Lisa Tsotsos has been trying to bury her father for eight months now — and as the emotional weight of the ordeal and her legal bills pile up — she says she’s starting to lose hope.
Her dad, Louis, died of COVID-19 complications on Jan. 15. But instead of being buried next to his father at a Richmond Hill cemetery north of Toronto like he wanted, his body is decaying above ground at a nearby funeral home.
And despite a court order directing that the Toronto-area man be buried in a family-owned plot at the Headford Cemetery, members of the Tsotsos family, alongside the Bereavement Authority of Ontario (BAO), remain locked in a legal battle with the cemetery’s owner.
The BAO and family say the landowner and representatives from the Nativity of the Mother of God Orthodox Church are continuing to bar access to the gravesite, in breach of a court order which stated Louis’s remains must be buried by Aug. 31.
The church says it is not part of the dispute, but still alleges the family doesn’t have all the required documents to confirm their rights to the plot. The church is not named in any court order, yet much of the logistical correspondence for the family has taken place with representatives from the church.
Lisa says the stress of the situation is mounting. Some days she just crashes, weeping under the weight of the ordeal.
“Other times I just get so angry that I’m digging my heels in,” she said.
But trying to advocate for her father from the U.K., where she now lives, is taking a toll.
“I know life is not a movie, and I’m likely going to lose,” she said.
Lengthy legal fight
The Tsotsos family has owned its plot at the Headford Cemetery since 2014, and two other family members are already buried there. But when the cemetery and church were sold in 2020 to an entity called September 21 Inc., no one told the family, who no longer have any relatives in the area.
The situation escalated in January when church officials called police, accusing funeral home employees, who tried to prepare the burial site, of trespassing, according to York Regional Police. The family says it has been trying to organize a burial ever since, but to no avail.
The church has repeatedly denied any involvement in the situation to CBC News.
Yet in an email to the Tsotsos family’s lawyer, Rev. Art Lambert, who is also a lawyer, said he is legally representing September 21 when it comes to the burial conditions. Lambert’s exact role within the church remains unclear.
Corporate records don’t reveal who owns September 21. The records name the secretary and treasurer as well as the president, but CBC News was not able to reach them. Church officials did not respond to repeated requests for contact information.
In an email sent to CBC News — signed by an unnamed board of directors, and sent shortly after the Aug. 31 deadline passed — the church alleges the family doesn’t have the required documents to confirm their rights to the plot, and is “trying to inter the body in the grave that belongs to another person.” It did not provide specifics.
“The cemetery owner thinks it has a legal and moral duty to ensure that when a family buys a burial plot in the cemetery, that family gets to use the plot. Otherwise, no one is protected from losing the family’s grave or discovering strangers in a parent’s grave,” the email said.
The family, meanwhile, has provided maps and ground-penetrating radar scans confirming the location of the grave, which had been marked, and already bears a headstone with the Tsotsos name.
“We have provided all the documents,” Lisa told CBC News.
The statement from the church also says that interment “seems imminent,” but officials did not respond when asked about any specific dates.
The Tsotsos family has interment rights at the site and the right to bury Louis there, says David Brazeau, head of communications for the BAO. He said the organization, which regulates licensed cemeteries, funeral directors and similar establishments, has never seen anything like this situation.
“It’s highly unusual, and downright cruel when you think about it. Eight months [with] the deceased family member lying in cold storage in that time, decomposing … and this is causing a lot of anguish for the family,” he said.
“We don’t know the reason they’re doing this, it makes no sense to us.”
The Tsotsos family says church officials and their representatives have been throwing up barriers to the burial at every turn — either through disappearing from correspondence for days on end, not responding when asked for documentation required by the funeral home or, in August, telling the family that while a burial can take place, a religious ceremony at the gravesite cannot.
David Thompson, a litigation lawyer at Scarfone Hawkins LLP in Hamilton who is not involved in the dispute, says he doesn’t think any attempts to impose conditions around a judge’s order will go over well in court.
“This picking of nits, I don’t think it will be viewed favourably by a court at all. I think they’ll say ‘Let’s get this done, let’s allow this family to have some closure, and let’s stop this runaround,’ because it’s really, really unfair to those who are personally affected.”
Thompson says if a judge finds that a party to the case is in contempt of court, the court can impose a fine, jail time, or both. In the case of a corporation, the court can do the same on an officer or director, he said — though he noted that in civil contempt cases jail sentences are rare, and fines are “typically relatively low.”
The court could also order a “writ of sequestration,” he said, which is when a sheriff takes control of a property for a period of time to ensure a court order is carried out. It’s also possible that a sheriff’s officer could go to the cemetery, likely with the support of local police, to see that the burial is properly carried out, he said.
As the conflict continues, Lisa says she feels like she’s being painted into a corner, and needs to soon choose whether to cremate her father, despite his wishes on religious grounds, or try to keep fighting indefinitely.
“You have to honour the dead, to me it’s very important,” she said.
“I may not be religious, but if it’s someone’s final wishes and that’s what they want, they’re not here to do it for themselves, and they trusted you to execute it.”