“Signs, signs, everywhere a sign. Blocking out the scenery breaking my mind. Do this, don’t do that, can’t you read the sign?”
These lyrics in the popular 1970s song Signs by Canadian group Five Man Electrical Band make Comox Valley resident Les Hargrave think of the Courtenay Civic Cemetery.
Hargrave buried his parents’ cremated remains in the cemetery in 2004, and since then he’s seen more rules and restrictions implemented.
“There weren’t all these rules,” Hargrave said of when he buried his parents’ remains. “There weren’t all these signs. There’s more and more restrictions.”
A selection of rules on a large sign at the cemetery are: Wreaths and floral arrangements are allowed for one week after a burial; fresh-cut flowers are allowed throughout the year but only in City-issued in-ground vases; one potted plant not exceeding six inches in diameter is allowed for one week at Easter, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Remembrance Day and Christmas; and artificial flowers or plastic wreaths are allowed from Nov. 1 to Mar. 31.
The sign also states: “For the safety of the public, grounds maintenance crews, as well as the appearance of the cemetery, the following items are not permitted in the cemetery: personal mementos, photos, decorative vases, candles, landscape rock, borders, fencing, plant hooks, solar lights, plants and plantings. Unauthorized items placed at gravesites will be removed without notice, and placed in the general pick up area.”
Hargrave and his wife Sue said the numerous rules at the cemetery make it feel dehumanized and impersonal.
“It’s not for the people; it’s for the ease and convenience of maintenance, that’s what it’s laid out for,” said Sue. “There’s a compromise somewhere — they’ve got to be able to maintain it, not in a costly way, but it also has to work for the families that have got people buried here.”
Courtenay director of legislative services John Ward pointed out the general rules have always been there, but over the years they were tightened — and approved by Courtenay council each time — to clean up the cemetery. He noted the rule regarding mementos was changed for a couple of reasons.
“Some people didn’t like seeing all the clutter, you know, we had everything from shepherds’ hooks, to Christmas trees to, you name it — some fairly large structures and a lot of people had concerns about that,” said Ward, adding the rule is also in place to ensure safety during maintenance.
“There were safety issues with the equipment, basically grass-cutting equipment, so if the grass cutters hit some objects they are prone to fly through the air, so they could be projectiles.”
Ward added maintenance is also the reason upright headstones are not permitted — except for a special area of the cemetery since about a year ago.
“We had quite a few requests for that, upright monuments, that’s why we did that,” he said, adding he doesn’t believe any are there yet because the change is fairly new. “You can’t have one in the rest of the cemetery and that’s the maintenance issue. They need to be flat so the mowers can go right over top.”
The Hargraves said driving over graves to cut the grass seems disrespectful.
Mary Burke, whose son was buried there in 1992, said the same.
“All they want to do it sit on a ride-on mower and drive around and do the bare minimum,” said Burke. “It’s a mark of disrespect.”
Also, she and the Hargraves have struggled to find the grave markers when it’s snowed.
Les and Sue said a cemetery should be a place of historical significance; a reflection of the value that a community places on the lives of people who lived, died and contributed to that community; and a place for families and friends to quietly contemplate and reflect on their love for the deceased in ways meaningful to them, including flowers, mementos and photographs.
The Hargraves pointed out other cemeteries they’ve been to give more of a sense of community history.
“You go in the graveyards — and even though they’re a little bit unkempt, and sometimes the headstones are falling over — and you walk around and you go like, ‘Wow look at this one, 1850,’ whatever it is,” said Les.
Les suggested a citizen’s committee could be set up to provide input on the future layout of the cemetery, and how it’s maintained.
Ward said that would be a decision for Courtenay council, like the changes to the rules over the years, and he thought people were happy with the direction the City is taking with the cemetery.
“We’re staying that course and we’re very satisfied with the condition of the cemetery and most of the comments we get, in fact, all of the comments we get, that I’ve heard, have been positive,” he said. “They like the appearance of the cemetery.”