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After strike kept this Montreal cemetery closed for months, families can finally bury their loved ones

Enza Lucifero’s father, Saverio, died on Jan. 14. He was 87.

She describes him as a highly spiritual man who wanted to be buried in the Notre-Dame-des-Neiges cemetery, on the slopes of Mount Royal, the symbolic centre of the city where he lived most of his life.

But it took eight months to lay him to rest there, a consequence of a drawn-out labour dispute between the cemetery’s employees and the non-profit that runs it.

On Tuesday, Enza and her family finally buried him. It was an emotional experience, she said, and one that reopened old wounds. 

“I’m happy for him,” Enza said of her father, “because finally he’s where he wanted to be and the sense of relief I feel is tremendous.”

Now that the labour dispute has — mostly — ended, families are laying their loved ones to rest at the cemetery again.

But there remains a backlog of bodies in storage that may not be put in the ground for months and the ceremony for Enza’s father was clouded by reminders that this was not a normal burial.

They had a strict schedule and, as they drove through the site to the plot where Saverio’s casket lay, they noticed towering shrubs, overgrown dead grass and branches strewn across the lawns. 

gravestones
Overgrown foliage and fallen branches surrounded gravestones at Notre-Dame-des-Neiges Cemetery in Montreal last month. Grounds crews are back on the job, but the job of cleaning up is taking time. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

The cemetery’s grounds staff are back on the job, but the mess that piled up during the strike, including the debris from a spring ice storm, will take months to clean, Enza figures. 

“The cemetery has lost its glory,” she said. “The grass is burned. It will take years for that grass to grow back and to be beautiful. There were no flowers anywhere.”

At the gravesite, a casket lay ready to be interred. Inside was Enza’s father. But the eight months that had passed since his death had disconnected her from the reality of his passing. It is a painful thing to lose a loved one, Enza said, and more painful still to have to grieve their passing twice. 

That was what she and her family, including her mother, Saverio’s wife, had to do, she said. 

The passing of time had also sowed some confusion for Enza. In January, the family picked out a casket for Saverio. Now, that same casket was in front of Enza, but was it really the same one? Was this her father? Or had some mistake been made? She couldn’t visualize him inside. 

The confusion, which was cleared up thanks to an identification tag, added to the strangeness of the affair. 

Tree branches block a path.
Some of the headstones at Notre-Dame-des-Neiges were damaged in a spring ice storm. (Valeria Cori-Manocchio/CBC)

A kindly priest brought dignity back to the proceedings, she said, and made her think how happy she was to finally have the stress of her father’s burial lifted from her shoulders. Now, she thought, he is finally at rest in the spot where he wanted to be, not far from Beaver Lake, where he brought her when she was a child. 

When the priest finished the ceremony and the casket was lowered into the ground, only one detail remained incomplete: the engraving for the date of death on her father’s tombstone. It can’t be done because such engravings are usually handled by the cemetery’s office staff and they are still striking. 

Some families, however, are still waiting for a time slot to bury their loved ones — and it may not come for months, such is the extent of the backlog. 

Michel St-Amour, a spokesperson for the cemetery and a board member for the Fabrique de la paroisse Notre-Dame, the non-profit that manages it, says the pace of burials will increase in the coming weeks as the employees clean up the grounds. 

Hopefully, he said, the backlog of 300 bodies still to be buried will be cleared by December. The cemetery is set to open to the public on Sept. 11 and by then, the grounds should be mostly cleaned up aside from some areas where damage is more extensive, St-Amour said.

“Our families were very patient,” he added, “they’re telling us they’re happy they’re being called back and some of them already have a date [for a burial].”

rodent among the tombstones.
Officials from Notre-Dame-des-Neiges cemetery say the backlog of burials should be cleared in three months or so. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

Jimmy Koliakoudakis, who buried his mother at the cemetery on Wednesday after a long wait, said the postponement was something no other family should have to go through.

“It should be an essential service,” he said. “When someone passes away the right thing to do is just proceed with the burial.”

Koliakoudakis said that, like Enza, he felt relief when he was finally able to bury his mother next to her husband, where she wanted to be. 

“Now they’re together eternally,” he said. “She’s at rest now, where she should be.”

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