Setting the Stage:

How Beautiful Columbaria & Landscapes Can Bring Families Back to the Cemetery

By Susan Johnstone

When I was a young girl I always marvelled at my mother’s fascination with cemeteries. We would be on holidays somewhere in the middle of nowhere and if an opportunity presented itself she would steal away from the tribe and wander off into the local cemetery. I can still picture her meandering through the grounds with her hands behind her back reading each tombstone with intense interest and reverence, clearly wanting to know each individual story. I recall wandering beside her a few times, trying to share in this keen interest of the dead, but as a child, my mind was less focused on the names of those buried below, but to the artistic monuments and landscape setting up above.

Today, changes are being thrust upon cemeteries due to new cremation trends. In order to stay relevant in this new changing cremation market cemeteries are realizing the importance of investing in their properties like never before. That once assumed connection to the cemetery is slowly being lost as creative cremation interment becomes popular and economic mobility is moving people away from family traditions. The cemetery is struggling to define itself in this new cremation world. Thoughtful cemetery planning and investment is now more important than ever in order for the community to believe in it’s value.


22 of Hilside’s 354 niches have been sold as of Feb. 15, 2015. Prices range from $7500 to $8000 for larger premium niches.

As the Baby Boomer generation begins to plan their funerals, they are seeking ways to be special and unique. The cemetery can appeal to this new customer by creating a space that people want to be a part of. This can be achieved as cemetery management sees the cremation market as an opportunity to change course and develop the cemetery as a park filled with memorable features that will evoke not only past recollections of loved ones, but inspire new memories to come.


A custom angled base is incorporated into the design of each level in order
to diversify the niche inventory and appeal to those who wish to
have a larger niche and prominent lower tier feature. The angled base accommodates 3 or more urns.

The columbarium is becoming that artistic feature that draws people back. Although the constraints of columbaria can’t offer the artistic individuality of a monument, the design of the columbaria is proving to attract families. If they are designed with a sense of grandeur or artistic grace, columbaria can become that a sculptural element that can define a cemetery. By using the columbarium as a decorative form and setting it amongst a beautiful landscape, a revitalization of interest in the cemetery can occur. We know that well designed environments can create that emotional experience that captures imagination and desires. Great design can bring back life to the cemetery and build that connection that makes people believe they are special and worthy of remembrance.


Graceful curved rooflines, granite finials, bronze accents combined with dynamic design provides a sculptural, artistic quality to a series of unique custom manufactured columbaria.

So what’s the formula for a cemetery that evokes emotion and connection? Well first, find people who collectively strive to build something greater than themselves and those who relish in the thought of leaving behind a legacy. Second, seek the professional advice of a visionary, someone with the talent and expertise, who can see beyond today and imagine what the future can be. Third, build a collaborative relationship with designers, manufacturers and craftsmen who take the utmost pride in building something noteworthy for future generations to enjoy. And finally support the nurturers who lovingly care for all of the foliage and blooms. They are the stewards of the land drawing visitors back to the cemetery to experience the beauty.

When The City of Edmonton needed a solution for dealing with an old access road along a hillside in Mount Pleasant Cemetery, they decided to invest time and money in a section that required attention. These were committed individuals who took a chance and dared to dream big. Understanding their market and need for columbarium inventory expansion, these employees schlepped through years of bureaucracy and meetings because they believed in the importance of leaving behind something special. They wanted to draw the public back to the cemetery to remind Edmontonians that the cemetery is not only for the dead, but for the living as well. In order to highlight this importance, they knew that they had to create something stunning, something to be remembered.

The City understood the value of seeking the advice of a visionary. They found Rob Hilton, of Hilton Landmarks, a man who knew how to set a stage. He designed a dramatic series of columbaria that appears to cascade down the hillside. Evoking feelings of nostalgia, reminiscent of a by-gone era, Hilton incorporated agrand staircase into his plan that commands the stage. The design has curved granite rooflines that add a sense of motion and movement as they seem to reach for the next level. The eye is constantly looking at the next interesting shape, as no two columbaria are alike. Each sculptural curve from the granite rooflines to the balustrades to the banisters are all calling to be touched. Hilton’s use of granite colors, texture and unique shapes seem to unify the spaces so that they speak as one. The design is so captivating that one feels the urge to be part of the scene.

The design is set and now the craftsmen have to build it. This is where Sunset Memorial & Stone comes into play. Focused on meeting The City of Edmonton and Hilton Landmarks’ expectations, Sunset’s President Gordon Leaf and Jeff Douglas, Project Manager, knew that this would be their most technically challenging project to date. The curved rooflines, angled base niches, the various columbaria shapes all had to be constructed to seamlessly descend down the staircase. Collaboration, sound engineering skills and quality craftsmanship were crucial with a project of this complexity. Each piece was manufactured in Calgary and then put in place on site. There was no room for error. The curved rooflines required precise measurement and grade attention in order to pull off the seamless roofline effect. Collaboration with granite sculpture artisans and Hilton Landmarks was crucial to creating this unique custom series of columbaria. This was more than a columbarium it was a sculptural work of art for future generations to enjoy.

For the stewards of the land: the cemetery managers, the grounds-keepers, the gardeners, these are the individuals who understand the value of investing in good people, experienced horticulturists and nurturers who care about the cemetery setting. Knowing that this is a place where love of nature and a love of life is revered, and remembrance valued, they affect the first and last impressions as one enters the gate of the cemetery park. To build that connection to memories, experiences and evoke feelings of peaceful reflection one can’t deny the powerful impact landscaping has on the instant appeal of a cemetery. To maximize on allure and draw the crowds towards the stage, it is vital to support the park’s maintenance and see it not only as a place for the deceased, but the living as well. Investment in the grounds is investment in the future generations connection to the cemetery.

As this project was coming to completion, I had the opportunity to take photos of Hillside Landings on a number of occasions. While on site, I was constantly interrupted by visitors fascinated by this new section of the cemetery. It was evident that they were wanting to be a part of the space. Children were riding their bikes on the pathway and stopping to explore each different level with awe and wonder. Walkers, lost in deep conversation, were casually running their fingers along the curved granite rooflines wanting to experience the site with all their senses. Joggers directly changed course to run the staircase, so that for a moment, they could become part of someplace special. Workers (taking a coffee break) leaned against their vehicles, on the roadway down below, to smoke a cigarette and gaze up at the columbaria and get lost for a moment. A lone woman, visiting a grave near by, stopped to explore the new project for her first time. With one hand gently touching the bannister she ascends the staircase and slowly becomes a part of the scene. The tranquility of design only adds to the value of remembrance. It was at this moment that I realized, I’m not the only one who is drawn to the drama of a beautiful setting. And the best part of all … there is more to come in the second phase of the project.

For The City of Edmonton’s Hillside Landings: Mount Pleasant Cemetery, the stage is set.

To all of those who are dreaming of possibilities and dare to be bold, remember there are those who love drama and beauty. Embrace the amazing talents that this generation has to offer. Create a scene that will draw your community together. Bring us back to the cemetery.