Many people are championing the natural burial movement, but in Ontario two people stand out: Mark Richardson and Helma Oonk. Mark launched a natural burial ground in Niagara Falls and Helma in Picton. You’d think that because natural burial isn’t even a new idea, it would be easy to bring create a green burial ground — but it’s not. Mark and Helma accomplished quite a feat.
This story could be about the hurdles they jumped, and the creative ways in which they got funding and approvals, but their past is . With some exceptions, natural burial hasn’t captured the interest of the mainstream funeral industry. I can’t help but wonder if the windy roads that steered Mark and Helma to the cemetery business was key to their open mindedness. They saw a void between people who are environmentally conscientious, and an industry providing two toxic options: conventional burial and cremation. With grit and heart, Mark and Helma brought a new end of life option to their communities.
Growing up in Niagara Falls, Mark’s parents actively petitioned, marched and advocated for the environment. “They’re a big reason why I am who I am. When you see people like my folks who have spent their entire lives making it a better place for us, you see the need for green burial”. Mark graduated from Brock University in 2000 with a degree in English Language and Literature. He wanted to teach creative writing, but with no job prospects, he went back to school to study Human Resources. His professor said he ought to go into marketing, which he pursued until a friend, an ecologist at an environmental engineering consulting firm, suggested he jump on board. Mark found himself in the role of an environmental planner tasked with finding the best environmental options for water and waste water infrastructure. When the city of Niagara Falls posted a job to manage the environmental portfolio, Mark was tailor made for it, and he threw himself into natural habitat and woodlot restoration projects, eliminating plastic water bottle sales in city facilities, and taking on the multinational corporation that was extracting Niagara’s water for bottling. In 2012 Mark was promoted to manage Niagara Falls 22 cemeteries.
Helma also took a circuitous route to become a cemetery manager. Originally from the Netherlands, she was a landscape designer, and then moved to Germany where she opened a very successful flower shop. She said she was “so busy I didn’t like it anymore”, and she returned to the Netherlands. For a decade Helma was a truck driver, getting up in the middle of the night to deliver fresh bread. It’s hard to imagine Helma in this sedentary job given how active she is now, running around the cemetery and in her spare time running half marathons. It was personal loss that led Helma to the deathcare industry. After losing both her mother and her partner, she wanted to help others in their time of grief. For a decade, Helma thrived as a funeral director, appreciating that with over 60 nationalities in Amsterdam, no two funerals were alike. It was love that brought her to Canada in 2009, and she’s now managed Glenwood Cemetery for over 10 years.
In 2015 Helma was at a funeral industry conference and her ears perked when she learned about natural burials. That was all Helma needed to jump on the bandwagon and create a natural burial option for her community. Back in Picton, she earmarked a part of the cemetery that was off to the side, a wooded hilly area. That makes it the only woodlot burial in Ontario. Helma’s landscaping expertise ensures the burials don’t damage the tree roots. In this serene wooded area, you’ll find birds, deer and peace. The original 35 plots have already sold and what started as only a quarter of an acre Helma has expanded to over an acre. Helma has also trained as a funeral celebrant, offering a customized ceremony either among the trees of Glenwood or elsewhere.
When Mark assumed the role of cemetery manager, it was through his environmental lens that he saw the opportunity to provide an option for body care that was gentle to the environment. He fundraised, convinced council it wasn’t just a ‘hippie’ idea, travelled to BC to see natural burials in action, and in 2017, Willow’s Rest launched. It’s a two-acre natural oasis at the edge of the municipal Fairview Cemetery. He didn’t stop there. Envisioning a sanctuary for both the dead and the living, Mark introduced bee hives, butterfly pollinators, and welcomed school trips where students plant wildflower plugs and perhaps expand their idea of what a cemetery can be.
There aren’t enough natural burials grounds in Ontario to fulfill the escalating demand. Families in Niagara Falls and Picton are lucky. And the Natural Burial Association is lucky too. We’ll never know whether Mark and Helma’s zig zag career path got them thinking outside the box, but we are grateful to them both. They generously share their vision, expertise and time to help other Ontario communities launch natural burial grounds.
NBA’s Executive Director