Graveyard shift: How cities are planning for the future of death

For some Ontario communities, density isn’t just a housing issue — it’s a burial issue, too
By Justin Chandler - Published on Apr 08, 2021
According to cemetery operators, columbaria, which hold urns with cremated remains, are increasingly popular. (Justin Chandler)

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HAMILTON — The pandemic has reinforced how important cemeteries are as places in which to remember, mourn, and simply spend time outside, says environmental planner Nicole Hanson. But, she adds, COVID-19 has also highlighted a growing problem: capacity issues. As urban centres in Ontario expand, real-estate markets surge, and remote-work trends encourage people to move to smaller municipalities, more cemetery land will be needed to accommodate the dead.

“There's no public conversation on cemetery land use, capacity, and demand,” says Hanson, a member at the Ontario Professional Planners Institute. “Cemeteries are perpetual generational spaces. We have to talk about the cemetery-planning horizon in relation to 100 years.”

She thinks that, as part of their COVID-19 recovery plans, all municipalities should assess the impact of the pandemic on cemeteries, local interment capacity, and land use.

In Hamilton and Niagara Falls, municipal-cemetery operators agree that planning ahead is important and say that they’re creating and following plans to develop their cemetery land, densify where possible, and adapt to changing consumer tastes.

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rows of memorial plaques with flowers
Cemeteries have the option to densify by filling vacant land within plots they already own and building columbaria spaces. (Justin Chandler)

Kara Bunn, Hamilton’s manager of parks and cemeteries, says that the city  operates and maintains 69 cemeteries (some of which are inactive). In 2015, it commissioned a strategy and land-needs assessment from Lees & Associates Cemetery Planners. It found that the then-67 city-owned cemeteries contained nearly 200 acres of undeveloped land, which, when fully developed, would give most areas of Hamilton more than 50 years’ capacity. (Stoney Creek and Dundas would have 44 years and 15 years, respectively.)

While 25- and 50-year spans may seem like a long time, “in the cemetery world, a 25-year plan would be a short-term plan,” says Darren Denomme, executive director of the Ontario Association of Cemetery and Funeral Professionals, adding that it can take eight to 10 years to get a new cemetery up and running in an urban centre.

In the Lees & Associates assessment, “they had suggested that we purchase additional land in Dundas, which we have done,” Bunn says. Parkside, the new cemetery there, is slated to open by the end of the year. The city is looking for opportunities to expand an existing cemetery in Stoney Creek, she adds, but hasn’t confirmed a plan yet.

In 2016, Hanson told TVO.org that the Greater Toronto Area was at risk of running out of cemetery land within 10 to 20 years. What this meant, she said, was that more people were looking to bury their dead in the outskirts of the GTA, where cemeteries had more capacity and more affordable prices. That trend has continued, Hanson says, and now “people are leapfrogging out into the more suburban and exurban areas.”

According to Bunn, Hamilton’s cemetery capacity is not a significant worry right now, and she says that, given the availability of land, she’s not concerned about an influx of out-of-town burials. (John Perrotta, the city’s superintendent of cemeteries, notes that Hamilton’s cemeteries have not seen more interments during the pandemic, despite there having been more deaths; he attributes this to a decrease — the first in about a decade — in the number of interments of cremated remains.)

“What happens when we run out of cemetery space?” Nicole Hanson on The Agenda in October 2016.

Mark Richardson, who manages cemetery services in Niagara Falls and is a member of Natural Burial Association, says that, in 2013, his cemeteries had a 20-25-year lifespan. But, he says, that window has “drastically reduced,” as full-body burials remain relatively popular in the community, making up 40 to 45 per cent of all burials. In Hamilton, the Lees report found that, between 2006 and 2012, cremation increased from 53 per cent of burials to 61 per cent and predicted that it would hit 73 per cent within 25 years. Richardson says that cremations extend the life of cemeteries but are not as popular with “traditional” populations. Now, he adds, “we're undergoing a master-planning process, because we need to ensure that we have land available for future development.” He hopes a report based on that process will be ready for council within the year.

Cemeteries, Richardson says, also have the option to densify by filling vacant land within plots they already own and building columbaria spaces, which, he notes, are selling quickly in Niagara Falls. (Columbaria are vaults with spaces to hold urns with cremated remains.) In his view, new cemeteries should include columbarium gardens and accommodate green burials, something he advocates for as part of the Green Burial Society of Canada, a national non-profit. The practice does not use embalming fluids or concrete and so allows bodies to naturally decompose in the earth. It also, Richardson says, allows for the use of such spaces as woodlots, which had previously been considered undevelopable.

Bunn agrees that columbaria can also be part of the solution in Hamilton — and notes that Hamilton this year moved to allow green burials in a select area of the Mount Hamilton Cemetery. In addition to being more environmentally friendly, she says, green burial plots can save space; her team is currently considering natural burial plots of 24 square feet (a typical lot size is 35 square feet). “When you picture that, in the overall space, we actually can fit a few more lots in than you would have with a traditional burial.”

Cemetery capacity is about more than space calculations. It also, Hanson says, relates to a concept she calls death equity. In part, that means being able to die in one’s own community. “Because land is finite and at a premium within a cemetery,” she says, “there are certain people that will have more access to be buried in a lot, depending on where it is.” And as people leave the GTA for surrounding areas like Hamilton and Niagara, they’re “going to want to die in those communities,” Hanson says. “For that reason, cemeteries in the Niagara region and Hamilton and Burlington need to reconsider cemetery capacity and the common relationship between supply and demand.”

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