Plans for a new cemetery in the southeast aims to bring burial into the 21st century, serving as more than just a repository for the departed
Stretching over rolling hills, a 65-hectare plot of land adjacent to Ralph Klein Park is an idyllic refuge from the frenetic energy of urban life.
Yet the parkland on the edge of Calgary’s southeast quadrant is intended to be much more than a place to take the dog for a walk amongst spectacular mountain vistas. It’s the site of the city’s newest cemetery, the first to be constructed in more than 75 years.
Yet to be officially named, it represents a 21st century approach to death, aimed at making an important-but-often-underused public space in a rapidly growing urban environment into a vital hub for the communities it serves.
“It certainly will have a more multi-purpose use,” said Jim Klimes, the lead architect for the City of Calgary on the project. “We don’t want it cut off from society; we want it integrated into the community.”
To that end, the city sought plenty of public input on what the cemetery should be prior to developing a plan. What the city heard during consultations held last year is a design should maintain the landscape’s natural beauty while protecting existing wetland and maximize mountain views.
Yet equally important is the new cemetery must serve a multitude of uses besides burial. Respondents wanted biking and walking paths to encourage regular visitors beyond those paying respects to the deceased. And they wanted a multi-faith community centre to be used for celebrations as well as funerals.
The extensive input from the public is aimed to make the approximately $10-million project — expected to be complete in 2018 – a much more utilized space than the city’s five existing cemeteries, said Klimes.
“When they were built, they were basically warehouses. You didn’t go there unless you had to,” he said. “But now the theme is to integrate cemeteries into the community with various uses.”
Fred Valentine, an architect and adjunct faculty member in the Faculty of Environmental Design at the University of Calgary, notes Calgary’s cemeteries are situated on prime real estate surrounded by intense development. Yet somewhat ironically they are underused and largely forgotten.
“We really push death aside,” he said.
While teaching a graduate course recently, Valentine challenged students to re-imagine cemetery designs: their uses, esthetics and place in society.
“I wanted them to think of cemeteries as multi-use amenities as opposed to just being repositories for the dead,” he said.
Of course, Calgary’s existing cemeteries have always been more than burial sites. They’re also one of the few remaining pieces of the city’s rich history. Each one is a unique snapshot of the past stretching back to Calgary’s founding in the 1880s, said Cynthia Klaassen, president of the Calgary Heritage Initiative Society.
“St. Mary’s Cemetery, for example, is where Pat Burns is interred, one of the big four that started the Calgary Stampede, while the Chinese Cemetery tells the cultural history of the Chinese community,” she said.
The city’s First World War veterans, for example, are buried at the Burnsland Cemetery. And Union Cemetery is where the city founders rest, including Col. James Macleod who named Calgary after his hometown in Scotland.
The only active cemetery in the city is Queen’s Park, which opened in 1940 in the northwest and only has about seven to 10 years of space left for burials, said Klimes.
“With space running out, there was a need to start looking for another location, so this particular piece of land in the southeast – surplus from the Ralph Klein Park development – was deemed suitable.”
The new cemetery’s location on the city’s outskirts benefits from ample uninterrupted stretches of undeveloped land necessary to accommodate burial sites for decades to come.
This is by no means unusual, however, as all Calgary’s existing cemeteries were at one time built on the edge of town, said Gary Daudlin, cemeteries superintendent for the City of Calgary.
“Even Queen’s Park was outside the city at first.”
And while the city has grown around them, cemeteries are not — as one might assume — facing pressures of urban development or even considered a drain on municipal resources, he added.
“It may not be an area where families would want to have a picnic, but cemeteries are valuable green space within the city,” he said. “They are actually very bio-diverse with a lot of wildlife.”
Moreover, fees to purchase plots go to a perpetual care fund to help pay for ongoing maintenance.
The City currently spends about $3.5 million annually to maintain the five existing cemeteries, said Daudlin, noting features at the new southeast cemetery, such as a multi-faith community hall — should help off-set costs.