The mausoleum at the Royal Oak Burial Park is airy, bright and quiet.
Sun pours in from skylights onto the polished marble below, where the walls are embedded with gold lettering, small framed pictures and flowers.
It’s the only community mausoleum on Vancouver Island and it houses the remains of hundreds of beloved people, and dozens more who have been forgotten.
Within the mausoleum are glass-lined alcoves where urns have been placed with custom ized decor. Some have toys or medals accompanying the urn, others have knick-knacks or letters, and others still stand in grand ceremony after their location was specifically chosen based on the feng shui of the niche.
High above these alcoves and far beyond reach or easy sight, however, sits a solemn row of unadorned urns. Most of these are the remains of victims of the opioid crisis who have gone unclaimed or whose family can’t or won’t collect them.
“We’ve set very low prices for the very top shelf and we use that for the ministry,” said Lorraine Fracy, manager of administrative operations at the Royal Oak Burial Park. “Sadly, this year we’ve gone through triple the amount we normally would.”
The Ministry of Poverty Reduction and Social Development (MPRSD) is the one to foot the bill for the costs of death registration, transportation, cremation and storage of unclaimed but identified bodies. If the body cannot be identified it is buried instead in a manner that can easily be disinterred.
Usually, a niche in the mausoleum would cost about $3,200, while the ministry pays a subsidized cost of $1,300.
The MPRSD does not keep records of the cause of death for paid services, however, in the past two years the number of ministry-paid death services has increased. Between 2017-2018, a total of 1,991 people were paid for by the ministry across B.C., while in 2018-2019 the number jumped to 2,175. Of these, 421 were on Vancouver Island in 2017, with 438 in 2018. The total deaths in 2018 cost the province more than $4.5 million.
Fracy estimates the burial park received approximately 77 calls in 2019 in relation to opioid deaths, roughly half of which were paid for by the ministry while the other half was paid for by family.
In several instances, bodies have been claimed months after a death occurred.
“We’ve had two claims this year. Sometimes it’s a disconnect where they haven’t been in contact with family members and then they find out that they’ve passed and it leads to us,” Fracy said. “It was both younger people whose death was discovered by their mothers six months after it happened. In the end, they decided they loved where they were, although they thought they were too high up and moved them lower.”
In July the BC Coroners Service issued a report saying that for the first time in years the number of opioid-related deaths had gone down. According to the report, between January and May there were a total of 462 overdose deaths, compared to 621 in 2018.
While the Coroners Service is “cautiously optimistic,” according to the report, more deaths are anticipated, as are more cremations.
While many remains are eventually claimed, those that go unclaimed will keep a place in safe custody.
“We have a good neighbour policy. If anybody does have unclaimed cremated remains we’ll put them into safe storage that’s recoverable,” Fracy said. “At least they are recoverable if family is found, or if somebody comes forward and wants to look after them.”