All About Estates

Death of the Cemetery Business?

The cemetery business is changing vastly in Canada. In his Globe and Mail article on May 29, 2014 “The battle for your bones: Death goes corporate in Canada”, Charles Wilkins discusses the business of burial including the shortage of land in urban areas and the burden of perpetuity in the shadow of an aging Canadian population.

Urban cemeteries are already full or are filling up while zoning bylaws increasingly prevent cemeteries from acquiring new land, such that families will soon need to look beyond the suburbs for a traditional land burial according to Wilkins. Even if cemeteries find available land to expand onto, municipalities are reluctant because cemeteries are not attractive land uses as they pay no land taxes and often lack the capital to compete with wealthy property developers for residential, commercial or industrial land. Cemeteries are also limited by other land-use regulations and environmental protection of natural spaces.

In addition to the issue of space, there is also the perpetuity problem. Included in the burial contract is the agreement for the cemetery to maintain the gravesite forever. Wilkins discusses the various trust laws jurisdictions have in place (i.e. in Ontario 60% of the purchase price is placed into the maintenance trust) and how even then the income of the million dollar trusts are not actually meeting the expenses. This growing problem is leading to speculation about the future of burials and perhaps limiting the time frame (term burials) or, as many cemeteries are doing now, restricting the placement of flowers and the types of monuments allowed. When asked what he imagines the business might look like in 50 years, Gary Carmichael, the vice-present of Arbor Memorial, speculates about freeze-dried bodies that will disintegrate like angel dust for disposal, bodies dissolved in solvent for disposal, and cyberspace, a realm in which internet memorials might supplant granite and gardens.

No doubt there are struggles for cemeteries to keep up. Hundreds in rural areas have been maintained by volunteers who are also aging. Rural undertaker Jeff Glendinning has urged churches to raise their fees and to put more away for maintenance but churches are also struggling with their collections. Additionally, there is more demand anticipated current law which requires all Canadian cemeteries to provide basic gravesites and burials to those who cannot pay for them.

Cremation is increasingly weighing down on the potential sales boom for a traditional burial. Cremation was chosen by Canadians 3.3% of the time in 1962, 26% in 1986 and now cemetery analysts anticipate between 70-85% by 2015. Cremation is not as profitable as a traditional burial, though most cemeteries are offering cremation plots, the rights to bury urns above existing remains, and stone enclosures or walls in which cremation urns can be entombed in glass-fronted or tone sealed pigeon holes. Further, opportunism has led to showier options for disposal, including spreading your loved one’s ashes in outer space or along the Jesus Trail in Israel.

Many cemeteries are also staying in business by adding lavish reception and visitation centres to their properties, which are basically funeral homes and most of major corporations have become vertically integrated, owning as many or more funeral homes as cemeteries.

Lesson Learned: The cemetery business is being reshaped for the future – maybe it’s time to reconsider the traditional burial plot.

Until next time,

Jasmine Sweatman

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