MONTREAL -- Two of Canada’s biggest cemeteries have had to drastically limit the size of burials—only two people may attend—after a deluge of deaths as COVID-19 spreads through Montreal.

The decision is already creating a painful dilemma for many families.

“How is my mother supposed to choose which child she's supposed to take with her?” said Luisa Perez, 32, on Friday.

Her father, 57-year-old Carlos Perez, died of pancreatic cancer this week. Even if it were logistically easy for the family to switch cemeteries, one of his only wishes for his burial was that it be in Notre-Dame-des-Neiges cemetery, near his parents and uncles and aunts. 

“We don’t want to go anywhere else,” Luisa Perez said.

But her father also had three children. Now Perez worries about her mother who, while grieving, will agonize over who should go.

One of Luisa’s two younger brothers is autistic, so he might benefit the most from being there, she said—it will make the loss sink in.

“Are you going to take me because I’m the oldest? Are you going to take Andrew because it'll [make it] more concrete for him?” she asked. “Or are you going to take Alexander, who he coached in sports and he had such a good relationship with?”

Luisa planned to offer up the spot to her brothers. But still, she said, “I can’t imagine how she’s going to make that choice.”

The Notre-Dame-des-Neiges cemetery is 343 acres, about 1.4 square kilometres, the biggest in Canada. Nearly a million people are buried there.

There’s plenty of space once you get inside, but the problem is that visitors all arrive through the same entranceways, in the same few midday hours, and must park and disperse from close quarters, said Daniel Granger, a spokesman for the cemetery.

“This week, we’ve received 87 families—in one week,” he said.

Of the big recent increase in burials, “a significant number” were for victims of COVID-19, he said.

“It’s going to be the same thing in the coming weeks, if not more.”

With "the magnitude of people,” staff could no longer guarantee the necessary distancing and decided 10 days ago to create the new limit, he said.

For families affected by the new rules, it’s heartbreaking to hear that most other cemeteries still allow 10 people. Only one other large cemetery in Montreal’s east end, Le Repos Saint-François d'Assise, has created a similar two-person limit.

Notre-Dame-des-Neiges is making one exception, said Granger: cases where a young parent dies and he or she has more than one child.

“A young father and young mother—we’ll accept the whole family because it’s so horrible to lose a parent that young,” he said. And in terms of social distancing, “probably they all live in the same household.”

Like many people, the Perezes and their friends already had limited chances to say goodbye because of the need to keep distance during the pandemic. 

Carlos Perez died at home a month after he learned he was quickly declining. 

“A lot of his good friends that he grew up with wanted to come see him, but they couldn’t,” said his daughter. She only visited a few times, wearing protective gear, and leaving her own young son at home.

Funny and outgoing, her father was well known in their Laval neighbourhood, coaching soccer for many years and was deeply involved with the Paralympics.

“We want to do a memorial when all this calms down, so everyone can have a chance to pay their respects,” said Luisa Perez.

Granger said the cemetery is making that offer to all the families faced with tiny burials right now—to come back later for a bigger event.

“Once this pandemic will be over, they’ll be able to come back and pay tribute,” he said. “We understand; it’s human. People want to be there.”