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‘They don’t want you to die here’

Campbell River woman with terminal bone cancer fights for cemetery revitalization
Sharon Creelman

“I’ve had a great life,” Sharon Creelman professes proudly – even defiantly – sitting in the wheelchair to which she is bound these days. “I don’t regret too many things.”

Her cousin Linda, seated beside her at the small dining room table in the kitchen, wipes away yet another round of tears.

“I guess I’m selfish,” she sobs. “I just don’t want to lose you.”

“Oh, get over it Linda,” Creelman scolds lovingly. “You’ve gotta face it. If you don’t, then you’re not living each day to the fullest. You’re not living the best you can,” she says.

Creelman was diagnosed with terminal bone cancer on July 16. Her doctor gave her three months to live, and she’s a few weeks past that already.

She doesn’t expect much more bonus time, and when she goes, she wants to be buried in Campbell River.

It’s the town she loves.

It’s her home.

But she won’t let that happen until something is done about the state of the cemeteries here.

“It’s one of those things that you kind of put out of your mind, and you push it aside, you know?” Creelman says. “Well, I don’t have that pleasure anymore.”

Her complaint stems from what she sees as a “disgusting” state of affairs at the Elk Falls Cemetery, the current available public site for residents of Campbell River to be laid to rest.

“There were times (in the past) when I walked in that cemetery and I fell down to my knee in a hole, I kid you not,” she says, as an example of the standards being kept at the facility.

And Creelman isn’t just fighting about this situation for herself. She’s fighting about this for the whole community. Oh, and there’s also the lineup of others she has at her house – literally – who are ready to find their final resting places.

“I have to find a home not only for me, but also the rest of the relatives I’ve already got in this house,” she laughs, pointing to the living room. “They’re all cremated and ready to go, but I refuse to put them in that cemetery.”

She says it’s a matter of respect – or rather disrespect – being shown to the public by those in power.

“They want you to live here. They want you to build your families here, to go to school, to raise your kids, to do everything within the community, put your money back into the town, but they do not want you to die here,” she says.

And she says at least one particular funeral director she’s spoken with, Sandy Poelvoorde of Boyd’s Funeral Services, has been fighting this battle, as well. “She sends her people wherever,” Creelman says, “because they just don’t want to be buried here.”

It’s true.

“There isn’t the attention being paid to the cemetery that there really should be,” Poelvoorde said of the situation, adding that she does, in fact, do a lot of business with people who live in Campbell River, and may have done so their whole lives, but are choosing Courtenay or Cumberland as their final resting place, for various reasons.

Poelvoorde said that because the Campbell River’s cemetery bylaws weren’t being enforced over the years, the facility became a free-for-all, where mourners would just leave whatever they wanted to in memory of their loved ones, creating an unpleasant environment.

“The common phrase I heard was, ‘It looks like a flea market barfed in our cemetery,’” Poelvoorde said.

There is also the problem of the limited memorial options available, and the cost for those that are.

“You’re paying a lot (in Campbell River) for much less than you would get if you went anywhere else, where, for example, for the same amount of money, you get a lot more choice around how you want to remember your loved one,” Poelvoorde said.

“It’s just a place with a hole in the ground that you put a person in,” she said, if they aren’t going to provide options for the public.

“Courtenay has a section of their cemetery called the ‘Scattering Garden,’” she said. “It’s beautiful, with flowers everywhere, and it’s landscaped nicely, and you can put mom under a rosebush if you want. You want to put dad beside the water feature because he loved the water? You can do that. The closest thing to a water feature we have (in Campbell River) is a sinkhole.”

Poelvoorde said it’s not that the city’s parks department doesn’t know these improvements are needed, they just haven’t been able to convince council to allocate the funds to start the process.

“They want niche walls,” she said. “They want to talk benches and seating and water features. The will has to come from council to accept the recommendations of the parks department and allocate the proper funding to get it started.”

Once it’s at a place people want to be, she said, the increased usage would not only pay for the upkeep of the property, but also continue its development. It’s not like the demand is ever going to decrease for that particular service.

Ross Milnthorp, General Manager of Parks, Recreation and Culture for the City of Campbell River, said that they recently have, in fact, brought in a cemetery consultant to assess the situation, who then created a concept plan for Elk Falls Cemetery. He said their intent is to begin integrating that concept plan beginning in 2016, assuming they receive adequate funding from council to move forward with it.

As for Creelman, she says that although she won’t be around much longer to fight for revitalizing Campbell River’s cemeteries, she’s glad there are others who see these issues need to be addressed and will continue the fight after she’s gone. She’s comfortable with who she is and what she’s done in this life, and is confident she’ll get some rest, eventually.

“Until this gets figured out,” she tells Linda, “You guys just go ahead and put me underneath one of my trees in the back yard,” she says.

“I love the rain.”