Yes, it’s legal. Natural burial has been around as long as humans, including in Canada. Today it is regularly practiced within several faiths. Far from being something new, the growing interest in natural burial is actually a revival of the traditional way of many of our ancestors, before deathcare became commercialized.
Natural, or green burial. What's a body to do?
Making end-of-life decisions can be confusing. We hope sharing answers to our most frequently asked questions helps. If you can’t find the answer to your question, please get in touch.
Costs may be uppermost on your mind. Since each cemetery sets its own prices, we aren’t able to provide this. However, the Ontario Government has legislated fees for the perpetual care of each cemetery that are the highest fees in all of Canada. These fees pose a threat to affordable natural burial and the creation of natural burial grounds.
Is natural burial legal?+
How does cremation damage the environment?+
Cremation is far from environmentally friendly. One to two SUV sized tanks of gas are required to burn a body. The incinerator operates at 760 to 1150° C for one to three hours, releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and unless the crematorium has invested in a modern retort, other toxins reach the atmosphere. After the flame process, the bones are pulverized into ‘ashes’. These cremated remains are very high in pH and sodium, which is harmful to roots and leaves. (An amendment product is available which can help to neutralize this).
Does a natural burial need to take place quickly after death?+
There is no prescribed time frame, but a natural burial will typically take place within a week following death. Depending on where you live, the body may be cared for for longer periods. Some families choose to have a private burial take place shortly after death, to be followed by a funeral or celebration of life at a later time.
Will my body be eaten by animals?+
Not to worry, you are safe from the animals. By law, the top of a body must be buried 2 feet beneath the surface, and that’s too deep for the animals to smell. They aren’t interested anyway. It’s too much earth so they find food on the surface far more enticing. There are natural burial sites all around North America and scavenging animals aren’t a concern.
What happens to the body after burial? +
A natural burial allows us to reconnect to the earth. In laying the dead to rest in a biodegradable shroud or burial container, free of harsh embalming chemicals or synthetic materials, the body will naturally decompose. As the body decays water, heat and rich organic compounds containing essential nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus will be released. These three things are essential for life to thrive and following an initial spike in their concentrations shortly after burial, they create excellent growing conditions for plant, microbial and microscopic life. Other organisms such as fungi also play a role in breaking down the body and distributing nutrients throughout the soil through a web of root-like structures called mycelium that link many parts of the soil ecosystem. Local biodiversity will flourish throughout the food web all thanks to the release of stored energy from the body over days, weeks, months and years.
Can I have a natural burial if I have a medical implant? +
The bylaws of each cemetery vary, but most natural burial grounds accept bodies with medical devices. While it is not ideal to bury non-biodegradable materials, it is still considerably better than the alternative of a conventional burial or cremation.
Can I plan to donate my body to science and seek a natural burial? +
Anatomical donations are usually compatible with green burials. When an individual specifies that they would like to donate their organs or tissues, this will typically take place immediately after death. Once the targeted organs and tissues have been removed, the family is free to arrange the burial of their loved one. However, some individuals specify that they would like to donate their body for anatomical study, often through a local university. In this case, the entire body is donated, and a green burial will not be possible. A cremation may ultimately follow this donation. If you’d like to donate your body to science you may want to have a back-up plan, as there are more donations than need, so many bodies can’t be accepted. For more information on anatomical donations, the Trillium Gift of Life Network is a great resource. You can visit them at https://www.giftoflife.on.ca/en/.
Will a natural burial ground accept cremated remains? +
Most natural burial sites will accept cremated remains for burial or scattering. Ashes are high in pH and saline, which is harmful to roots and soil. Some natural burial grounds may suggest mixing the ashes with an amendment, which helps to neutralize the harm.
How much will a natural burial cost? +
Green burials are less expensive than conventional burials. Most natural burial sites try to keep the price as low as possible, in an effort to make this environmentally friendly option accessible to everyone. In addition, the burial container will be modest, and there will not be a concrete burial vault or grave marker to add to the cost. Cremation is usually less expensive than burial, however it is a much greater cost to the environment.
In Ontario, consumers must pay the highest cemetery perpetuity fees in all of Canada. The Natural Burial Association is trying to change this.
Can disease leech into the soil? +
The vast majority of diseases die within hours of when we do as disease causing bacteria and virus’ cannot survive outside of the body for long. The bacteria that promote decomposition are not the same bacteria that spread disease and are naturally present in the soil. Direct contact with the soil ecosystem will help to recycle nutrients from the body faster than if left in a sealed vault or casket and helps to promote diverse plant and animal life.
Do I require a funeral home to arrange a natural burial? +
The assistance of a funeral home is not required by law. Many families may find funeral homes helpful, in that they can assist with the necessary paperwork and transfer of the deceased, and can provide the facilities for a viewing or funeral. Unfortunately, many funeral homes are not necessarily familiar with natural burials, and may not be equipped to serve green families. For example, the funeral home may not carry biodegradable burial containers. (Anyone can purchase such a container from various providers online, however, funeral homes reserve the right to refuse an outside casket). Some families may consider foregoing the assistance of a funeral home, and can instead look to a local “transfer service” instead. These companies are typically less costly, and aim to assist strictly with the paperwork and transportation of the deceased (though they are often only available in urban areas).
It is highly recommended that you look into your local death care options in advance, and contact funeral homes or transfer services ahead of time to familiarize yourself with their options. To know your rights as a consumer in Ontario, see the Bereavement Authority of Ontario’s Consumer Information Guide at https://thebao.ca/for-consumers/consumer-information-guide/.
Alternatively, more and more Canadians are finding that they would like to take after-death care into their own hands. It is possible to plan the burial without a funeral home, even to hold a viewing in an individual’s own home, and there is a growing community of support to help achieve this. For more information on home funeral and holistic death practices, visit Community Deathcare Canada at https://www.communitydeathcare.ca/.
Can I visit the grave after a green burial?+
Natural burial grounds are intended to be sanctuaries for the dead and the living. People are encouraged to visit the site, and be in this natural setting. We’ve heard family members say “I came here feeling sad, but I leave feeling happy.”
Natural burial grounds don’t have the big tombstones seen in conventional cemeteries. Instead, there are either modest flat, locally sourced stones, or a communal marker, such as a boulder with the names engraved. To enhance the sense of being steeped in nature, some natural burial grounds are doing away with grave markers. Instead, a family can easily find their loved one using GPS. Legally, every cemetery must be able to locate its residents, yet we like to think that the entire meadow, or woodland is the memorial place for each person laid to rest.
Can I view the body prior to a natural burial?+
You absolutely can view your loved one before the burial. In fact, grief counselors often encourage families to view the body and say goodbye. Many people will seek the assistance of a funeral home to facilitate a viewing. An embalming procedure will be offered, but it is not legally required, and is not accepted at natural burial grounds. Instead, instruct the funeral home to forego embalming and other invasive procedures, and to simply close the eyes and mouth of your loved one. Keep in mind that a viewing should take place within a couple days following a death, and it is recommended that the body be kept in a cool environment during the interim.
A funeral home is not required to facilitate a viewing; this can take place in the family home. Many will find this to be a more comfortable and organic option for their family, especially if the death occurred in the home. Many people will seek an end of life doula for guidance in this area. For more information on home funerals and holistic death practices, visit Community Deathcare Canada https://www.communitydeathcare.ca/ or End Of Life Doula Association https://endoflifedoulaassociation.org/membership-roster/.
Can I still have a funeral if I would like a natural burial?+
Funerals (or celebrations of life and memorials) are an important part of commemorating a life lived. Whether it be big or small, religious or secular, a ceremony is absolutely compatible with green burials. A service may be held prior to the burial, at a place of worship, funeral home, family home, or even outdoors at the burial site. Many families prefer to proceed with an intimate natural burial first, and then host a ceremony at a later time, in a manner and at a location that is meaningful to the family.
Is natural burial compatible with my religious beliefs?+
An individual’s religious beliefs are personal, and so are their choices at death. Many people of faith feel that natural burials compliment their beliefs more than conventional dispositions. Natural burials may be considered an interpretation of “earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust”. In Jewish and Muslim burials, it is customary that there is no embalming, and that the body be in physical contact with the soil when buried. If you are unsure of how a green burial may fit in with your religious customs, it may be helpful to speak to your community’s religious leader for clarity.
What do I do if I’d like a natural burial?+
If you are interested in green burial, you are part of a growing community that shares your enthusiasm for more sustainable and meaningful death care practices. The most important step is to share your wishes with your family or friends. It can be a difficult conversation to raise, but your family will be glad to know that they are fulfilling your wishes. Here’s a document that will help you sort through the planning consideration. NBA Guide for Natural Burial We also have a brochure that might help you initiate the conservation: Natural burial – a conversation starter.
What’s the difference between a green burial and a natural burial?+
There’s no difference between a ‘green’ or ‘natural’ burial. We like to use ‘natural’ because it’s the most accurate. As well, ‘green’ is a term that is distorted, and the death-care sector is no exception. To truly be a natural (or green) burial, there are elements that occur below ground (no embalming, a biodegradable casket or shroud, and no vault) and above ground (land stewardship). Some cemeteries say they are green, but fall short. They don’t restore the land to its natural habitat miss that special TLC factor.
Green also has political connotations and the wonderful thing about natural burial is that it appeals to people of all ages, cultures and political stripes.
Are there gravestones in a natural burial ground?+
Legally, every cemetery must be able to show a family where their loved one is. At natural burial grounds, there may be a modest marker, such as a locally sourced stone, or there may be a communal marker, such as a boulder with names engraved. There’s a sense that the entire beautiful natural area is their legacy, protected forever by their presence in the ground. GPS is becoming increasingly popular as a way of locating residents.
Can I be buried on my own property?+
The Bereavement Authority of Ontario’s (the delegated authority on cemeteries) response to this question is:
“In Ontario, a full body and/or cremated remains must be interred/buried in a licensed cemetery. In the FBCSA, the definition for “cemetery” is as follows:
(a) land that has been established as a cemetery under this Act, a private Act or a predecessor of one of them that related to cemeteries, or
(b) land that was recognized by the registrar as a cemetery under a predecessor of this Act that related to cemeteries, and includes,
(c) land that, in the prescribed circumstances, has been otherwise set aside for the interment of human remains, and
(d) a mausoleum or columbarium intended for the interment of human remains; (“cimetière”)
If you are looking to inter human remains on one’s own property, you will first have to establish a cemetery on that land and become a licensed operator.”
But doesn't burial take up too much space?+
It sure does, and that’s good. Every inch of space you take up is leaving a legacy of nature because at natural burial grounds, the land is restored and protected in it’s natural eco-habitat. You may also be thinking that we don’t have enough space if everyone opts for natural burial. We’ve got that covered. We’re working with the government to see if graves can be re-used, as they are in Europe, Quebec and some US states. After several decades, your body has decomposed. If there are any remains, such as teeth, they are dug deeper, allowing for a new grave closer to the surface to welcome someone else. That means the natural burial ground is always sustainable, both economically and environmentally.
What if I want to do the legal paperwork without the help of a funeral home?+In regards to the death certificate, you can obtain one without a funeral home, however, it may not be available for a few weeks following the death. Here are all the documents you’ll need to worry about following a death (in Ontario).Medical Certificate of Death is provided by a doctor at the time of death. This is required to register the death with the province.Statement of Death is typically provided by the funeral home, but should be available at a Service Ontario. The family can fill this out.The Medical Certificate of Death and Statement of Death are both required to register the death in Ontario. Both documents need to be submitted to the province in order to obtain a Burial Permit, which is required to bury a body. Typically, the Medical and Statement are submitted to a local police station, but this can be verified at a local Service Ontario.Proof of Death Certificate is provided by the funeral home, and can be used for insurance purposes, banking, etc. In lieu of this document, a family may apply for an Ontario Death Certificate. This will only become available once the death has been registered, and may take several weeks. Here is the link to apply: https://www.ontario.ca/page/how-get-copy-ontario-death-certificate-onlineDeath benefit: If the deceased made contributions to Canada Pension Plan, there’s a one time lump sum payment, which currently is $2,500. Check the CPP website for details.It may be helpful to visit this website for more information on family led funerals:The Consumer Information Guide from the Bereavement Authority (www.thebao.ca) is also a good resource.
Can a natural burial contaminate water?+
As our bodies break down they release fluids and other products. Careful planning goes into natural burial site selection with standards such as a 250m setback from wells, and a 1m buffer above groundwater to disperse fluids into the ecosystem. Natural burial graves have an additional advantage over modern graves for dispersing fluids as they are shallower (2-3 feet/1m vs. 5-6 feet/2m) and are typically surrounded by the natural vegetation of forests or meadows. This keeps the body well above groundwater sources and allows plants and microbes to absorb nutrient rich fluids produced as our energy is recycled into the environment.
Are there burials in the winter?+
Yes, winter burials can occur. Communities like Thunder Bay have been doing it for years. A lot of cemeteries are hesitant because it takes more time and special equipment is needed, but as the demand grows, they are coming around. In the beautiful woodlot natural burial in Picton’s Glenwood Cemetery they take a different approach. They have a small, charming limestone building where they take care of the deceased over the winter until the spring thaw.
What's natural organic reduction (NOR)?+
Natural organic reduction (the brand name is Recomposition) returns the body to earth through individual composting, resulting in healthy, nutrient-rich soil, which is then placed in the cemetery. For about four weeks the body is placed in a tubular container, along with straw and woodchips and other elements that prompt decomposition. Then bone fragments are removed, placed in a cremator, and returned to the soil to cure for another four weeks. At the end of this period there’s about two wheelbarrow’s worth of soil which can contribute to the ecosystem at a natural burial ground or other rehabilitated land. As of early 2022, NOR has been legalized in four US states, but not yet in Canada.
What's water cremation or alkaline hydrolysis?+
During alkaline hydrolysis or water cremation (the brand names are Resomation and Aquamation), the body is put in a pressure cooker with water and potassium hydroxide (KOH) or sodium hydroxide (NaOH). These are very strong alkalis more commonly known as lye (KOH or NaOH are the active ingredient in most liquid drain cleaners.) The body is heated under great pressure for several hours. The remaining brownish liquid is flushed away, ending up in water treatment facilities, and the bones are pulverized, similar to flame cremation.
Sodium hydroxide is manufactured in electrochemical cells and is one of the most energy-intensive industrial operations*.
*source: US Department of Energy