The sound of Weed Wackers shattered the silence at the Notre-Dame-des-Neiges cemetery on Monday.
It was the first day the public had had access to the site after a simmering labour dispute kept it closed for months — and, during that time, nature had reclaimed it.
Grass grew taller than some of the gravestones, tree branches lay where they had fallen after a spring ice storm, and flowers wilted on tombs.
Grounds staff returned to work in July, but there was still much to do when the gates officially opened Monday — and families of those buried in the cemetery arrived ready to ensure their loved ones' graves were tidy.
Jimmy and Kaleroi Stratigopoulos stand near their family plot. Kaleroi liked to come once a week to visit her husband's grave and the reunion on Monday was emotional. (Matthew Lapierre/CBC)
"We knew it was going to be full of grass," Jimmy Stratigopoulos said as he wielded a pair of pruning shears at his father's grave.
Using the secateurs and a grass trimmer he'd brought, Stratigopoulos cleaned the plot and put down flowers as his mother, Kaleroi Stratigopoulos, stood close to the gravestone. Before the shutdown, she used to come weekly to sit at her husband's grave, a plot in the Greek section of the cemetery where she will one day be buried, too.
"She hasn't been here in over a year. None of us have," Stratigopoulos said. "It gives her peace to come here. This is the one thing that really keeps her going."
The families and loved ones who walked among the tombstones on Monday, many of them wielding gardening tools as well as flowers, spoke of the importance of cemeteries as a vital piece of public life, an innate part of the grieving process.
Grounds staff continued their cleanup of the cemetery, which is the largest in Canada, on Monday, Sept. 11, 2023. (Matthew Lapierre/CBC)
To be deprived of access to a loved one's grave for so long was, to many of them, intolerable, family members said with tears in their eyes. They said the reopening was like a reunion with lost loved ones — not just their graves.
"I love my parents," said Greg Trigonakis who wore gloves to clean the grave of his parents, Stavros and Maria.
"They helped me a lot in life. They did everything they could do for the family. We have a very close connection to our family members.
"People have to be able to access a cemetery."
The scent of freshly cut grass lingered between the gravestones as grounds workers trimmed the lawns and tossed branches into industrial wood chippers.
Gheorghe Miron prepares to plant flowers at his wife's grave. (Matthew Lapierre/CBC)
Gheorghe Miron removed a Christmas wreath from his wife's gravestone, a relic of the last visit he had made to the site in December 2022, before the cemetery staff went on strike.
His wife, Marioara, died in 2014 at 58 of brain cancer. It was hard, he said, for him and his sons to go so long without seeing her and to know that, during that time, her grave was not being tended to.
"Finally, now it's open so I brought flowers," he said, pointing to the red begonias that he was readying to plant before the tombstone. "I'm not very proud of how it looks."
Miron said he paid $11,000 for the burial plot and the gravestone. It's a purchase he now questions.
Alfred Lalonde, 94, brought a Weed Wacker when he came to visit his wife's grave. He, like many of the families who were locked out of the site for months, fostered a sense of bitterness and anger toward the cemetery and its staff.
Despite his age, Alfred Lalonde, 94, used a Weed Wacker to clean his wife's grave on Monday. (Matthew Lapierre/CBC)
"I've never heard of any other cemetery that was closed," he said. "It's ridiculous. It's a sin to do that."
Piles of dark earth stood next to rectangular holes in some areas of the cemetery. There are still at least 300 bodies in cold storage awaiting burial and a cemetery spokesperson said they hope to have them all in the ground by December.
Jimmy Koliakoudakis, who had pushed for the cemetery to reopen, wanted to be the first one through the door on Monday morning to visit his mother's grave. She was among those buried in recent weeks and the earth was fresh in front of her tombstone.
Jimmy Koliakoudakis looks at his mother's grave. She was buried in late August after her body lay for months in storage. (Matthew Lapierre/CBC)
In the wide expanse of the cemetery, amid the rows of gravestones beneath towering willows, maples and oaks starting to show the first hints of fall colours, Koliakoudakis saw a reunion between the living and the dead.
"I look around me today and I see a lot of family members who are coming to see their loved ones that they were restricted from seeing for many months," Koliakoudakis said.
"I am at peace because one step of the grieving process is done."