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Grave crisis: Metro cemeteries running out of real estate

Property squeeze driving up price, reducing availability of burial space at B.C. cemeteries
The City of Vancouver’s Mountain View Cemetery. Some urban cemeteries are closing the roads within their grounds to free up potential burial space as available land for burials in urban areas becomes increasingly scarce | Photo: Rob Kruyt

Fallout from B.C.’s housing supply and demand crunch is spilling over into the Lower Mainland cemetery business. 

As the region’s population continues to grow and available land becomes increasingly scarce, cemeteries are grappling with a looming burial space crisis that is being exacerbated by land-use restrictions and property price increases. 

“It’s certainly a situation where we’ve got shrinking supply and, for better or worse, increasing demand,” said Brant How, senior adviser with Cemetery BC. “As our population is aging, more and more people are dealing with end-of-life decisions, and so there is growing demand for cemetery space.” 

According to How, 85 per cent of British Columbians opt for cremation. 

That preference has helped stave off the crisis for space, said Erik Lees, owner of Lees + Associates, a leading cemetery planning firm with an office in Vancouver. 

“Politicians still do not want to talk about or even think about cemetery space. Planners are not taught about the importance of cemetery space, and it doesn’t really enter into their realm of planning nearly as much as it should,” Lees said. 

“The growing population and the changing demographics of our population is exacerbating the issue. Because we are so much more of a diverse society, we now have Canadian communities that do not allow cremation.” 

He pointed out that Muslim, Jewish and Indigenous communities will often opt for traditional burial practices. 

As B.C. looks to accommodate more communities, considerations need to be made for how that will affect the available land in cemeteries. 

In a statement to BIV, the City of Vancouver said it is not looking to expand the land available in Vancouver’s only cemetery. 

It noted that the 100-year master plan for the city’s Mountain View Cemetery recognizes that “casket burial space is limited and will likely cease to exist within the next two decades under current provincial legislation. The master plan does project capacity for interment of cremated remains for the remainder of this century.” 

Lees said land costs and land-use restrictions are major stumbling blocks to cemetery expansion. 

“It usually crosses over into B.C. Agricultural Land Reserve areas. And although there are a variety of uses of agricultural land reserves that are not technically agricultural, like golf courses, it’s a real limitation to the kind of land that is available for cemetery purposes.” 

When it comes to buying and selling burial plots, How said there are primary and secondary markets. 

The primary market refers to publicly and privately owned cemeteries selling plots directly to buyers. Prices will vary based on plot location and cemetery rates. The secondary market comes into play when an owner at a privately owned cemetery wants to resell a plot to a third party. 

How acts as a real estate agent of sorts by connecting prospective buyers with available burial plots in their preferred area. 

He said that over the last 25 years, prices have increased by as much as 30 times, though there are variations based on location. 

A quick scroll through Craigslist or Kijiji shows a wealth of options for plots in cemeteries across the Lower Mainland. How said that the two sites are the primary online venue for burial plot listings and are usually offered at a discounted price. 

“Ocean View in Burnaby, as an example, is probably the most expensive cemetery in Canada,” How said. “The starting price for a burial plot there is now more than $70,000. That’s the extreme example because it is the premium price in the marketplace, but it’s for roughly 30 square feet of land. On a square footage basis, it’s some of the most expensive real estate in the country.” 

Current initiatives to offset the loss of burial space include closing roads within cemeteries to create more burial plots. 

On Sept. 28, Aldergrove opened what is the Lower Mainland’s first large cemetery in more than 60 years. It will serve the Fraser Valley and Metro Vancouver regions. 

“The cemetery land use i s relegated to the bottom of a pile when it comes to potential development,” said Lees. “Of course, we have to make room for roads and parks and houses and other land use, but we are very quickly running out of space to inter our friends and family.” ■