Last Rites: Quebec’s Rules on Burial and Cremation

This past July, the town of Saint-Apollinaire voted against allowing their small Muslim community a space to bury their dead. In response, Quebec City has generously offered land for the building of an Islamic Cemetery.

This article is not about Saint-Apollinaire or Quebec’s obnoxious denial of its racism problem.

It’s about death, and how we deal with what’s left of the people we know.

Though we’re all affected by it, death and its technicalities are things we just don’t talk about…

…That is until someone we know dies.

When a loved one dies we do our best to make sure the person gets what they would have wanted. The late comedian George Carlin joked about wanting to be dropped from a plane and left wherever he landed even if it was the mayor’s lawn. Unfortunately, though we’d like to fulfill the wishes of even our most eccentric friends and relatives, the province of Quebec has rules about how a body can be disposed of after death.

The rules come primarily from Quebec’s Burial Act and the Act Respecting Medical Laboratories, Organ and Tissue Conservation, and the Disposal of Human Bodies and related regulations. Generally there are two common ways a body can be put to rest after death, burial and cremation, so this article will focus on those.

The law says that burials have to take place “in a cemetery lawfully established, except in cases otherwise provided by the law”. That means that if your uncle, for example, wanted to be buried at your family’s cottage, he couldn’t unless the land was a cemetery. This is undoubtedly to avoid any dispute as to what should be done with human remains should a property be sold or expropriated.

Cemeteries, it should be noted, are considered private property, and the land is at the disposal of the physical or legal person who owns it, subject to any restrictions imposed as a result of someone buying a burial plot on said land.

In cases not otherwise specified, coffins must be placed in a grave and covered with at least a meter of earth, but the Minister of Health and Social Services who is charged with the enforcement of said acts can make exceptions for special cases.

Burials cannot take place in a church or chapel currently used for religious purposes without the consent of the ecclesiastical or diocesan authority of the religious group who owns the space. In cases where such authority grants this permission, the law requires that the body be placed in a coffin with 2.5 kg of quick-lime or lime chloride and covered with at least 1.25 meters of earth or enclosed in masonry at least forty five centimeters thick. The quick-lime is likely required to neutralize the odor and speed decay.

Cremations can only be done by the holder of a funeral director’s permit allowing him or her to perform them. Crematoriums must be equipped and operated so as to prevent any risk of contamination and avoid to pollution. The law specifies that said crematoriums must have a firebrick oven “kept in good working order at all times”. If the funeral home has a columbarium – a place to keep urns of ashes – it has to be fireproof.

Though the government has its own rules, the faiths of the deceased come into play when deciding how to treat the remains. For the purposes of this article, I will do a crash course on the rules of the three most common Abrahamic faiths in Montreal: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. As there are so many sects of Christianity, I’ll focus primarily on Catholicism. Apologies to anyone who is outraged (though houses of worship shouldn’t permit trolls).

Judaism requires that a body be buried immediately after passing, or at most, the following day as the belief is that the soul remains in turmoil until burial. The body must be buried complete: with all its limbs and organs.

Islamic practices are a bit trickier as they vary according to interpretations of Islamic law, but there are a few common customs. As in Judaism, Muslims are buried and burials must take place as soon as possible after death, historically because in the days of poorer hygiene an unburied corpse posed a sanitation risk. If the death was not from natural causes i.e. assassination or freak accident, a burial can be delayed to determine cause of death.

Catholicism permits both burial and cremation, though in 2016 the Vatican issued new rules regarding how remains should be dealt with. At the end of October of that year, they said that ashes and bone fragments cannot be kept at home or divided among relatives as mementos as it deprives community of their right to respect the dead. They declared that Church authorities should designate special spaces such as cemeteries or church areas to hold them. Only in special cases can a bishop permit an individual to keep remains at home. Unlike Judaism and Islam, there is no time requirement as to when to bury or cremate the body. If for whatever reason as per canon law, a person cannot be buried in a Catholic cemetery, the law allows the person to be buried in designated ground adjacent to said cemetery.

If someone is not religious, their remains can be dealt with as they or their families wish subject to the confines of the law. Last summer, Quebec approved the practice of Aquamations, an eco friendly alternative to cremation that involves using a water based solution to dissolve the body, leaving the bones which are then pressed into powder. With its increasing popularity, many Quebec funeral homes are getting on the enviro safe bandwagon.

The act of putting our dead to rest has been a custom for thousands of years. It not only allows us to pay our last respects to those we knew, but also keeps the inevitable result of human death and decay from becoming a sanitation risk.

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