In Toronto, even the dead are paying too much for real estate

Ontario cities plan for birth, childhood, work and retirement, but are rapidly running of out cemetery and burial space. Why aren’t we planning for death?
By John Michael McGrath - Published on Oct 28, 2016

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Everyone living in Toronto is going to die at some point, and the city doesn’t have a plan to deal with it. But don't worry: it’s not quite as scary as it sounds.

According to Nicole Hanson, a community and cultural planner, Toronto is going to run out of casket burial space in 10-20 years, tops. Cemeteries around the city are already pulling out garden patches and pathways to make room for new plots, while others are building bigger and denser structures to hold a growing number of urns and other memorials.

“We need to build our communities with places of death and memorialization in mind,” says Hanson. She calls it “cemetery urbanism.”

About 40,000 people die each year in the Greater Toronto Area, and that number is only going to increase as the baby boom generations ages out of their golden years. That alone will continue to put pressure on the need for burial space in and around the region.

This means that more families in land-scarce parts of the GTA will be looking for burial plots on the periphery, and that people who live in those areas on the periphery — and might have once been able to afford plots near their homes — will either be priced out of the market, or have to shift their own burial plans further away in turn. Everyone will need to travel longer distances to visit their dearly departed.

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It will also disproportionately affect people of certain faiths.

“The land of the 905 is mainly non-denominational," Hanson explains. "It’s very open for atheists, Christians … but the lands for people with specific religious needs are more limited.”  For example, while non-denominational cemeteries may allow limited recreational uses (like the ubiquitous joggers in Toronto’s Mount Pleasant Cemetery) that’s unacceptable to some faiths, effectively excluding them from the most common available spaces.

As a hedge against the coming shortage, she says some religious congregations are buying up large numbers of plots to ensure they can be buried with people of their shared faiths.

So far, cities aren’t doing much to address the issue. Hanson points to a number of reasons why municipalities aren’t making burial space a priority. Cemeteries fall between the cracks when cities are allocating land to residential, commercial and industrial uses. They also don’t generate great jobs or tax revenue for a city, so councils aren’t enthusiastic about them the way they are about office towers.

There are some exceptions: York Region completed an assessment of its cemetery land needs in the spring. That review found that if current trends continue, York Region can expect to see 45,000 casket burials for people who lived outside of the region — and that number could balloon to 176,000 if prices drive more people than expected to look in York. In the latter scenario, non-residents being buried in York would outnumber residents by almost two to one and would use up the region’s capacity for cemetery land in 35 years.

“We’re planning these cemeteries for the demographics of a city, but some places are seeing large numbers of people come from outside the city,” says Hanson. “And they’ve noticed Toronto is coming over to die.”

Hanson was one of the deputants at a Toronto planning committee meeting last month, urging the city to undertake its own cemetery land needs assessment; the committee opted to defer any study indefinitely, citing an already-overburdened staff.

Hanson says cities have options for increasing their supply of cemetery land, if they’re so inclined. Some of the policies being adopted to increase the availability of affordable housing could work for burial spaces, in theory: Section 37 of the Planning Act and inclusionary zoning policies could both be used to force developers to contribute to the costs of acquiring burial land.

But even if cities do start taking the end of life seriously, Hanson concedes some places (like the core of Toronto) are simply out of space, and some families will have to endure long trips to burial plots. Unless, that is, they’re willing to do without traditional casket burials altogether.

This is already happening: York’s cemetery report shows that the large majority of people are already choosing cremation over casket burials. (Ontarians have the right to scatter cremated ashes on Crown land, with some restrictions.) As the cost of casket plots increases, that trend will likely continue. But this raises its own questions, such as how willing municipalities will be to welcome new crematoria and columbaria (the above-ground buildings for long-term storage of urns) in their communities. Even upgrades to existing crematoria can be controversial.

The other alternative is for Ontario to allow something that’s common in Europe: term burials. Instead of people being buried in one plot forever, cemeteries could offer a plot for a limited time — 10 years, or 25 or 50 — that could then be re-used if the family chose not to renew their lease.

This could also include reclaiming neglected plots: the City of London Cemetery in the U.K. has started re-using plots older than 75 years to deal with the shortage there.The latter doesn't come without complications, to be sure. “It raises ethical and moral issues when someone was buried 50, 70, or even 100 years ago,” says Hanson. “How do we determine somebody is due to be removed?”

Strategies for dealing with burial land shortage may also include breaking cultural associations between a body’s final place of rest and the quiet, contemplative spaces we’ve traditionally used for remembering the departed.

“Even when people scatter their loved one’s ashes, which is more and more common, they often want somewhere to come to where they can remember them,” says Hanson. “Whether we have green space … for memorials or monuments is going to change the architecture of death and how people are remembered.”

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