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Death in the City: When City Cemeteries Are Full

Marina Morgan
Marina Morgan
September 15th 2022 - 10 minute read
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In this blog, we discuss what happens when city cemeteries are full and possible solutions.

Marina Morgan & Nicole Hanson

While traditional burial is no longer the preferred method of final disposition among Canadians (with approximately 70 percent of the population opting for cremation) 30 percent of Canadians final wishes will still include a traditional burial in a cemetery.

If 70 percent of Canadians are opting for cremation, why worry about the 30 percent that will choose a traditional burial? Well, in many countries around the world, there have been growing concerns about the lack of available burial space in cemeteries— especially because the number of people dying each year will increase. This means that the number of people within that 30 percent who will require a traditional burial for cultural or religious reasons will inevitably increase, and further compound the issue.  

It is estimated that by the year by 2026, the number of Canadians dying each year will increase by 40 per cent to 330,000 people, and in provinces such as B.C, Alberta, and Ontario, where burial space is already at a premium, creative solutions will have to be implemented.

On a large scale, many industry professionals are quiet about this impending shift. Even with a move towards cremations and alternative burial methods, we’re approaching a looming crisis in Canada (and many other parts of the world). While there might be just enough space for baby boomers wishing for a traditional burial, what does that mean for the generations that follow?

In cities such as Toronto, a single burial plot can cost between $15,000-$25,000, plus associated burial costs like headstones, caskets, and funeral/memorial costs, which typically run at an additional $4000-$6000. With traditional burial costs coming in at a minimum of $20,000, this method of disposition could eventually be reserved only for the privileged.

“Death is now an equity issue for those in the GTA and Toronto. We are going to be out of space in five to ten years” says Nicole Hanson— an environmental planner who specializes in cemetery urbanism. To further illustrate her point, Nicole notes that when a city runs out of space to bury the dead, it creates an elite system of who has access to be buried in a cemetery.

Why Is this happening?

Well, in many urban centres real estate is already at a premium— which is reflected in the price of residential and commercial properties. This means that oftentimes the municipal  governments first priority is not to allocate several acres of land as burial space for the deceased— especially with cremation rising in popularity among Canadians.  “We’ve managed to, on the whole, build healthy cities with good infrastructure and downtown cores and housing… but we’ve really neglected the importance of remembrance and places of grief and mourning.

The question then becomes: where will people be buried and how will we bury them?

In an attempt to answer this complex and pressing question, we spoke to Nicole Hanson —an environmental planner who specializes in cemetery urbanism, to obtain insights on why this is happening, the cultural importance of burial space, and what urban centres can do to address this issue.

How did you get into cemetery planning?

Cemetery land uses were not a land-use being planned for in the planning profession, and yet cemetery land uses are a need in the public interest. Cemetery land uses intersect with, class, culture, religion, socio-economic trajectories of everyone living in cities. Cemetery land uses are political, spatial, and are the only land uses planned for in perpetuity.

Why do you think burial space has become an issue in North America?

As a planner, it became apparent there is a lack of planning for cemetery land uses issues from a municipal official plan standpoint. Cemetery operators have been advocating for land use policy changes within Provincial Plans for more than a decade, and across North America are experiencing the same type of supply vs. demand issues and planning policy issues. Most cemeteries across North America do not have a Cemetery Master Plan implemented by their local city planning departments.

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What is the cultural significance of burial space and why is it important?

Cities and even rural communities are diverse. People have different religious, cultural needs, values, belief systems to memorialize/commemorate the death of a person. Spatially, death is a political and classes process that intersects with culture and identity politics. Who gets remembered, how, where, in what type of spatial performance (gravestone, maker, mausoleum, unmarked, columbarium), creates space/place and makes clear who has access to interment, in cemeteries, in which land is at a premium. People who are not able to equitably access cemetery land use, are not able to honour their cultural needs in death. The erasure of one's culture is also a present phenomenon within cemeteries.

What effect does running out of burial space have on the funeral industry?

One's memorialization needs will change. Should full-body burial be required, families may opt for cremation instead and revise the service/ceremony given the space issue. Processionals may not be required, due to one-stop-shop funeral services (now on-site at cemeteries). Funeral establishments (1 and 2) are now erected on cemetery land, as well as market changes in the supply vs. demand for urns and caskets /product changes.

What do you think the future of cemeteries will look like?

  • Ecological memorial parks
  • More licensed cemetery land uses within a park system (where culturally appropriate)
  • Cemetery parkettes (smaller scale, not sprawling or pastoral landscapes in which they started in the 1800s)
  • Public art installations as memorial pieces
  • No green space, or only green space
  • Memorial benches (memorialization is a part of cemetery land uses ) throughout urban parks as they are today
  • Naturalized/green cemeteries

Are there any countries that you feel have effectively addressed this issue?

  • As of February 2014, Texas implemented a cemetery vision plan that includes “...public meetings, engagement tools including stakeholder interviews, monthly newsletters placed in libraries & recreation centers, cemetery signage, media advisories, announcements at social meetings and direct emails to community members.”
  • New York City has incorporated cemetery planning into one of their master plans with the help of The Harlem African Burial Ground Task Force and the New York City Economic Development Corporation who have teamed up to restore and memorialize its historically and culturally significant colonial African burial ground in Harlem.
  • Mainland China is looking at the biggest movement of bodies in human history.
  • In 2014, “certain provinces in the north of China made the announcement that cremation was the only option.”
  • “In Israel, where the Jewish faith prohibits cremation, cemetery space is in such short supply that the country has been looking into building multi-storey high-rise cemeteries.”

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How can we address planning for mortality + cultural needs of death in our cities?

  • Cemetery master planning as being a part of the planning process
  • Cemetery feasibility studies and policies in Municipal Official Plan Reviews
  • Inventory of cemetery land uses of Cities across Ontario (at-need and pre-need)
  • Data on cultural needs in death, mortality rates, population projections, available cemetery land use
  • Securing community benefit charges for cemetery land uses where there is new development for subdivisions/condominiums
  • Address how cemetery land uses are becoming more dense spatially, cemetery by-laws need to address this

Other Possible Solutions to Limited Urban Cemetery Space

Challenging how we bury in perpetuity

In Ontario, the law requires that every internment right be sold in perpetuity, meaning that you and your heirs will own the internment rights forever. However, with what many would consider a “death boom” expected within the next few years, one possible solution could be to convince municipalities across the province to consider grave reuse— a system that seeks to address the lack of burial space and death equity concerns in many European countries.  

Grave reuse

Grave reuse is system that has worked efficiently for cities all over the world, particularly in Europe. Yet in countries where grave reuse is not the cultural norm, attempts to begin reusing plots–in cities such as Durban, Sydney and London–have faced resistance and accusations that religious and cultural traditions are being violated.

The problem is most acute in cities that do not practise grave recycling. Countries such as Singapore, Germany and Belgium offer public graves for free–but only for the first 20 or so years. Thereafter, families can either pay to keep them (often on a rental basis) or the graves are recycled, with the most recent residents moved further into the ground or to another site.

While controversial for religious and cultural reasons, the notion of ‘graves as permanent resting places’ may need to be reconsidered for future generations whose final wishes include a traditional burial. “In some countries, including Germany, gravesites are often ‘leased’ to families. If the deceased’s descendants can’t continue to keep paying for a gravesite after a few decades, its contents are reburied further into the ground or to another site, and the burial plot is reused.”

How do you want to be memorialized?

At Eirene, we know that there are a myriad of factors that influence the decision to be cremated, buried, or honoured with an alternative form of final disposition—that’s why we have made it our mission to provide you with all of the information you and your loved ones need to choose the method of final disposition that is right for you. While there is no right or wrong way to memorialize yourself or someone else, we hope that this blog has got you thinking about your preferences for memorialization and end-of-life.

Even though we do not currently offer burial services at Eirene, we understand that the current lack of burial space in Ontario has made accessing traditional burial challenging for some. If you or someone you know has concerns about being able to access traditional burial for religious or cultural reasons, please visit our blog on what financial assistance you may be eligible for— because everyone deserves access to dignified death care.  

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