Jack Knox: For sale for a mere $40,000, two plots with view

Jack Knox mugshot genericIt’s rare for prime Victoria real estate like this to go on the market.

Neatly landscaped property, bordered by conifers and oaks. A stunning view of Juan de Fuca Strait. Easy access to the beach, just a few steps across Dallas Road. Quiet neighbours.

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All this for a mere $40,000.

Only one wrinkle: you have to be dead.

Yes, the ad on the Internet is for a pair of side-by-side cremation plots.

Holy smokes! Is that what it costs to get permanently planted these days?

Well, no, not really, though it does open the door (or lid) on the private trade in unused burial sites and, more broadly, the land crunch hitting big-city cemeteries around the world.

It turns out graveyards are subject to the same pressures as the rest of the real estate world. It’s a question of supply and demand. And, of course: location, location, location.

I couldn’t unearth (as it were) the seller of the cremation plots, but whoever it was had both angles covered at Ross Bay. Everybody is dying to get in, but there’s no room. (Even when Royal Oak Burial Park opened in 1923, some people wanted relatives’ remains exhumed from Ross Bay and reburied in the new cemetery so that they could make space for themselves in the older, more prestigious burial ground.)

Today, just seven plots remain unspoken for in Ross Bay, and the city won’t let you buy one until you have a loved one who just died. That means if you want to stake out a final resting place among the Who’s Who of colonial Victoria in advance, you’ll have to buy it from someone who already owns a vacant plot. Hence the $40,000 asking price.

There’s nothing like that in other Victoria-area cemeteries, though. In fact, privately held plots generally go for less than the cemetery itself would charge. Royal Oak will buy them back, but for no more than half the current purchase price of a similar plot.

A scan of the classifieds shows a handful of Hatley Memorial Gardens plots for sale. One ad asks for $2,000 for a plot big enough for a full-size casket and two urns. Another offers four spots for $1,800 a piece, or all four for $6,000.

If the idea of selling unused cemetery spaces seems a little odd, remember that we operate a bit differently from other parts of the world. In much of Europe, for example, your final resting place is not necessarily final. Graves are effectively rented. If, after a couple of decades, somebody doesn’t step up to renew the lease the deceased is either buried deeper or moved.

That’s not the case in B.C., where the law says once you pay for the plot, it’s yours. You don’t buy the land — you can’t, say, plant a garden while waiting — but you do purchase interment rights in perpetuity. Therefore, unused plots get passed down to heirs just like any other asset.

Sometimes those heirs don’t want them. The new owners might live in a different town, say, or decide they would rather have their ashes scattered at sea. That’s when, says Hatley Memorial’s manager David Wong, they’ll ask the Colwood cemetery what the plots are worth. Typically, the vendor will then advertise them for less than Hatley Memorial charges.

That vendors-are-motivated discount reflects another reason to be happy about living (or dying) in Greater Victoria: We do not face the imminent shortage of burial space found elsewhere.

The squeeze is felt most often in big cities. Planners warn that the Toronto area will be out of space in a few years. In 2017, Vancouver’s Mountain View Cemetery contained the remains of 145,000 people but had only a few hundred spaces left.

The New York Times reported in March that prices have soared recently in the Big Apple, where an increasingly rare resting place in Manhattan can fetch $1 million US. In April, Britain’s Guardian said it can cost more per square foot to house the dead than the living in Hong Kong, where a niche for an urn in a private columbarium can fetch $300,000 Cdn.

Around the world, land shortages are forcing creative alternatives. Skyscraper cemeteries are becoming common, including a 32-storey tower in Brazil. Tunnels now stretch more than a kilometre beneath Jerusalem’s main cemetery, adding another 22,000 spaces for the city’s dead.

In 2014, after a Chinese local authority announced it would ban burials in favour of cremations, six elderly people reportedly killed themselves to beat the no-burial deadline.

Not here, even though most of the two dozen burial grounds listed by the Old Cemeteries Society of Victoria aren’t taking new customers. The sites range from the God’s Acre military cemetery by the 12th hole at Gorge Vale to small churchside spots such as the old Shady Creek Cemetery in Saanichton (which still has a few cremation-burial spots left) and an all-but-forgotten graveyard on the grounds of William Head prison. (The latter predates the penitentiary; most of the 49 people interred there were Chinese men who died while under quarantine en route to working as labourers in France in the First World War.)

Almost all Greater Victoria interments are handled by two cemeteries: Royal Oak Burial Park, which is jointly owned by the municipalities of Saanich and Victoria, and Hatley Memorial Gardens. The latter is one of more than 40 cemeteries across Canada — including Nanaimo’s Cedar Valley — owned by Arbor, a family-owned company that also has the Sands funeral homes on Vancouver Island.

Neither Hatley Memorial nor Royal Oak is worried about running out of room, at least not imminently.

“We’re not looking at closing our burial plots any time soon,” Wong says. Tens of thousands might be buried at the Colwood cemetery, but the 53-acre site has plenty of space left.

A similar story is told at Royal Oak, where the 2017 annual report showed 72,000 people buried in its 78 developed acres. While just 2,600 in-ground plots, columbaria niches and mausoleum spaces remained in that space — enough to last only another seven years — the burial park has another 32 acres designated for future development.

That’s enough to meet several decades worth of demand, says executive director Crystabelle Fobler. “If we manage properly … we should be good.”

At Royal Oak, a traditional four-by-nine-foot burial plot goes for between $3,000 and $23,000, depending on the view and whether the deceased are buried one or two deep. An in-ground cremation burial is $1,000 to $5,000. A spot in a columbarium niche is $1,900 to $5,000.

Helping ease the land crunch is the popularity (if that’s the word) of cremation in Victoria, where by some estimates more than 90 per cent of us are disposed of that way. It takes less space to inter an urn in a columbarium or mausoleum than it does to bury a casket. Why is cremation so common here? Fobler wonders if it has to do with the more transient nature of the West Coast’s population.

Also increasingly popular are green burials, in which remains are buried in what becomes a parklike setting. “Anywhere you see a tree, there’s a burial,” says Fobler while standing in phase one of Royal Oak’s green burial area.

Phase two, where the urns are buried two deep, is sold out, so phase three is being opened. There are no individual grave markers; instead the names of all those buried in a certain area are engraved on a boulder.

(Green burials aren’t the only innovation. Royal Oak has also brought in beehives, with the aim of producing honey named Rest In Bees. For real.)

However you plan to be laid to rest, it’s best to get in (to the market, that is) early, professionals say. Up to 60 per cent of the spots at Hatley Memorial Gardens are sold in advance, often out of consideration for those left behind. “It’s easier, kinder and more economical to have those decisions made today,” Wong says.

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