After running out of room, 2 First Nations in Cape Breton are expanding their cemetery spaces

·2 min read
Dion Denny says the Eskasoni First Nation's graveyard outside Holy Family Parish is running out of room.  (Erin Pottie/CBC - image credit)
Dion Denny says the Eskasoni First Nation's graveyard outside Holy Family Parish is running out of room. (Erin Pottie/CBC - image credit)

At least two Cape Breton communities are running out of room in their cemeteries, but finding new space is not always easy.

Dion Denny chairs the committee for the Catholic Holy Family Parish, located in the centre of Eskasoni First Nation on  the shores of Bras d'Or Lake.

A cemetery next door to the church is bursting at the seams, with graves edging along the parking lot.

"We're really filling up fast," said Denny. "We've added to our graveyard already at the turn of the century."

Denny said the cemetery has been the site of community burials for more than 100 years. In 2000, it underwent expansion following the demolition of a former Indian day school.

Denny estimates that the Mi'kmaw community of 4,700 people is home to about 30 burials a year, sometimes 40.

He said the church looked at other properties outside of designated reserve lands, but not everyone in the community wanted a cemetery located elsewhere.

"That gave concern to a number of people, namely our elders," Denny said.

"People want to, with dignity, stay in the yard of the church. People are afraid to be moved."

Last week, with permission from the Sisters of St. Martha in Antigonish, Eskasoni razed a former convent that sat nearby.

Denny said the new space allows them to conduct burials for another six to 10 years, but wider discussions are needed about their land shortage.

"We are running out of room," he said. "And it's not just the graveyard, it's housing, it's economic development. Where are we going to put another school at? Where are we going to put another building at? We're trying to work with what we have, the best we can."

Edith Christmas is a religious education co-ordinator with St. Ann's Church in Membertou First Nation near Sydney.

She said only 40 to 50 spots are left for burials although construction is underway to expand the nearby church cemetery.

Currently there are 180 graves at Membertou Memorial Gardens including that of former chief Ben Christmas — who was the first person to be buried there in March 1966.

"[The new cemetery is] going to be much bigger than what we have," said Christmas. "So hopefully we'll be able to accommodate [burials] for the next 20, 30 years, even beyond."

Christmas said beyond just providing space for people who've passed on, the expansion allows for in-demand family burial sites.

"It's really needed," she said. "Now people are looking for family plots.

"When a family members has passed they try to get a section that would accommodate a husband, wife, maybe a few children ... so that's what we're running into now."

Christmas said she expects construction on the new cemetery space will be completed sometime next year.

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