Torontonians hoping to extend the environmental consciousness they practise in life to the time of their death will have to wait to plan a local burial that has the lowest possible impact on the earth.

As the natural burial movement slowly gains momentum in Ontario, red tape and strict zoning requirements provide serious challenges to groups working to establish new and environmentally friendly cemeteries.

The Natural Burial Association and the Natural Burial Co-operative, both run by volunteers, strive to educate the public on the benefits of a simple and non-toxic interment. A body, which is not embalmed, is placed in the earth in a shroud or biodegradable container in a green space, such as a meadow. The area contains no concrete vaults, headstones or markers, paved pathways or roads.

Currently, the Union Cemetery in Cobourg, Ont. and the Royal Oak Burial Park in Victoria, B.C. are the only natural cemeteries in Canada. A natural burial site at the Woodlawn Memorial Park in Guelph, Ont. is currently in the design phase.

Cobourg Union Cemetery’s natural burial site. Courtesy ecoburials.ca.

Future site of Woodlawn Memorial Park’s proposed natural burial ground in Guelph. Courtesy of Woodlawn Memorial Park.

Mike Driscoll of the Guelph-based Natural Burial Co-operative said the main challenge in establishing new cemeteries is finding property that’s appropriately zoned and priced.

“If you need to change zoning, that’s a real challenge in the province nowadays where the agricultural land is being very carefully protected,” he told CityNews.ca.

Janet McCausland of the Natural Burial Association said any existing land in and around Toronto isn’t zoned for cemeteries and the amount of money and time it would take to have those areas rezoned is currently beyond the scope of a volunteer organization.

“The challenge is [the government] doesn’t see a conventional cemetery any differently than a natural cemetery,” she said. “What we need to be able to do is present a case about why a natural burial ground is actually significantly different than a conventional cemetery.”

The best route currently available may be establishing natural burial sites at existing conventional cemeteries that have unused land. The Union Cemetery, created in 1867,  started offering “eco burials” last year in a meadow overlooking Cobourg Creek.

“There’s no typical monuments, there’s no rows of monuments. Many people don’t put anything. Their idea is they want to leave nothing behind,” cemetery superintendent Michele Cabardos said.

Families can mark a loved one’s grave by planting a native plant or engraving a boulder on the cemetery’s perimeter.

Union Cemetery, Cobourg.

There have been five burials in the green area of the cemetery since it opened last year and Cabardos said there have been several pre-sales.

There are many levels of eco-friendliness in the funeral industry, says Scott MacCoubrey, owner of the MacCoubrey Funeral Home in Cobourg. He offers “green” funeral services, including non-toxic embalming fluids imported from Australia and Canadian-made caskets with non-toxic finishes.

“How much fuel will we consume by taking a van to Toronto, picking up the person who has died, bringing them back [to Cobourg]? So there’s all of these logistics to figure out within the green … premise,” he said.

The Mount Pleasant Group operates 10 cemeteries in the Greater Toronto Area – half of them in the 416 zone – and spokesman Rick Cowan said while no formal plans are in place, it is considering natural burial sites.

“There would be areas we could identify [on existing sites] to segregate off and do a natural burial area, but at this point, any plans we have aren’t formalized,” Cowan said.

“I would anticipate that it’s not too far off in the future.”

McCausland said her group has considered partnering with land conservation groups such as Ontario Nature, which operates 22 land reserves in the southern part of the province, to develop appropriate properties.

“We don’t have a formal position on this,” Ontario Nature spokesman Mark Carabetta said.

The group receives land from various sources, including bequeathments, and Carabetta said honouring a donor’s intention of protecting land and nature is the first priority.

“But on certain reserves there may be an area that’s a former agricultural field which is now a meadow surrounded by forested land. There’s past impacts to that land. It’s not necessarily in its natural state. That might be an ideal situation for something like natural burial,” he said.

In an effort to fund the Natural Burial Co-op’s initiatives to obtain land, Driscoll started Tribute Caskets, a line of fully biodegradable fibreboard coffins made with non-toxic glues that can be decorated with vegetable-based inks.

Driscoll said a conventional casket, described by some as “the finest piece of furniture you’ll never get to enjoy”, contains a mix of substances that don’t break down in the earth, and if they do, they’re toxic.

“It’s usually hardwood. It’s usually finished with a variety of stains and chemicals. It will have metal hardware on it. There may be some glues,” he said, adding coffins are often lined and padded with synthetic materials.

Driscoll expects to ship out the Tribute caskets by the end of the summer or early fall.

The Natural Burial Association has applied for funding from the Trillium Foundation. McCausland believes education is a key element in fostering the movement.

“It isn’t something that people like to talk about and I think that’s one of the reasons why this movement is so slow,” she said. “In the U.K., there’s more than 225 natural burial ground sites. They also have far less space.”

shawne.mckeown@citynews.rogers.com