Montreal

Notre-Dame-des-Neiges cemetery's limited opening hours infuriates mourning families

The cemetery has been closed on Sundays and through holiday weekends, leaving people to mourn outside the gates. People looking to pay their respects to lost loved ones are getting increasingly frustrated with the lack of access.

Cemetery's management has cited financial troubles as reason for closing on Sundays

The front gates are open from to 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Monday through Saturday, and people are threatened with fines if they enter the property outside of those hours. (CBC)

Last year on Mother's Day, Darragh Kilkenny-Mondoux was escorted out of the Notre-Dame-des-Neiges cemetery by security along with her father and sister.

The front gate was closed, but they had found a way in through a gap in the fence. Confronted by security, they were told they could be hit with a substantial fine if they were ever caught inside the cemetery again outside of opening hours.

Kilkenny-Mondoux was just trying to visit her mother's grave, but the cemetery's management has been scaling back opening hours — keeping her and her grieving family away.

Staffing shortage claims are hard to believe when there are personnel on site "whose job it is to tell us they don't have enough staff to let us walk in to visit our mom," Kilkenny-Mondoux said.

"And that just feels absurd and cruel and backwards."

Notre-Dame-des-Neiges cemetery's management says financial struggles have led to the limited opening hours. (CBC)

She is among those with loved ones buried at the Notre-Dame-des-Neiges cemetery, perched on Mount Royal in the heart of the city, who say they're furious with the limited access.

Since the pandemic, the cemetery has been closed on Sundays and through holiday weekends, and otherwise maintains opening hours of 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday.

It had said it would start to reopen on Sundays once Montreal was classified as a green zone in Quebec's public health colour coded system. But that happened months ago, and the gates are still locked.

Outside of those hours, people are forced to mourn outside of the gates — even those who are dealing with a very recent, painful loss. 

Michael Musacchio and Antoinette Romano lost their 26-year-old daughter Vanessa two months ago.

"Losing a child, nobody should go through this," said Musacchio. 

"This is something that we will never recover from. Coming here gives us a bit of comfort. Knowing that I wake up Sunday morning and I can't come, what do I have to do, hop the fence? I will."

Musacchio and others have complained to cemetery management about Sundays. And they complained after the cemetery was closed for the entire Labour Day long weekend.

Visiting hours too limited, visitors say

Those who paid to have their loved ones buried in the cemetery say Sundays and holidays are when people actually have time to visit.

Cemetery management has declined to comment on the issue, but people are told there are staffing concerns, and  a need to sanitize the site due to COVID-19.

"What are you sanitizing outside? I could walk to my daughter's grave without touching anything. There's nothing to sanitize," Musacchio said.

Peggy Babalis, so frustrated by the state of the landscaping, has mowed the grass herself at the Notre-Dame-des-Neiges cemetery. (CBC)

Patrick Chartrand, an employee and union representative, said "it's a lie. It's all about economics and just to save two salaries, you know, because we sanitize the site during weekdays, not on Sundays. That's a lie."

He said putting the available staff to work on the weekends would mean overtime pay and that's likely what's stopping management from keeping the place open.

"If we're asked, I know there's a bunch of guys who would be happy to come and work," said Chartrand.

Management faces financial struggles

The Catholic non-profit that runs the cemetery revealed in June that an audit revealed some $100 million in losses since 2008.

This came amid a conflict with its workers, after a couple of dozen positions had been cut. Nowadays the gates are closed more often, and visitors say the cemetery is poorly maintained.

"We come up with a lawnmower, believe it or not, to make a path to visit a loved one," said Peggy Babalis.

Babalis says it makes no sense that the cemetery is losing money as it is opening new sections, burying more people.

"We have brought up the fact that Mount Royal cemetery next door is in pristine condition. They're always open, never closed," she said.

Chartrand admits the place is in bad shape. Most of the staffing cuts, he explained, have been in landscaping, leading to unkept grounds.

"I've never seen the site look as bad, you know, it's crazy," he said. "We should be the standard."

With files from Alex Leduc

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