Community Planning

A Place to Simply Be – Catherine Berris on the Growth and Importance of Cemetery Design

Mountain View Cemetery Gathering Area Rendering by Gustavo Manzano

People across the globe will be quick to acknowledge a strong connection to cemeteries. Whether through memories as a child of “hold your breath” as you passed one, to wandering through ancient cemeteries in distant places and taking in the cultural significance, or through more personal connections, honouring family and friends who have come and gone, these spaces hold meaning. Catherine Berris, a Community Planner and Landscape Architect, takes this to heart in her work.

Catherine Berris – Community planner and Landscape Architect

Berris has always had a fondness for cemeteries, with memories of wandering them as a teenager and during her travels. “I’m really passionate about cemeteries because I believe they are very important places,” she emphasizes. That passion crossed over into professional work thanks to a connection with Cornelia Oberlander, who gave Berris the opportunity to take on a cemetery project soon after starting her own firm in the late 1980s. The work spurred a love for designing cemeteries that has carried on throughout her career and into her consulting services at Urban Systems.

“It’s a very competitive market,” Berris identifies. “It’s not that there are a lot of people doing it, but that there are a very few people doing a lot of them.” She explains that at the beginning, it was hard to compete as someone with only a few projects under her belt. Once Berris joined Urban Systems in the Vancouver branch, she quickly put the word out that cemetery planning and design is something she and her team could do. She recognizes that cemetery planning is a valuable facet of contributing to communities. It is also a growing need as mortality rates are increasing with a larger and older population.

“I always say a good cemetery is a park with a spiritual component. It’s open space, it’s green space, but there’s that whole other level – the cultural and historical components,” she explains. “Cemeteries should be beautiful, and they should make you feel special when you walk into one.”

Cemeteries should be places where people spend time, just like any park or public space, and that connection to community planning and design is what Edward Stanford, a Local Government Consultant in Fort St. John, observed. He helped Berris secure her first two cemetery projects with Urban Systems – the Tumbler Ridge Cemetery and subsequent Fort St. John Cemeteries Master Plan.

Staying on Top of Trends

Preparing master plans for cemeteries is not just about designing a beautiful space. Berris is continually monitoring trends, visiting cemeteries and learning what operators are doing, and attending the British Columbia Funeral Association’s annual spring conference. “It is very important to know the people in the industry because it is a very connected group,” states Berris. She also recognizes the important link between her work and the Land Economics and Water practices, bringing in consultants from those areas of Urban Systems to provide a more complete service to the client.

“You can’t create a cemetery plan unless you know how many plots you’re going to need, how many cremation niches you’re going to need, etc.,” she explains. The Land Economics team forecasts needs and they also review the financial viability, like what the client would need to charge for services, to run a sustainable service. Further, Stormwater Management plays an integral role in assessing the property and how runoff, groundwater and other elements may impact the space. “Having all the services in-house enables us to provide a complete package – cemetery master planning, financial planning and the design.” Just like any business, cemeteries need to consider their investments, costs and revenues, and these vary greatly from cemetery to cemetery.

Trees, Amenities and Services

Temple Shalom Cemetery. Photo credit: Robyn Humphreys

Berris singles out two key elements she keeps in mind in every master plan – design and the range of cemetery services. As places where people come to honour, to reflect, and, of course, to mourn, it is important for visitors to feel welcome and serene. Enhancing the existing characteristics of the site is always something she keeps in mind, taking advantage of viewpoints or unique natural features, providing seating in these locations. “A Cemetery needs to be a place where it’s nice to just be,” she reflects. 

Berris notes the therapeutic nature of walking, and is sure to incorporate looping trails into any design. Public art can also be an important feature, be it entry gates, memorials or other artistic elements, but she emphasizes that THE most important element of any plan are the trees. “Most people, when they talk about cemeteries they like, they have a lot of trees. If you could have just one thing in a cemetery, it would have to be trees.”

Just as there are a multitude of design considerations to keep in mind, so too are the options for cemetery services, the spaces where our remains come to rest after we have passed. “Historically you had one main service – full interment in the ground. It was all people really knew,” Berris reveals. Nowadays in BC, 85% of the population is being cremated, and where many of the remains still go to the family to be kept or scattered in their favourite location, that has been changing. There are environmental impacts of scattering, not to mention the legalities around scattering in public and private places. As a result, creating places within cemeteries for cremated remains is now very important, and it can include columbaria, scattering gardens, interment, ossuaries and memorial walls.

“Green burial is the newest kid on the block, though,” she identifies. A method that really goes back to tradition, green burial is considered to have the least environmental impact, with no embalming and biodegradeable coverings, making it an increasingly popular choice. Berris points out that while space is still required for the burial, it needs less than full interment (casket burial). The treatment of the area can also be different, where instead of having mowed grass, the area is left to naturalize, creating a forest or meadow.

Reacting to Land Scarcity for Cemeteries

The greatest challenge going forward is the availability of space. “Just like we’re housing people in towers in the city, we’re looking at more efficient ways to use the land in cemeteries.” Internationally, countries in Europe and Asia are increasing the density underground and over time. In Israel, they are interring remains up to four deep. Currently, BC cemeteries do not go more than two deep, and usually only between spouses.

“Rather than selling the rights to a plot forever, which is what we do currently,” Berris expands, “some countries are selling the rights for a set number of years, anywhere from 25 to 100. The theory is that after a generation or two, there may not be many family members visiting.” Mountain View Cemetery in Vancouver now allows grave re-use after 40 years, and only within the family.

More than Just a Place to Mourn

Northern Lights Cemetery Concept Plan – Edmonton; Rendering by Sara Mokhtari

Berris and the landscape architecture team currently have about nine cemetery projects at various phases throughout BC, Alberta and with two First Nations. Each project includes engagement with the community, and she is often pleasantly surprised to learn how educated community members are about current design and interment trends, no matter the population size. Residents are recognizing that their local cemetery is part of the fabric of the community, and a meaningful public space. 

“Traditionally many communities paid no attention to design, so their cemeteries are very simple,” she acknowledges. “There is a massive opportunity to raise the quality of the design to something special, looking at new and creative ways of doing that in a respectful way.”

In late November 2017, Catherine appeared on the Steele and Drex radio show on CKNW to talk more about Cemetery Densificaction. Listen to what she had to say here:

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