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Notre-Dame-des-Neiges Cemetery reopens to visitors, burials resume

Click to play video: 'Families relieved as Notre-Dame-des-Neiges cemetery reopens to visitors'
Families relieved as Notre-Dame-des-Neiges cemetery reopens to visitors
WATCH: After being closed for close to one year, Montreal's Notre-Dame-des-Neiges cemetery reopened on Monday. Families were finally allowed in to visit and bury their loved ones. But the labour strife facing the cemetery still isn't over. Global's Amanda Jelowicki reports. – Sep 11, 2023

Constantine Stratigopoulos’s mother cries as she hugs her husband’s gravestone. He died eight years ago, and normally the 89-year-old visited him weekly at Montreal’s Notre-des-Neiges cemetery.

But the family was prevented from visiting after the cemetery closed its doors in mid-January, with the exception of a few days in late March and early April.

“For my mother it was emotional. For me and my brother as well. We wanted to see my dad,” Stratigopoulos said.

Click to play video: 'Canada’s biggest cemetery has been closed for 5 months. Families are now calling on the province to intervene'
Canada’s biggest cemetery has been closed for 5 months. Families are now calling on the province to intervene

But the family’s pain isn’t over. Stratigopoulos’s uncle died last year, and they are still waiting to bury him.

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“They kept everyone hostage. A lot of bodies are still not buried, which is not fair,” he said.

For the first time since January, full funerals with burials can proceed at one of Canada’s largest cemeteries. While burials restarted two weeks ago, the doors to the public for visiting opened officially Monday morning.

“It’s very sad, and I want to thank them for their patience and their understanding. It’s been a tough time and a difficult time,” said Michel St-Amour, an administrator at La Fabrique de la Paroise Notre-Dame-de-Montreal.

Click to play video: 'Grieving families relieved to see workers at Canada’s largest cemetery back on site after strike'
Grieving families relieved to see workers at Canada’s largest cemetery back on site after strike

The cemetery faced several hurdles that led to its closure and the stoppage of funerals with burials. A bitter labour dispute with its blue-collar workers shut down operations in January. And then a major ice storm pummelled Montreal in April, causing damage to 75 per cent of the cemetery’s trees. With no staff to clean the damage, the cemetery which had briefly reopened, closed its doors to visitors.

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The workers’ union struck a deal with management in July and they returned to work soon after. It took them the rest of the summer to clean up the damage from the felled trees and broken branches. The area was cleaned up enough two weeks ago that funerals with burials started up again.

“We could not reopen until we cleaned up and secured the areas,” St-Amour said.

St-Amour said the cemetery has a backlog of about 300 bodies because of the closure. He said they can do about 50 burials a week, and hope the backlog will be cleared by December.

“They are seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. Right now they are picking a date where they can be together for the burial and they are happy now.”

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The cemetery still has a labour problem to deal with, though. Its 17 white-collar workers have been on strike since Sept. 20 of last year. St-Amour says management is filling in and doing their jobs, taking on extra work to get funerals proceeding.

“Our office employees, we would like to have them back, of course. For now, we are negotiating,” St-Amour said. “Basically we are doing the job of serving our families right now. There are no services we can’t offer. It’s sad our people are still out there. We are still negotiating. We are very hopeful we can come to an agreement.”

The union says it is determined to keep fighting for a better deal, despite having been on the picket line for one year.

“They need us. They need someone between the grave and the cemetery. They need us; we are a small group,” union president Eric Dufault said. “It’s a delicate service here and there is only one chance you have to help the family, to help someone who lost someone. You need a human like us.”

 

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