. “But it’s such a tiny amount,” says Glendinning. “It won’t even come close to paying the bills when the volunteers can’t do it any more.”

Glendinning has urged some of the churches to raise their fees and to put more away. “At least things are better than they were when I started,” he says, arching an eyebrow. “Back then, some of the churches didn’t even have maps of their graveyards, didn’t know where the bodies were buried. We’d have to dig carefully to avoid running into old remains.”

The likes of Arbor Memorial and MPG know where the bodies are buried. And who owns the plots. What they don’t know is who’s going to be taking care of those bodies down the road.

The cemetery industry, the erstwhile cloud-cuckoo-land, has taken its lumps over the years–attacked by, among others, environmentalists and city planners and anthropologists such as Mitford. The industry’s relentless requirement to compete, to make money, has led to some unsavory practices and revelations.

But it is not easy to kill–for the simple reason that our cemeteries also provide a much valued service to the affluent and to indigents alike. By law (but in many cases by inclination, too), all Canadian cemeteries provide basic gravesites and dignified burials to families or individuals who cannot pay for them–services provided by municipalities at prices that often cover a fraction of the actual cost.

Beyond that, they provide valued, often elegant green space, a version of parkland, even to those who will never buy a plot or spend a nickel on their upkeep.

We “read” them like the history books they are.

With their green grass in summer, their shovelled paths in winter, their marble and granite and hardwoods, they are also a kind of reassurance; someone is watching out for the dead, and indirectly for their survivors.

If not for eternity, at least for now.

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