Family Ties

As the owners of Pinecrest Cemetery, Ottawa’s Cole family have been taking care of other families for 100 years. Now they’re poised for the next century at the newly opened Highland Park Cemetery.

By Pam Dillon

Canada has its share of 100-year-old companies. But not many are still family owned and operated after a century, Laurie Cole points out. “That’s rare.”

The striking new venue at Highland Park Cemetery has everything from a catering kitchen to a liquor licence.

What’s even more unique is that, as the owners of Pinecrest Cemetery, four generations of Ottawa’s Cole family have dedicated themselves to serving other families. It’s not just the longevity that’s noteworthy, though. As forward-thinking innovators, the Coles have also managed to anticipate changing times, enabling their business to stay relevant and to grow within the industry.  That’s why in 2024, as they commemorate a century at Pinecrest Cemetery, they’re also celebrating the next 100 years at beautiful new Highland Park Cemetery.

“We were always ahead of our time,” says Laurie, mentioning, for instance, establishing the first crematorium between Montreal and Kingston back in the 1960s.

Cole family roots run deep in these parts and their enterprising spirit dates back to the 18th century. If you read through @colefuneralservicess, the Highland Park Cemetery & Cole Funeral Services account on Instagram (and it’s definitely worth checking out), you’ll learn that about 150 years ago, lumberman and trader Thomas Cole was turning heads thanks to his innovations in logging. In 1877, he bought a large farm on the land where Westboro’s Maplelawn is today.

Thomas operated the Highland Park Dairy Farm there, raising nine children with his wife. In 1895 one of his sons, John Edward Cole, bought the farm from his father and brought in electricity. He was one of the first Canadian farmers to do so. He also subdivided the property into building lots, creating what became the neighbourhood of Highland Park. “He was definitely an entrepreneur,” says his great granddaughter, adding that in 1924, John E led a group of businessmen in purchasing a 20-acre parcel of land that, today, is at the corner of Baseline and Greenbank Roads.

The new venue at Highland Park Cemetery, 2037 McGee Side Road, Carp, owners both funeral and burial services in a setting that is beautifully calm.

“That was the true west-end back in the day and there really wasn’t a cemetery, so that’s what they wanted: to provide the families of Ottawa with a cemetery to lay their loved ones to rest and to visit.” This was to be the beginning of Pinecrest Cemetery.

There were many updates over the years. They included a 30-acre expansion in 1956, the addition of the region’s first crematorium in 1962, as well as an urn garden and outdoor niche wall in the early 60s, followed by a second chapel and a second crematorium. In the 1970s, the Coles added Eastern Ontario’s first garden crypt mausoleum for families who wanted above-ground burial, and over the next two decades, both indoor and outdoor crypts were added to the Pinecrest site. Always thinking ahead, the family bought a second property in 1978.  Encompassing 120 acres, it was situated further west in rural Carp.

All along, generation after generation, the Coles continued their commitment to look after families. After John Edward established Pinecrest, eventually his son John Grierson Cole took over. An active community leader, John G served as president of the Cremation Association of Cemeteries and with his son John Mercer, John G did much to improve Pinecrest. Later, under John M’s leadership, a 12,000-square-foot visitation centre was built on the property off Baseline Road.

Then in 2020, Laurie’s father John Mercer broke new ground entirely when work commenced on a 14,000-square-foot venue at Highland Park Cemetery, 2037 McGee Side Road, Carp. With huge, floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the expansive green fields beyond, high ceilings and a natural colour scheme, the spacious, modern facility offers both funeral and burial services in a setting that is beautifully calm.

Laurie Cole’s gracious manner is another comfort. On a spring morning, as she welcomes a visitor to come sit by the windows, her candor and warmth are arresting. With plans underway for 100th anniversary celebrations, she reveals the preparations have offered time to pause and recognize what has transpired over all that time. “I’m even learning a lot about my father (John M),” she mentions. “My dad was going to join the fire department back in the day. My grandfather said, ‘No, you have a better opportunity here.’ So he started working at Pinecrest.”

Laurie also remembers, when she was 11 or 12, cutting the grass at Pinecrest. “I liked passing by the stones and reading them. I used to love doing that.” She also loved animals and so she studied veterinary technology in post-secondary school. She was working as a vet tech when, she says, “My dad approached me and said, ‘I have an opportunity.’ He wanted to start a funeral home and have it on-site at the cemetery—which was something no one really had in Ontario. So I went back to school and took my funeral director’s license. Then we opened up the funeral home business, too.

“Families love the convenience of having everything in one location,” she notes with a smile. Today, Laurie’s managing director of Cole Funeral Services and her brother John Thomas (known as Tom) is also in the family business, handling the monuments division. A highly-skilled craftsman, he does the lettering for memorials and monuments.

After 100 years, the Cole family really do take care of everything. The striking new venue at Highland Park Cemetery has everything from a catering kitchen to a liquor licence, allowing for all sorts of options—such as sunset toast—to honour the life of a loved one.  “If a family has a certain request, it’s okay,” Laurie says, explaining the Coles’ approach to the services they provide. “We want to meet a family’s needs and to make it as unique a celebration as we can for them.”
That care is also evident at Pinecrest, a peaceful Ottawa landmark that’s lush, green and always impeccably maintained. “There’s a lot of history there,” Laurie points out. “A lot of families have ties to Pinecrest because they have loved ones who we take care of, who’re resting there.” As cemetarians as well as funeral service providers, she adds, “We’re taking care of families forever. We’re very honoured to do that.”