Deadly Returns: Boom Times in B.C. Cremation

As the popularity of cremation soars in B.C.'s death care industry, ?urn repositories exploit their niche. If John Chasca offers you a deal on an all-inclusive, beware: a return trip is not part of the package. His offer involves a private niche for your cremated remains.?

Death Care, cremation
Cremation rates in Canada and the U.S. are pumping new blood into the death care industry.

As the popularity of cremation soars in B.C.’s death care industry, 
urn repositories exploit their niche.

If John Chasca offers you a deal on an all-inclusive, beware: a return trip is not part of the package. His offer involves a private niche for your cremated remains.

Turns out these eternal vacation spots are all the rage in the “death care” industry, and as a result, manufacturers of columbaria, as they’re known in the business, are flourishing. These are stand-alone structures, typically made of concrete, housing anywhere from a dozen to hundreds of niches behind a granite façade.

Traditionally, funeral homes have viewed cremation as the competition and didn’t want anything to do with this low-cost alternative to pricey caskets and interments. But there’s no arguing with the numbers: in Canada, cremation bypassed burial as the consumer preference in 2002, and funeral directors and columbaria manufacturers want to get in on the action.

“When we’re only doing, let’s say, 20 per cent burial, your customer is the other 80 per cent that’s saying we want cremation,” says Chasca, past president of the B.C. Funeral Association and president of McPherson Funeral Services in Cranbrook. “So now you have to have all the other products and services that go along with that.”

Hence Chasca’s “all-inclusive”: for $2,795, you get a niche in a columbarium with a wreath and inscription on the granite face. The à la carte price is typically around $1,500 for the niche, plus additional fees for opening and closing the granite face and inscribing a wreath and text. That compares to expenses that range up to $10,000 for a burial with casket, tombstone and all the trimmings. 

Chasca says that columbaria make sense, particularly in B.C.’s chilly interior and northern regions. “You can walk up and look at dad in one of these niches,” he points out, “versus saying, ‘Well, Dad’s buried here somewhere under the snow bank, by this tree somewhere.’”

Cemeteries have been slow to catch on to the trend, so funeral homes like Chasca’s have forged innovative business relationships. They’ll buy the columbarium, pay the municipality to place it in the cemetery, then relinquish ownership to the cemetery when the columbarium is full. A portion of the sale of each niche is held in trust for continued maintenance.

Mark Fynn, president of KMI Columbaria Inc. in Kimberley, describes seemingly limitless growth potential for his company’s patented marine-grade aluminum columbaria. He points to Calgary’s Sacred Heart Church, which partially financed its recent $5-
million expansion through the sale of 5,000 niches in an elaborate columbarium in its basement. (It was only in 1963 that the Roman Catholic Church lifted its ban on cremation; it still discourages scattering cremated remains.)

Then there was the town of Nipawin, Saskatchewan, which, Fynn reports, bought “a nice little 72-niche structure” in the shape of a grain elevator. 

The real opportunity for Fynn lies south of the border, where there’s still plenty of upside on the cremation demand curve. He already does a brisk business in California, where cremation rates range up to 80 per cent, depending on the region. He’s also got a keen eye on prospects in Florida, where the state passed a law in 2009 allowing public universities to install columbaria on campuses. “Football is a religion in Florida,” he says. “Every college stadium has a columbarium where people pay their respects on the way into the game.” – David Jordan l