A photo of a cemetery.
A photo of a cemetery. Credit: Jill Dimond / Unsplash Credit: Jill Dimond / Unsplash

“I’m comfortable with the idea of my own mortality. I’m not comfortable with the future of the planet,” Susan Greer, Executive Director of the Natural Burial Association (NBA).

The volunteer, non-profit organization offers a burial option that cares for the planet, engages friends and family, and creates beautiful natural spaces for the greater community to enjoy.

In an interview with rabble.ca, Greer outlined the reasons why the provincial government should view burial grounds through climate change, environmental impact and land use lenses.

Natural burial grounds are vastly different from the conventional, for-profit, corporate model that dominates the funeral industry. As such, it can be argued that natural burial grounds deserve special consideration.

Not only is their carbon footprint and environmental impacts much lower, but their innovative land use creates beautiful spaces teaming with biodiversity.

While natural burial is flourishing in the United States and Britain, there is only one public, stand alone natural burial ground in Canada, Salt Spring Island Natural Cemetery in B.C.

Catherine Valentine and Gavin Johnston designated 13 acres (5.5 hectares) behind their farm for natural burials. The stand alone designation means the burial ground is not affiliated with an established cemetery. Instead, it’s nestled in a coastal Douglas fir forest that is home to native plants, wildlife, and insects.

Modest individual or communal markers dot the landscape. These markers are often a rock carved with an individual’s name or a boulder carved with the names of several people buried together.

Hybrid burial grounds, the norm in Canada, set aside an acre of land attached to a conventional cemetary. That area is dedicated to natural burials.

Care costs a licensing fee for new cemeteries

In Ontario, every cemetery is required to have a Care and Maintenance Trust Fund. When a full-body plot is purchased in Ontario, 40 per cent of the cost goes into this fund.

That fund is kept in perpetuity to cover upkeep and maintenance. If the cemetery is ever abandoned, think pioneer graveyards, then the municipality uses the reserve to cover the costs of manicuring lawns and repairing headstones.

In 2020, Ontario made a significant change to the trust fund that punitively impacted any new kids on the block — the vast majority of which are natural burial operators. Every new cemetery operator had to have up to $100,000 deposited in their care and maintenance fund before they could begin operations. Think of it as a licensing fee.

Then, in January 2022, the Ontario government raised the licensing fee to $165,000. This 65 per cent increase had no effect on established cemetery operators because they were grandfathered in along with any future extensions or expansions of their current operations.

Saskatchewan, the only other province with a licensing fee, requires $10,000 per 2.5 acres (1 hectare) with an additional 15 per cent per plot going to the care and maintenance fund.

Ontario’s exorbitant licensing fee is a major hurdle for natural burial operators and the movement in general. Not only are plot fees usually less expensive than those charged for conventional plots, but natural burial limits capacity to 300 plots per acre while traditional cemeteries work on a scale of 1,000 plots per acre.

In contrast, B.C. only requires 25 per cent of the cost of natural burial plots to go into a care and maintenance fund. The only other stipulation is the standard practice that only the interest can be used to cover maintenance and upkeep. After 21 months of providing natural burials, Salt Spring Island Natural Cemetery has $67,000 in their perpetual care fund.

Alberta doesn’t have private cemeteries. Municipal and religious cemeteries are not required to have a care and maintenance trust fund. Corporate funeral chains like Service Corporation International must contribute 15 per cent of the cost of the plot to their trust fund.

Nova Scotia also requires 15 per cent of the plot fee be put into trust. In Manitoba it’s 30 per cent and Yukon Territory 33 per cent.

New Brunswick, Quebec, Newfoundland, Prince Edward Island, Nunavut and Northwest Territories have no trust fund fees because municipalities are not responsible for abandoned cemeteries.

That certainly makes the $165,000 deposit necessitated by the Ontario government appear to be an attack on small, independent funeral businesses and in particular, those providing a service that curtails individual carbon footprints and minimizes environmental degradation.

Ford protecting corporate funeral interests

The Ford government’s licensing arrangement creates an unfair advantage that maintains status quo for the lucrative corporate funeral industry.

Natural burial doesn’t use embalming, expensive caskets, grave liners or tombstones. That really limits profit margins making it unappealing for corporate funeral providers who want to improve their bottom line and may have shareholders to keep happy.

Simultaneously, the exorbitant licensing fees effectively limit consumer choice to less environmentally friendly and more expensive burial options.

Greer and others from the natural burial movement met with the Ontario government in 2020, but it didn’t go well. The government claimed that interest in natural burial was only anecdotal.

In January 2022, the Natural Burial Association (NBA) conducted an online survey that was completed by 1,006 Ontario members of the Angus Reid Forum. The results showed 76 per cent of respondents thought the cemetery license fee should be lower, while 73 per cent indicated the consumer fee should be lowered.

The survey found that 53 per cent of those surveyed had never heard of natural or green burials. Also, 68 per cent of respondents had no idea that cremation was not eco-friendly.

Cremation harms the environment

Cremation is generally less expensive and more environmentally friendly than conventional burials. What most people don’t realize is that each body is incinerated for about two hours at 800 degrees Celsius. That’s equivalent to burning two full tanks of gas driving a full sport-utility vehicle (SUV). Think of how much carbon that’s releasing into the atmosphere.

And, if the cremation incinerators aren’t fitted with special filters, then particulate, mercury, nitrogen oxide and other toxins are released into the atmosphere.

Of the 71 per cent of respondents who indicated cremation was their first choice, a full 52 per cent changed their minds when told about natural burial.

The first natural burial ground was created in South Carolina in 1997 by Dr. Billy Campbell and his wife, Kimberly. They believe natural burial best serves the interests of people and the planet.

The un-embalmed body is buried in a shroud or biodegradable casket. Returning carbon and other minerals to the earth, is seen as a way to connect with, and be responsible to, the earth after death.

The United States and Britain are forward thinking with some natural burial sites exceeding 100 acres while others partner with land trusts or national parks.

The healing derived from natural burial extends beyond the earth and atmosphere. In this death denying culture Greer says, “Natural burial is actually more healthy because you see that loved one in the middle of the forest, in the middle of that meadow, the family and friends participate.”

Municipalities are often hesitant to designate land for a cemetery because it is held in perpetuity. But if you think of that land in terms of a park or green space that needs no manicuring, landscaping or even members fees like golf courses, then the space will be valued by community members who will walk, bird watch and picnic there.

According to Greer, all provinces need to update their legislation to accommodate a variety of burial choices. She points to Holstein, O.N. where a farmer donated an acre of land that’s located between the church cemetery and a woodlot. The site will be a hybrid natural burial ground where local sheep will trim the lawn.

Sheep notwithstanding, natural burial grounds are cheaper to maintain than conventional cemeteries especially in terms of watering, mowing, fertilizer and pesticide use — all of which contribute to the climate emergency.

It’s the $165,000 licensing fee – the reason there are no stand alone natural burial sites in Ontario — and the 40 per cent plot fee that unnecessarily inflate the cost of natural burial for consumers.

The NBA believes the lower environment impact of natural burials coupled with minimal care and maintenance should be reflected in the licensing and trust fees. To this end, they are asking the Ontario government to repeal the licensing fee and half the consumer fee to 20 per cent of the plot cost.

Greer sees natural burial as acknowledgement that we are mortal and part of nature. It allows people to reconnect with the earth and truly become part of the circle of life. But she also believes, “Mostly, it’s about the environment. Just saving the environment. Saving, protecting the land.”

Doreen Nicoll

Doreen Nicoll is weary of the perpetual misinformation and skewed facts that continue to concentrate wealth, power and decision making in the hands of a few to the detriment of the many. As a freelance...