TORONTO/CORNWALL – The registrar and CEO for the Ontario regulatory body overseeing funeral homes and cemeteries says St. John’s Presbyterian Church didn’t follow protocol when it removed a memorial this week.
Public outrage boiled over on social media Monday after a dump truck and loaders moved in on the 1932 monument at Sixth Street East and Sydney Street, quickly levelling the cairn of headstones.
In an interview with Cornwall Newswatch, Carey Smith with the Bereavement Authority of Ontario (BAO) says they “scrambled” to get an investigative team to Cornwall after a complaint was filed about the removal.
“Typically, prior to any cemetery doing any kind of construction or deconstruction work, they need to get approval from the bereavement authority and usually we’ll advise…they are usually required to do an archaeological assessment first to make sure there aren’t unidentified graves that are going to be impacted by the work,” Smith told CNW.
A local historian says there are unmarked graves on the site and the complainant in this case firmly believes his ancestor is still buried there.
As for the St. John’s Presbyterian Church cemetery, Smith said the BAO was never notified nor were any approvals sought.
“We were never notified about this. No approval to my knowledge. Approvals weren’t sought from us. That’s why it was quite a surprise to hear the complaint. We have an investigator on site trying to gather information and trying to assess the situation,” Smith said.
“Our primary interest is to make sure no existing grave sites or remains are being disturbed,” he added.
As for the grave sites and headstones, Smith explained the church has a legal obligation to maintain those sites forever.
“That’s the law. When you’re buried, you’re buried in perpetuity…forever. The cemetery has to be responsible for the care and maintenance of a grave site. At a minimum, in similar situations, we would have expected the cemetery to notify or look for next-of-kin or families of interment rights holders, if they still exist, to at least let them know what their intentions were and give them an opportunity to come forward and voice any concerns or objectives or any advice,” Smith said.
As for penalties, Smith said fines can amount to “hundreds of thousands of dollars”. It can also mean conditions placed on a cemetery provider’s licence or licence suspension altogether.
“The important message I want to give is to let people know that funeral activities and burials and cremation in this province are highly regulated. We take our role very seriously. We are here to make sure consumers and the public are protected. When interments happen they’re intended to be forever without disturbance,” Smith concluded.
Smith couldn’t say how long the investigation might take as every case is different.
Calls by Cornwall Newswatch to St. John’s Presbyterian Church were not returned.