Ontario has no eerie, overgrown church graveyards. There are no dangerously angled tombstones, no grave markers obscured by rambling vines, nor ancient trees with branches sweeping the ground.
In Ontario, cemetery operators are required to maintain graveyards properly. There must be an accessible entrance. Grave markers must be stabilized. Section 29 of the Funeral, Burial and Cremation Services Act, 2002, states: "An operator that has an interest in a cemetery shall maintain the cemetery if the registrar is of the opinion that the cemetery appears to be abandoned or neglected."
The law is a response to a grave moral hazard problem. It is more profitable to sell burial plots than to maintain them. Cemetery operators have an incentive to promise their clients an idyllic and well-tended eternal resting place, and then renege on their commitment. After all, the dead are unlikely to complain.
The Funeral, Burial and Cremation Services Act attempts to solve the moral hazard problem by forcing cemetery operators to set aside adequate funds for future upkeep in a "care and maintenance account". For example, according to section 168 of the Act, "in the case of an in-ground grave that is 2.23 square metres or 24 square feet or larger," the cemetery operator must deposit "the greater of 40 per cent of the price of the interment rights as set out on the price list and $250" into a care and maintenance account to pay for the future upkeep of the site.
I learned about the Funeral, Burial and Cremation Services Act on a recent visit to a small, none-too-wealthy town, three or four hours out of Toronto - the kind of place that's just big enough to have a Tim Horton's, but too poor to have a Starbucks. There's a white clapboard United Church right on the main road; a Catholic church and an Anglican one, as well as houses of worship for other smaller denominations.
Because it's an old town, the old churches have old graveyards. There lie the young men who died in war and the old men who survived it all; the women who died in childbirth and the little children lost. Whole family histories are told in the tombstones.
But the churches have a problem. Their cemeteries were created long before the Funeral, Burial and Cremation Services Act came into place. When Frank Blake died and was buried back in 1918, no one thought to charge his estate for future upkeep costs, and invest those funds wisely. Yet his grave is still there, and the church is required to maintain it. For generations, volunteers kept the churchyards neat and tidy. But today vigorous and healthy parishioners are few and far between. Some of the young folk have left town to find jobs in the city or out west. Others are still present, but have either abandoned their faith, or are simply too busy working and raising a family to donate their time to the church. The church can hire a landscaping service to maintain the cemetery - but if they do that, their care and maintenance account will soon be depleted.
So what is an appropriate policy response?
As a practical matter, it is impossible to find the descendants of those buried in small-town church yards, and ask them to pay for their ancestors' upkeep.
A more realistic solution would be to seize the assets of cemetery operators who disregard their duties, and use those assets to pay for on-going maintenance costs. That might work for commercial, for-profit cemeteries. I'm less convinced about the wisdom of selling off historic small town churches to raise sufficient funds to keep the graveyard neatly mown.
Another solution is to use tax revenue to subsidize cemetery operations. Setting aside the moral hazard problems created by the possibility of a government bail-out, it is worth asking: why spend money on the dead, when there is so much need among the living?
The British solution has been to permit neglect; to let the brambles and ivy and weeds grow, as shown in the picture. That's a good solution to contemplate on Hallowe'en.
The care and maintenance of graveyards might seem like an obscure economic problem. But cemetery economics is, from an analytical point of view, pretty much identical to pension economics, except that the "pension obligations" last forever. With pensions, as with cemeteries, we have chosen to switch from pay-as-you-go funding, combined with direct in-kind transfers from younger generations, to a regime of pre-funded savings plans. Yet both pensions and cemeteries are exposed to the same risks of moral hazard on the part of providers, and of the funds set aside proving to be in inadequate, especially in a low-interest rate regime.
All we can hope is that, when we get old, no one figures "neglect" is the best policy response!