Rest In Neglect Octogenarian founder of Mennonite cemetery in city’s southeast corner heartbroken by disgraceful, deteriorating conditions, province’s refusal to deal with absentee owner

On a sweltering afternoon in late June, Abram Peters picks his way through rows of graves, weaving around old mounds of dirt and mucky new puddles. He gestures at the ground, where grass has long since given way to dandelion and thistle, and then to a handful of headstones on a concrete plinth, which is tilting perilously off-level.

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Opinion

On a sweltering afternoon in late June, Abram Peters picks his way through rows of graves, weaving around old mounds of dirt and mucky new puddles. He gestures at the ground, where grass has long since given way to dandelion and thistle, and then to a handful of headstones on a concrete plinth, which is tilting perilously off-level.

Someday, Peters says, that row will topple. It could be fixed by simply raising the plinth and filling in the space underneath, where the earth has settled. But that would require someone willing to do the fixing, which costs both time and money, and it’s been years since Peters has seen much of either being invested at Sage Creek Cemetery.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Abe Peters used to own Mennonite Memorial Gardens Cemetery just southeast of Winnipeg on Symington Road. But since it's been sold to a private owner in Ontario, it has fallen into terrible disrepair.

The letters carved on those headstones are not just names to Peters. They are his community.

He points out where one of his friends is buried, in a muddy dimple in the earth covered by four inches of brackish standing water. Nearby lies another grave that holds another friend: that one was dug wrong, he says. The hole was carved out half a metre into what will one day be the wife’s plot; when she’s eventually buried, the digger will have to bite into a third space.

Peters shakes his head. “It’s not a complicated thing if you can use a tape measure,” he says.

It wasn’t like this when Peters, 86, owned the cemetery, which back then was called Mennonite Memorial Gardens. He pulls out a few photos he keeps in a file of what it looked like before he sold it in 2011. Back then, the grass was thick. The ground was surveyed and levelled. Dirt from graves was taken away, not dumped, the way some has been, into drainage ditches.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

The Mennonite Memorial Gardens has no proper drainage, grave pits that are not properly aligned or dug in the right plot position, no reseeding of grass after burial, weeds everywhere.

The lack of care taken by the current owner frustrates him. Once, after a husband was buried next to a wife — another friend, another grave that wasn’t properly measured — Peters found bits of shattered wood in the dirt. He suspects they were pieces of the wife’s coffin, caught when the digger accidentally veered into her plot. I ask him if the family knows.

“Yeah, they know that,” Peters says, with a sigh. “But what are they going to do?”

For years, Peters has tried to answer that question himself. He’s tried to contact the owner, who lives outside of Manitoba, to no avail. (A representative for the owner in Manitoba did not respond to a Free Press request for comment.) At home, Peters keeps a stack of letters he’s written to the provincial department that oversees the Cemeteries Act. Nothing changes.

He’s not the only one who’s tried. Though it’s been more than a decade since Peters owned the cemetery, families still call him with their fears and their grief over the conditions in which their loved ones are buried. Many of them have also complained to the province; in 2019, when the cemetery was under a different owner, some went to media with their concerns.

What all have found is that regulations seem toothless, with nobody able or willing to enforce them.

“No one is listening and no one is doing anything about it,” Peters says. “All we’re asking for is that the cemetery be maintained up to the level that other cemeteries in the city are. Just give it that standard.”

“All we’re asking for is that the cemetery be maintained up to the level that other cemeteries in the city are. Just give it that standard.” – Abram Peters

In an email, a spokesperson for the Consumer Protection Branch — unnamed, under a long-standing provincial practice not to provide identified civil servants to media — stated the Cemeteries Act doesn’t give the department authority to enforce its rules on “unlicensed cemeteries,” though municipalities can take action under their own legislation.

The spokesperson also said that the province is planning to review bereavement legislation this year “to address abandoned cemeteries, among other issues,” and that the department will begin consultations with stakeholders, municipalities and the public later this year. That said, the Sage Creek Cemetery isn’t abandoned, but simply not well-maintained.

It breaks Peters’ heart, because this cemetery began as a dream, a place of peace for Winnipeg’s Mennonite community.

The idea first came to him in the early 1980s, after his parents, who’d spent most of their lives in Altona, moved to the city. One day, he took them on a tour of local cemeteries, to think of where they might like to be buried; none felt right.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

To many families, the neglect of the grounds intertwines with grief. All expressed heartache and frustration over the condition of the cemetery grounds.

“We don’t belong here,” they complained. “No one will ever find us if we’re buried here. We’re in no way connected to this place.”

Then they asked a question that got him thinking. “Why isn’t there a Mennonite cemetery?”

Surprisingly, despite Winnipeg’s large Mennonite population, there was no graveyard in the city focused on that community. Peters, inspired, put notices in local church bulletins, asking if there’d be interest in such an endeavour; there was. Soon, he found a prime location in 20 acres of land on Symington Road, in the Rural Municipality of Springfield.

It was a beautiful spot, pristine and peaceful. Peters had it surveyed, got it landscaped, covered it with fresh sod. Mennonites flocked to buy plots, many of them friends from church, or fellow parents of Westgate Mennonite Collegiate students. Peters got his cemetery licence on a Monday, and by Wednesday they’d already hosted their first burial.

For years, the cemetery was immaculate. Peters was there every day, working. His wife, Anne, helped with planting flowers and answering phones. Other faith communities soon joined in: there is a section for the local Coptic community, a section for a local Indigenous church. It was a place for many people to find peace, knowing they’d be buried near friends.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Several other people who bought a plot under previous owners say they are now planning to be buried elsewhere.

But in 2010, a real estate agent approached Peters, and asked if the cemetery was for sale. He balked at first; but he was 75, and health problems were making it difficult to keep up with the work. The agent offered a good price, and Peters accepted; with that, the cemetery came under the ownership of a local funeral director.

It was a decision he’d come to regret. For a time, the cemetery remained beautiful. But the new owner’s business collapsed amidst allegations of twice-sold plots, mistreated remains and missing cash; the cemetery was neglected. In 2018, the new owner’s licence was revoked and his business went into receivership. The cemetery was purchased by a creditor.

To many families, the neglect of the grounds intertwines with grief. I spoke with several people who had loved ones buried in the cemetery, in plots that had been purchased from Peters. All expressed heartache and frustration over the condition of the grounds; none wished to have their name published, citing how deeply sensitive the situation was.

One person described how, the last time they’d visited their spouse’s grave, they left in tears: “It does not show respect or honour the people who are there,” the person said. “If you don’t cut your grass… the city inspectors are soon there. You can’t get away with it. So why can they?”

“It does not show respect or honour the people who are there.” – Visitor

Several other people who bought a plot under previous owners say they are now planning to be buried elsewhere. They can’t get their money back — Winnipeg cemetery plots can range from $1,500 to $4,000, with Sage Creek on the lower end — but that’s a loss they’ve decided they must accept.

“We just can’t imagine our children going there in that cow pasture,” one plot-owner said.

But what can be done? In the 1990s, after the Elmwood Cemetery fell into disrepair, private citizens formed a non-profit to purchase the neglected cemetery from an absentee owner and restore the dignity of its grounds; it’s still run that way today. But Elmwood is a historic cemetery, with a large community around it. Sage Creek is not.

Though some relatives, and even Peters himself, have thought about trying to buy it, they concede the plan is challenging.

“I feel very sad,” Peters says. “Very sad. Because the vision for Mennonite Memorial Gardens is lost, and we worked so hard. The community is hoping that we can get the vision back, that somebody will say OK, let’s look after this place.”

melissa.martin@freepress.mb.ca

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RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Abe Peters used to own Mennonite Memorial Gardens Cemetery just southeast of Winnipeg on Symington Road. But since it's been sold to a private owner in Ontario, it has fallen into terrible disrepair.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS LOCAL - menno cemetery Story: Mennonite Memorial Gardens, 884 Symington Road unkept and in disrepair. Abe Peters used to own Mennonite Memorial Gardens Cemetery just southeast of Winnipeg on Symington Road. But since it’s been sold to a private owner in Ontario, it has become in terrible disrepair, which families of those buried there are struggling with. Problems like: no proper drainage, grave pits not properly aligned or dug in the right plot position, no reseeding of grass after burial, weeds everywhere. These are just some of the issues facing families when they visit their deceased loved ones. See Melissa Martin Story. June 17th, 2022

Melissa Martin

Melissa Martin
Reporter-at-large

Melissa Martin reports and opines for the Winnipeg Free Press.

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