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.
Digging into natural burial and other end-of-life questions
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; 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. This way, even those who have chosen cremation, have an opportunity to have a final resting place in nature, and can help to protect that natural landscape, simply by being buried there. Cremated remains 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 need a funeral home for body care and/or the paperwork? +
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, there are funeral homes that are not familiar or supportive of natural burials. 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). If you know which natural burial ground you like, ask them to recommend a friendly funeral home, either near the cemetery or near your home.
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.
A family member may assume the responsibilities that usually are undertaken by the funeral home. This includes transportation and care of the body, documentation including death registration, obtaining a Coroner’s Cremation Certificate (required for all cremations) or Out of Province Certificate (if a body will cross a provincial boundary for disposition) or arranging religious or personal ceremonies to mark the death. Of course, they cannot embalm.
While it is possible for family members to provide these services without a license, in some cases it may be advisable for family members to seek the services of a death doula, or licensed funeral establishment, or transfer service for some aspects of funeral arrangements. For example; a family member may not have a vehicle that can transport the body, or the means to transfer a casket or container into or out of a residence for a home funeral or vigil. For some people, the experience of grieving may make it difficult to adequately prepare and submit the necessary documentation to register a death or obtain a Coroner’s Cremation Certificate.
When contemplating family-led death care, it is important to note that institutions, like hospitals or nursing homes, may not be aware that it is legal for family members to provide funeral services for their deceased family members. It is best that planning for family-led death care take place well in advance, including direct communication with the institutions or organizations that may be involved to ensure that there is no misunderstanding at the time of need. (source: https://thebao.ca/for-consumers/family-led-death-care/). The Home Funeral Alliance (US) website has many helpful resources for leading a home funeral, and to learn more about death doulas and other resources, visit Canadian Integrative Network for Death Education and Alternatives.Death benefit: If the deceased made contributions to Canada Pension Plan, there’s a one time lump sum payment, which currently is $2,500.
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?+
As far as the definition goes, there’s no difference between a ‘green’ or ‘natural’ burial. We like to use ‘natural’ because it’s the most accurate. Green implies an environmental gesture. Natural burial is that and more. It is the most eco-friendly way of caring for our dead, and protecting nature, but without any commercial process, it connects us back to the earth, within the web of life.
‘Green’ is laden with ‘green wash’ and to some has political connotations. The wonderful thing about natural burial is that it appeals to people of all ages, cultures and political stripes, and it’s chosen for reasons that go beyond healing our planet.
Are there gravestones in a natural burial ground?+
Legally, cemetery operators must be able to locate every grave, regardless of how the graves are marked. 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 cemetery’s entire natural landscape is the legacy of the deceased, not just the 8 x 4 plot. GPS is becoming increasingly popular as a way of locating loved ones because it doesn’t disrupt the natural setting.
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?+
Some hybrid natural burial grounds offer winter burial, others don’t. It’s important to check first, because at a time of grief, it adds to the hardship to hear that the burial cannot occur. Rather, the body is taken care of in a cool environment over the winter. Unfortunately this necessitates the body is embalmed. There are environmentally friendly alternatives to formaldehyde, but embalming is an invasive process which takes away the nutrients that could have returned to the earth.
We are hoping that as natural burial becomes more popular, cemeteries offer burial year-round. If it’s offered 52 weeks of the year in Thunder Bay, it should be available further south.
One option is Picton’s Glenwood Cemetery, which has onsite a small, charming limestone building where they take care of the deceased over the winter until the spring thaw.
What's human composting or natural organic reduction (NOR)?+
Natural organic reduction, sometimes referred to as ‘human composting’, returns the body to earth through individual composting, resulting in healthy, nutrient-rich soil, which is then placed in the cemetery. For about sixty days the body is placed in a tubular container, along with straw and woodchips and other elements that prompt decomposition. At some point the bone s are removed, ground, and returned to the soil to cure for another four weeks. At the end of this period there’s about one cubic metre of soil which is returned to the family. As of early 2023, NOR has been legalized in sixUS states, but not yet in Canada.
What's alkaline hydrolysis?+
Another commercial process, alkaline hydrolysis or liquid cremation, has recently been approved in Ontario, as an alternative to flame cremation. While CO2 emissions are lower, the disrobed body is placed in a chamber that holds over 300 litres of water and the same alkaline chemicals that are commonly found in household cleaners (s0dium hydroxide, potassium hydroxide). The effluent is discharged as wastewater.
Similar to flame cremation, the bones are pulverized to produce cremated ‘ashes’. Unfortunately, their high pH and sodium levels render ashes harmful when planted or scattered.
Can my pet be buried with me?+
The Ontario Government has updated the law to allow for pet burials, provided they are house pets, cremated and buried in a designated section of a cemetery set aside for human and their pets.
I already have my natural burial site, but would like to know more about the actual burial of a body and services for people to say goodbye.+
The answer to this question is really ‘the sky’s the limit’. Keeping in mind that funerals are for both the dead and the living, here are some considerations:
AT THE NATURAL BURIAL GROUND:
- Participating in the laying to rest of a loved one is very moving and helps us in our grief. Ask the cemetery:
- can you dig the grave, decorate the grave, help to lower the body, fill in the grave
- are there native memorializations , such as trees, wildflowers, etc, that can be purchased (note, a sapling cannot be planted directly above the grave until the soil has settled). Explore the cemetery’s other memorialization options.
- Would you like to carry the deceased to the cemetery and the grave, or would you like a funeral home to oversee this. Are there pallbearers, and if so, who?
- Does the cemetery offer chairs, tables, if you’d like a service there
- What are the accessibility considerations at your chosen cemetery
- The vessel holding the deceased can be meaningful. If it’s a shroud, is there special (natural) fabric, or blanket? If it’s a box, it could be handcrafted, and it can be decorated, such as a pinebox with written messages. (Note a funeral home/cemetery will want to approve a container purchased outside of their business). People can place notes with the deceased. How will the deceased be dressed?
- The interment (actual burial) can include a larger gathering or just family or a select few.
CEREMONIES/CELEBRATION OF LIFE/MEMORIALS/FUNERAL SERVICE
- There may be one ceremony, which could take place at the natural burial ground, or there can be several events in addition to the interment (eg, place of worship, pub or restaurant, club, home). The order of events is entirely up to you – burial before or after a cemetery, on the same day or many days/months apart.
- There can be a home funeral, followed by the burial within 3 – 5 days following the death. (More information on that is above).
- Ceremonies are most meaningful when they are customized to celebrate the deceased. Music, readings and speeches, location, decorations , memorabilia, photos and food can all be personalized.
- Consider engaging a celebrant. Try to avoid a cookie-cutter celebrant. Instead, consider a professional who will meet with the family and friends and take the time (it takes many hours!) to craft a poignant ceremony that touches on all the special elements that resonate.
This is not an exhaustive list! Just as weddings have adapted over time to be more of a reflection of the couple, so too can a funeral be a reflection of the deceased. Please plan ahead. When someone has died, planning a funeral, and second guessing that the right decisions are being made, can be overwhelming at a time of grief.
- Participating in the laying to rest of a loved one is very moving and helps us in our grief. Ask the cemetery: