The Afterlife of Cemeteries

As the city grows and changes, do our cemeteries need to change as well?

Union Cemetery, one of Calgary’s first cemeteries. Photography by Julya Hajnoczky.


It’s a peaceful place, Union Cemetery. Tree boughs sway gently in the breeze, and freshly mown grass bristles between the gravestones that dapple the hillside in pleasantly untidy rows. There’s a chapel on the hilltop, shady pathways, and during the spring and summer months, the scent of flowers from the nearby Reader Rock Garden lingers in the air. Macleod Trail demarcates the western boundary, a sort of artery of the living hugging the land of the dead. It’s the kind of place that grips the popular imagination: this is what it means to rest in peace. But this cemetery was also built for a different era.

Union was one of Calgary’s first cemeteries. It was established in 1890, when the west was much wilder and far less populated than it is today. The agricultural commission that would later give us the Stampede was then newly established, and Calgarians were a hardy lot of farmers and ranchers.

They initially buried their dead on what is now Shaganappi Golf Course, but digging graves in the rocky soil proved back-breaking, so the cemetery was moved to higher ground, where Union now exists. Notable Calgarians, from early settlers like John Ware and James Macleod to members of the Lougheed family, are buried here. The City would open several more cemeteries over the years that followed: Burnsland Cemetery immediately to the southeast, The Chinese Cemetery to the west and St. Mary’s to the west of that. Queen’s Park Cemetery, our most recent public cemetery, opened in 1940, when Calgary had a population of almost 90,000. No one predicted that within 80 years, our city’s population would grow to more than 1.2 million.

And now Queen’s Park is almost full. Even on the seemingly endless prairies, land is a finite resource, especially when the dead claim it in perpetuity. In response to the pressing need for cemetery space, the City is on the verge of opening a new cemetery, Prairie Sky, on the southeastern edge of Calgary. Just as Union does, it will allow the living to remember the dead, and it will keep a record of our shared history.

But it will also have striking differences. It is built for a vastly more diverse and larger population, and the City has had to grapple with environmental concerns and space constraints that simply weren’t factors for Calgary’s founders. In a few decades, it, too, will be full, which is why it’s an appropriate time to ask some critical questions: what do we do with bodies? How do we memorialize our loved ones? And how much space are we prepared to devote to the dead?

The view toward downtown Calgary from what will be Prairie Sky Cemetery, set to open in 2020. Photography by Julya Hajnoczky.


The Body Problem

Washington state is allowing people to compost their bodies starting in May 2020. Recompose, the company pioneering this method, covers the deceased in natural materials such as straw or wood chips. In three to seven weeks, microbial action breaks the bodies down into soil, which is then given back to families. It’s up to them to decide what to do with it, but the Recompose website hints at the obvious option: “…we can nourish new life after we die.” You may see this as an environmental victory, a desecration,
or simply a rich source of gardening humour. Whatever your perspective, this development highlights an important fact: what we do with bodies after death matters.

Calgary doesn’t allow for body composting (yet). The current Alberta Cemeteries Act limits Albertans to dispose of bodies through burial, mausoleum interment, cremation or donation to a post-secondary institution. It’s a narrow range of choices, but one that raises a host of questions. What kind of burial do you want? Traditional? Green? Family farm? (Just kidding, that last one’s not allowed.) Perhaps a mausoleum? What should be done with cremated remains? Should they be buried? Scattered? Placed in a columbarium niche? Contained in an urn on top of the Steinway? And what about body donation? It’s an incredible gift to give, but the University of Calgary’s medical school only accepts around 60 bodies per year, and they have very specific criteria. Even if your donation is accepted, you’ll still be cremated at the end of your service. And both cremation and burial have repercussions for the environment and for land use.

Traditional burial does not tread lightly on the earth. Embalming chemicals eventually reach the soil and from there, the ground water. Ornate caskets use large amounts of hardwoods, metals, plastics and synthetic fabrics. Most caskets are placed into concrete burial vaults, which lengthens decomposition time.

Cremation is seen as the more environmentally friendly option, but it, too, comes at an environmental cost. A single cremation requires the equivalent of two SUV tanks of fuel, and the process releases CO and CO2 into the atmosphere, as well as mercury vapour from amalgam dental fillings. Newer methods such as alkaline hydrolysis (essentially liquefication by water and lye) are touted as more environmentally friendly than cremation by fire. But while the process is legal in Saskatchewan, Ontario and Quebec, Alberta has yet to approve it.

That’s not to say Calgarians aren’t concerned about the environmental impact of death. During the community engagement phase of planning for the new Prairie Sky Cemetery, many people expressed interest in green burial, a process that eschews embalming and individual headstones, and requires that caskets be made of natural materials. But that interest hasn’t yet radically changed policy.

“[Canada] is still largely in the stage of people being very curious. It has not yet reached the stage where interest has transitioned into a surge in demand for green burials,” says Catriona Hearn. As a senior associate with LEES + Associates, which designs and constructs cemeteries, Hearn has worked on a number of cemetery projects including Queen’s Park. She is also a volunteer with the Green Burial Society of Canada. There are hopeful signs, though. Unlike most municipalities, Calgary doesn’t require the use of concrete burial vaults or liners, so Queen’s Park can already accommodate green-er burials, and many funeral homes in Calgary offer green casket options made from more readily biodegradable materials. The Prairie Sky Cemetery will offer a dedicated green burial area, with unmarked graves and natural landscaping, and this may increase the demand for these options. But while green burials leave a lighter footprint than traditional burials, they still require land.

Queen’s Park Cemetery is next to a dog park. In 2018, a plan to expand the cemetery by annexing the park met with opposition and ultimately did not proceed. Photography by Julya Hajnoczky.


The Land Problem

Land: it’s a problem in Calgary, but not because we don’t have enough of it. The problem is that there is so much of it, we’ve sprawled across it, the way toddlers sprawl across their parents’ beds in the middle of the night. New subdivisions keep stretching their tentacles further and further into the north and the south. Parks sprawl. Roads sprawl. And cemeteries that were built when Calgary had one-fifteenth of our current population sprawl.

If you ignore the environmental impact of this, it sort of works. That is, until one interest bumps up against the boundary of another, which is what happened in 2018 when the City considered annexing a dog walk to expand Queen’s Park cemetery. The cemetery sprawl met the dog sprawl, and suddenly it became a turf war between the living and the dead. The dogs won that time. But it won’t be the last fight.

“The City of Calgary has dropped the ball and they have done so for several decades,” says Michael Pierson, president of Pierson’s Funeral Service Ltd., a multi-generational funeral home in the southeast. “I mean, they’ve opened up 160 dog parks, they’ve paved tons and tons of land, but they can’t find some for cemetery space? Cemeteries are at least as important as dog parks and asphalt.” While some of Calgary’s dog-walkers would have a bone to pick with Pierson, it’s hard to deny his point. “I love all the cemeteries here! I just wish there were more,” laments Pierson.

But devoting more space to cemeteries won’t ultimately solve the problem. We will always need more space, because Calgarians keep dying. There is, however, a way to provide enough cemetery space for Calgarians without consuming dog parks. Whether we have the appetite for it is another question. “Potentially, each province in Canada will eventually follow the lead of Australia and many European countries and develop regulations and incentives for leased graves and some forms of grave reuse,” says Hearn. Reuse can involve removing the remains after the lease has expired, or deepening the grave and burying a new body on top of older remains. It’s a practical solution, but not one that’s being seriously considered in Calgary, perhaps because we’re so used to having abundant land. “Change in this area is incredibly slow to manifest,” says Hearn.

The City is not unaware of our cemetery space problem. “We’re using up land fairly quickly,” says Gary Daudlin, superintendent of cemeteries for the City of Calgary. “We’ve been considering this for the last several years as to what land becomes available. Because it comes down to making cemetery services affordable for the community.” And affordability matters, because death isn’t cheap. The simplest of cremations in Calgary can easily cost upwards of $1,000. Bury the remains, and your costs go up substantially. Choose a mausoleum interment (a more expensive choice, where caskets are stacked and sealed inside the walls of an above-ground structure) or a traditional burial complete with embalming, a fancy casket, vault and gravestone, and costs can top $30,000 or even $40,000 (and that’s before funeral or memorial service expenses are considered).

Considering the people who make up our community is also critical. “In the city of Calgary, we’re so multicultural,” Daudlin says. “Every one of those groups, whether it’s a religious group or a cultural group, have specific traditions.” In planning the Prairie Sky Cemetery, Daudlin consulted with Calgarians of many different cultural and religious backgrounds and walks of life, trying to find cemetery solutions that work for our diverse population. There will be columbarium niches (which hold cremation urns) and scattering gardens, green burial and traditional burial areas. For some cultural groups it’s important to be buried surrounded by other members of their community. Some want grave plots oriented on a north-south axis, others on an east-west axis. Caring for the afterlife of Calgary is no simple task. And it’s one that the City must grapple with, for the simple reason that the private sector, for the most part, isn’t technically allowed to do so.

The Alberta Cemeteries Act states that only municipalities and religious denominations and auxiliaries are allowed to open and operate new cemeteries. The restriction was likely added to the Act because Calgary and other municipalities in the province had, in the past, been saddled with the care of private cemeteries after their owners abandoned them. Municipalities and religious denominations tend to have a longer shelf life than private companies, which puts them in a better position to fulfill the promise of perpetual care. Several religious denominations have created their own cemeteries, including the Chevra Kadisha and Beth Tzedec Memorial Park operated by the Jewish community, and the Calgary Muslim Cemetery.

But real life is rarely as straightforward as legalese suggests, and there are, in fact, two private cemeteries in Calgary — Eden Brook and Mountain View — both owned by Arbor Memorial, a company that owns numerous cemeteries throughout Canada. They were grandfathered into the Act, and they continue to serve Calgarians in a strangely competition-free arena. This hasn’t gone unnoticed by other industry professionals. “The government has given them a monopoly on the private side of the cemetery business,” says Pierson. Were it not for the issue of perpetuity, allowing other private companies to enter the grave-tending business wouldn’t be so risky. But the stakes are high when we expect to spend eternity in well-maintained grave plots.

Eden Brook Cemetery is one of only two privately owned cemeteries in Calgary. Photography by Julya Hajnoczky.


Memorializing the Dead

An obvious question regarding the problem of cemetery space in Calgary is, with current cremation rates at more than 70 per cent and growing, do we even need more space? We aren’t required to bury ashes, after all — there are many other things you can do with them.

Consider the glass bird that sits on Karla Ramsay’s windowsill: delicate, yet strong, and streaked with green and blue. It’s more than a tchotchke, though, as it contains the cremated remains, or “cremains,” of Ramsay’s sister-in-law, Debbie. After Debbie died, her daughter gathered close friends and family members at an Okotoks glass-blowing studio to make the ornaments. The small amount of cremains that the artist swirled into each ornament shows white against the glass. “He was very respectful,” says Ramsay. She had never considered the idea before, but now she’s grateful that she went ahead with it. “It was quite a healing thing to have these made,” she says.

Cremains can be mixed into ink and used for tattoos, turned into coral reefs, added to fireworks, pressed into vinyl records and blasted into space. An Alabama company even offers to load cremains into shotgun shells, “a tribute to your outdoorsperson like no other!” Then there’s the memorial diamond industry, where cremains are turned into real diamonds using extreme pressure and heat. The options for memorializing the dead with cremains is seemingly endless.

There’s a flipside to it, though: pottery breaks, diamonds get lost, the scattering ground gets sold. “The favourite fishing hole may no longer be a fishing hole,” says Jeff Hagel of McInnis and Holloway Funeral Homes. “Things change.”

There is, of course, the option of simply keeping the cremains in an urn or some other vessel. But that has its own risks. Stories of cremains being stolen occasionally pop up in the news. Then there’s the question of what happens when an urn of cremains has been passed down for multiple generations. Are descendants ever allowed to get rid of it?

A cemetery keeps a record of the person who died and provides a safe place for their cremains. “As a funeral profession, we definitely try to educate families to speak to the permanence, the record-keeping, the place to visit, the place to grieve that cemeteries afford. As crazy as it sounds, those records are for eternity,” says Hagel.

But in an age when we KonMari our houses and store our memories on the cloud, do we really need physical records for eternity? It’s true that some mourners haven’t considered the implications of bypassing cemeteries, that mementos and scattering grounds don’t last forever, and the historical record moves on without the entry of their loved ones. But others have perhaps acknowledged a greater truth that cemeteries can’t shield us from: no matter how well preserved, our physical bodies won’t last forever, and our death won’t be mourned in perpetuity.

Okotoks Hot Glass Ashes in Glass memorials. Photograph courtesy of Okotoks Hot Glass.


What’s Next?

Extreme embalmings. Drive-thru funeral home viewings. Action-figure urns. It’s body disposition day in “Topics in Death and Dying,” Janet Arnold’s class at Mount Royal University. Some of the themes are humourous in a macabre sort of way, but they have a point: Arnold wants her students to think about what will happen to them after death. “The more we talk about death and dying, the better and healthier our society will be,” Arnold says.

As part of the course, the students plan their own funeral services and final dispositions. It’s the first time that some of them have ever considered their own demise, but the fact that they’re talking about it at all puts them ahead of most Calgarians. “Most people are not well informed about death-care options and don’t talk about death and disposition until they have to,” says Hearn.

And the sum of decisions made in the face of grief and immediate need does not generally produce great land management policy, or take into account the needs of future generations of Calgarians.

So cemeteries are important — it’s a recurring theme that runs through the conversations I have with funeral directors and city planners, priests and architects, anyone who works with the grieving and the dead. Physical places for grieving and remembrance matter, for most of us, at least. But cemeteries as they currently exist in Calgary are unsustainable. The math of finite land claimed in perpetuity by an infinitely growing population of the dead simply doesn’t compute.

There’s no doubt that changes to final disposition will come, whether in our lifetime or in the future. Body composting may cross the border and head north; interest in green burials is growing; the cremation trend is already inspiring an increasing focus on columbaria, which nibble rather than gulp land the way in-ground options do. Grave-leasing presents an obvious opportunity for providing mourners with a physical place to grieve without claiming land from future generations. But the ultimate change must occur in our expectations of what our final resting place will be. If our own choices don’t lead us there, necessity eventually will.

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This article appears in the October 2019 issue of Avenue Calgary.

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