Paul Wilson: Coming soon – Case of the botched cremation

Professionals in the cemetery and funeral-home industries are headed to Hamilton from across the province to celebrate. Their association was born right here in 1913. It's not just tall men with dark suits and beady eyes anymore.

Antique hearses, death tour, mock trial of cremation gone wrong – Hamilton convention like no other

Crystabelle Fobler is the City of Hamilton’s superintendent of cemeteries. When people find out what she does for a living, she says, “they pull back. Then they say, ‘How can you work there?’”

She knows the picture people have of staff at a cemetery or funeral home. “They see a tall man, dark clothing, beady eyes,” she says. Dour, grasping, itching to get you into the damp ground.

That doesn’t describe superintendent Fobler very well at all. She’s wearing pink with that black, she’s lively and she even has a sense of humour.

Crystabelle Fobler, Hamilton's superintendent of cemeteries, stands in Hamilton Cemetery – home to more than 100,000 souls, and some buzzards too. (Paul Wilson/CBC)

“I’m proud of what I do,” she says. Especially now. She’s about to welcome colleagues from across the province for the centennial celebration of the Ontario Association of Cemetery and Funeral Professionals.

She brought a panel of delegates in a few years ago to sell them on the city. “The comments about downtown were unbelievable,” she says. “The people couldn’t get over our beautiful old buildings.” (And there’s the handsome stone gatehouse at the cemetery itself, built in the 1850s.)

Started here 100 years ago

The industry is meeting here, October 1 to 3, because this is where it met for that first meeting in 1913. The conference was last in Hamilton 17 years ago.

There will be 300 attending, and the itinerary is like no other. These professionals know much about death, but will know even more by the time they leave town.

After the opening ceremonies, they’ll get a tour of Hamilton Cemetery with “Stories in the Stones” guide Robin McKee. They’ll be hiking about in the oldest municipally owned and operated cemetery in Canada. It’s a hundred acres, home to more than 100,000 souls.

These tweedy gentlemen met in Hamilton in 1913 for the first meeting of the Ontario Association of Cemetery and Funeral Home Professionals. (City of Hamilton)

“And quite a lot of wildlife,” Fobler says. “Coyotes, deer and, unfortunately, buzzards.”

The guests will learn that this pretty place, a garden style of cemetery in the European tradition, is home to nearly three dozen Hamilton mayors. They will walk down Millionaires’ Row. They’ll hear about the Desjardins Canal Rail Disaster – unfortunately someone stole the brass locomotive that crowned the monument to its 59 victims.

Then it’s across the street to Dundurn Castle for the Death and Dying Tour. Both MacNabs, Sir Allan and wife Mary, died in the mansion. There were hangings near here for treason, and death from cholera. No details will be spared.

Antique hearses

And during a break, the industry guests will be able to ogle antique hearses trucked in for the centennial.

There will be a trade show for delegates at the Hamilton Convention Centre. Exhibitors include casket manufacturers, monument makers, landscape equipment dealers with machines designed to manoeuvre around headstones. 

There will be a Hollywood-themed gala at the Sheraton, with entertainment by Lorraine Lawson, “Canada’s Mariah Carrey.” (If delegates want to see a movie, The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones might still be on local screens. They filmed in Hamilton Cemetery.)

The gatehouse at Hamilton Cemetery opened in the 1850s, and was originally both a chapel and caretaker's residence. (Paul Wilson/CBC)

And here’s an event not found on every conference program – “The Case of the Botched Cremation.” 

It’s described this way: “The wrong body has been cremated and everyone involved is a suspect – the cemetery, the funeral home and the crematorium. Join us for a mock trial in which people from outside the profession will sit as jurors to hear the case.”

Rex Murphy, CBC editorialist and curmudgeon, he of the Newfoundland twang, will address the cemetery and funeral-home people. Lord only knows what he’ll come up with for this crowd. 

Advice from Dragons' Den

And Bruce Croxon, newest investor on CBC’s Dragons’ Den will speak. He’s the guy who co-founded online dating service Lavalife and led the sale of the company for $180 million. He’s going to talk about “the importance of redefining a brand through marketing – that no matter what the challenges are, businesses can reinvent themselves and thrive.”

Yes, the bereavement business is changing. Fobler, with the city 30 years, moved over to cemeteries in the mid Nineties. At that time, she says, about 17 per cent chose cremation. Now it’s up to nearly 50 per cent. 

“And green burials are a big thing now,” she says. “People want to leave a smaller footprint.” No embalming, biodegradable casket, and sometimes no monument – perhaps just a stone.

There's a Millionaires' Row at Hamilton Cemetery. In the foreground, the Watkins vault, with the Sanford family up on the rise. (Paul Wilson/CBC)

Fobler, who volunteers at the Bob Kemp Hospice in her spare time, says friends tell her the cemetery work has changed her. She believes they’re right. “In this business, you learn how quickly it all can end. You learn to be in the moment.”

When her day does come, it will be cremation. She once saw a piece of art she likes, a tree made of bronze with room to place the ashes in its trunk. 

Of one thing, she is sure. Her remains are not going in the ground. “I’m deathly afraid of worms.”  | @PaulWilsonCBC

Read more CBC Hamilton stories by Paul Wilson here.


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