Families unable to bury dead as strike at Montreal cemetery continues

Cemetery workers say striking was a last resort. Meanwhile, bodies are piling up in cold storage and families of the deceased say they are in anguish.

'We're in limbo,' says grieving niece

A woman sits with a picture.
Konstantina Ipsilandis says she was told she would have to wait six to eight months to bury her mother. (Jennifer Yoon/CBC)

Dressed in mourner's black, Konstantina Ipsilandis holds her parents' portrait in her hands. She describes her mother as a strong and humble woman who called Montreal home for 60 years.

Before her mother died on Sunday, she had planned every detail of her move to her "next home" in Montreal's Notre-Dame-des-Neiges cemetery in advance.

She wanted to be buried next to her loved ones there. She had paid for the plot of land, the tombstone and even the digging. But when Ipsilandis went to the funeral home yesterday she was shocked to hear that she would not be able to bury her for months.

The Ipsilandis family is not alone.

Due to a strike by maintenance and office workers at Notre-Dame-des-Neiges cemetery, some families are seeing their loved ones put in cold storage until the labour dispute is settled.

After the funeral on Thursday, Ipsilandis's mother will be placed at a still undetermined location until the cemetery can do the burial.

"They told us in about six to eight months she's going to get buried," said Ipsilandis. "It's really ridiculous."

"We're in limbo," says Kathy Koutroubis, the deceased's niece. "We need closure and it's extremely cruel. We should be embarrassed as a city."

A man stands in front of a cabinet.
Stefanos Svourenos says families are at a point where they want to take shovels and bury their loved ones themselves. (Jennifer Yoon/CBC)

Stefanos Svourenos is a funeral director and a consultant at the Aeterna funeral home. He says the funeral home has 10 bodies in casks in storage, including one person whose family experienced similar burial delays in 2007.

Svourenos says the situation is taking a toll on the families who just want to mourn in peace and some are at the point of wanting to dig the grave plots themselves to bury their loved ones.

"All families are trying to bury their loved ones. It's a roller-coaster ride right now. It's emotional torture," he said.

Delayed burials are disrupting services for religious communities, including the Greek Orthodox community.

"We have a tradition that we do the burial before the ninth day and then we do the other prayer on the 40th day. So all of this is out the window," said Svourenos.

"They say that the soul in the Greek Orthodox religion is not at rest until the body is buried."

People stand in front of the gates of a cemetary.
Workers picket in front of Notre-Dame-des-Neiges Cemetery. (Jennifer Yoon/CBC)

Svourenos says funeral homes have their hands tied until the situation is resolved. He wants the government will step in.

In a statement, the Quebec's Ministry of Health said it would not comment on bodies sitting in cold storage while negotiations between the union and employers are ongoing. It hopes the two sides quickly reach an agreement for the sake of the families, the ministry said.

Daniel Granger, spokesperson for the cemetery, puts the number of bodies waiting in storage at just over 100. 

According to Granger, the union has refused to put aside its demands and bury the bodies. The courts have ruled that burials are not an essential service.

Patrick Chartrand, president of the union representing maintenance workers at the cemetery, says maintenance workers have been on strike since January and office workers since September 2022. He says management has had a take-it-or-leave-it approach to negotiations.

The strike was a last resort after salary freezes and cuts to job security, staff and benefits, said Chartrand.

"We knew going on strike would affect some services provided to the families, but we really tried to avoid going on strike. We've been negotiating for the past five years, so we tried everything to avoid this situation," he said.

"We feel that the cemetery should be open even though we're on strike. It's the management's decision to close the gates, not ours."

Old troubles resurface

This is not the first time the cemetery — the largest in Canada — has been involved in a labour dispute resulting in burial backlogs.

Facing $100-million in losses in the summer of 2021, the cemetery's management cut over two dozen jobs.

Employees negotiating with the cemetery at the time told CBC there wasn't enough staff to properly tend grave plots and the property, leading to unkempt grass and bones dug up by groundhogs splayed across the grounds.

During labour disputes in 2007, as many as 500 bodies were left in cold storage when maintenance employees were locked out.


Joe Bongiorno is an award-winning author, former high school teacher, and a journalist at the CBC. He has also reported for Maisonneuve, Canada’s National Observer, Ricochet Media, The Rover and others.

With files from Jennifer Yoon, Chloë Ranaldi and the Canadian Press.


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