Would you like a natural burial ground in your community?

Launching a natural burial ground in your community

The responsibility for launching and operating a cemetery, including a natural burial ground, is momentous.  The people we see successfully launch natural burial grounds are especially talented individuals. Compassion for families and for the planet might be the motivating factor to want to create a natural burial ground, but that’s not enough. You are assuming a sacred responsibility, one that exists long after we’re gone. Operationally it requires a flawless system, usually with the help of software, for the many project management tasks, involving pre-need, at-need, land stewardship, grave prep, ceremony planning, etc. You must know the laws inside out and backwards, and keep records on the location of every burial plot.  Ontario is the only province with a dedicated agency that oversees deathcare – the Bereavement Authority of Ontario (BAO). BAO requires reports on an annual basis. There’s insurance, legal issues, annual audits, perpetuity funds to oversee.  We don’t mean to scare you off, but it’s important you know what lies ahead.

If we didn’t scare you off, the rewards can hardly be put into words. Attend one webinar put on by any of the trailblazers who run natural burial grounds and you will see the passion. They love their work, and are rewarded daily seeing the contribution they are making to their community, to their ecosystem, and to the families they serve. Every day is different but the positive response and the need they fulfil motivates them to address each challenge and seek out each new opportunity. They aren’t motivated by profit, but, the site must run like a business.

Overall Process

The cemetery can’t launch without a cemetery licenses.  This documents explains the process and approvals that are required in Ontario.Developing a Natural Burial Ground

 

Legislation

Here’s the Ontario legislation which cemeteries must follow. It’s called the Funeral, Burial and Cremations Act.

Government Oversight

The organization that approves cemetery applications and maintains standards is the Bereavement Authority of Ontario.

Green Burial Council

The Green Burial Council is a robust organization which supports green burials across North America and beyond, offering both accreditation and education. Even though the material caters to a US audience, it’s a great resource. There are documents, conferences and peer to peer online forums and you can sign up for their e-news. In Canada, the Green Burial Society of Canada accredits natural burial grounds.

The two types of natural burial grounds: hybrids and standalones

Stand-alones are the expansive sites in the countryside, meadows or forest which truly feel at one with nature. They may be a distance from people’s community but the idea of a large swathe of protected nature is one that appeals to many. Sometimes that’s not possible. In that case, you could promote the idea of creating a hybrid (a small natural section within a conventional cemetery).Here are some tips:

  • gather names of people in your community who are supportive of a natural burial ground
  • reach out to the Natural Burial Association for documents that explain natural burial and can augment your pitch. We can also launch a social media campaign.
  • contact your town councillor and/or urban planner and see if you can find a champion to consider creating a hybrid in a municipally owned cemetery
  • contact the privately owned cemeteries in your community. The Natural Burial Association can provide you with documentation that promotes the cause.

 

Common Questions

  • What about winter burials?+

    Winter burials are possible (perhaps with exceptions in the extreme north), however they require additional time, planning and probably additional equipment.   In many cemeteries, backhoes with jackhammers are used to break through the frost line, whereas others will use ground warming mats or heating devices to reduce the frost.  Some cemeteries will open lots in sections in advance of the winter, in order to accommodate “at need” services.  This of course limits the location of the plot.

    With respect to a mini excavator, many contractors and cemeteries use this machine for the opening and closing of a grave while others use a backhoe or alternative.

    Safety is an important consideration. Shoring (boarding up the sides of the grave as well as ground that borders the grave) is necessary, especially when there’s wet or muddy soil, ice or unstable ground.

     

  • What soil conditions are optimal for natural burial?+

    A cemetery isn’t approved if the water table is too high. (there must be a metre between the body and the water table). Flood zones are not permissible as well as land near wells (plots must be 75 metres from potable water sources).  Most soil type, including thick clay, sandy loam, meadow and wood lot are conducive to cemeteries. Bedrock poses a challenge. The land doesn’t have to be flat. Open fields and meadows are conducive to natural burial, as well as woodlot. To protect the trees, there can’t be as many burial plots/acre,  but people love the idea of their final rest being among the trees.

  • What about location?+

    Cemeteries require road access. Zoning is also a big consideration. Since cemeteries don’t pay taxes, municipalities aren’t likely to approve a cemetery in an area designated for development or residential. Zoning changes from municipality to municipality, but most cemeteries fall under Open Space/Industrial. You might be asking ‘but it’s a green burial ground’ however planners still see it as a cemetery.

    A cemetery between two protected environmental areas would be perfect! It provides a nature corridor and is unlikely to be designated for development.

  • Does the timing of the application matter to the municipalities?+

    By law, municipalities in Ontario must have a statutory 5 year official plan review, and at this time they must consult with the public. Make natural burial a part of the initial discussion and public consultation. Gather champions to go to the public meetings, and make sure natural burial is a topic on the survey if your municipality issues a survey.  Find at least one councillor who understands what natural burial is, and can present the concept at town council meetings.

     

  • Is there a way around the $100,000 upfront Care and Maintenance Fund requirement?+

    Here’s the bad news. As of 2022 the Care and Maintenance Fund (necessary for every new cemetery) is being raised by 65% to $165,000. The Natural Burial Association is advocating against this (stay tuned). Initially the BAO said there may be leeway in this, given that natural burial grounds are a fraction of the cost of conventional cemeteries, but lately they’ve been reneging on that. One way to eliminate the fund requirement altogether is to partner with an existing cemetery.

  • Can graves be re-used?+

    Within Canada, only in Quebec and a cemetery in Vancouver,  have bylaws allowing for grave re-use.  NBA is advocating for this in Ontario. Why:

    • Municipalities will be more inclined to approve a new cemetery if they know it’s always going to be financially sustainable (otherwise they legally have to assume responsibility)
    • Some people want to be eco-friendly, but aren’t sure about the land that full burial takes up – even if it’s natural land that’s being protected. They like the idea of the land being reused.
    • Natural burial grounds  are fuelled by passion not profit. Usually the cost of a plot is low, because the owners want to make it accessible for everyone who would like a gentle goodbye. If a natural burial ground is always a sustainable business (eg, it never fills up) more people may entertain the idea of starting a natural burial ground.

    Grave re-use legislation is a top priority for NBA. If you would like to contribute to this lobby effort, please get in touch.

  • What are the financial costs of launching a natural burial ground?+

    Here are some costs to earmark:

    • Landscaping (you need a landscaping plan to show the municipality and BAO)
    • Hydro-geological study
    • Start up costs for infrastructure (that could be as minimal as a small, un-paved parking area, trails, tools, and washrooms).
    • Website and marketing costs

  • How can the Natural Burial Association help you create a natural burial ground?+

    We are a volunteer run organization whose mandate is to foster the creation of natural burial grounds in Ontario.  There’s so much learning necessary to get a natural burial ground up and running, our goal is to arm individuals and local communities with information so everyone has some tools to begin the task.  There’s still going to be lots of work, and each situation is different but we are here to help share learning.

    Here’s how we can help you:

    • Our website offers tons of information on what natural burial grounds are, with a list of sites in Ontario (that are truly natural burial grounds – not green wash), and about 30 answers to the commonly asked questions about natural burial. There’s also a pamphlet people can print to get the conversation going with their loved ones. Familiarize yourself with the site and encourage others to visit.
    • Let us know you want to start a natural burial ground. Our website gets thousands of visitors every month and the first page they visit is the page about Ontario. We will add your project to the list.
    • We are collecting not just names but postal codes of everyone interested in natural burial (via our e-news sign-up). Your municipal application may involve public input (eg, town halls).  The Natural Burial Association will help to rally your supporters, and help you prepare for public discussions.
    • In addition to building awareness of natural burial around the province, NBA creates marketing campaigns in support of local initiatives. These are strategically timed when you need the most support.
    • The Natural Burial Association also hopes to promote legislative change that will make NBG’s easier to create. The current laws make no distinction between natural burial (traditional) and conventional burial (grave markers, mowed lawn, etc).  We’d like to create a distinction between traditional and conventional burial in order that the initial fund requirement can be lower. After all, natural burials are a fraction of a cost to maintain compared to conventional burials.
    • We are advocating for a law allowing for grave re-use. It’s already practiced in Quebec and many other places worldwide. With grave re-use, the cemetery can always be financially sustainable – which in turn will be attractive to municipalities.
    • Keep in touch with us and let us know your goals. We might be able to put you in touch with people in the sector who can help you jump the hurdles that may come your way.