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July 14, 2020

Lessons from COVID-19 for Cemetery Planning in Ontario

Name: Sam Jones, MScPl and Nicole Hanson, MES(Pl.), RPP, MCIP
Date: June 18, 2020

Where is your attention focused as a planner as we look towards recovery?
  • To create more knowledge about cemetery planning needs in the public interest.
  • To understand that municipalities are licensed cemetery operators.
  • To elevate the priority for long-term cemetery planning amongst elected officials and city-planners based on data (mortality rates, population projections, cultural needs in death, supply and demand of cemetery land uses, inventory of existing municipal cemetery capacities).
  • While alternative burial methods, like cremation, may be considered, many still require a full-body burial for religious reasons. And in either case burial space still needs to be allocated within cemeteries.
  • Recovery and contingency planning is required: planners need to assess the toll the pandemic has taken on cemetery land uses and address infill development and progressive cemetery planning policies (through a comprehensive, community-driven master plan, official plan reviews, in the public interest).
  • We also need to look back at our response to the crisis and figure out what we did well, what we did wrong, and what kinds of resources or systems we didn’t have that would have made things easier.
What opportunities are you seeing to do things better or that have come about as a result of COVID-19? How do we begin to get there?
  • This is a fairly under-studied corner of planning (e.g. only 3 APA PAS Reports out of about 600 since 1949 are about cemeteries).
  • Understanding how the Funeral, Burial, and Cremation Services Act, 2002, is compatible with the Planning Act, and Provincial Policy Statement.
  • Understanding that cemeteries are non-intrusive, green, and environmentally friendly and do not impact groundwater and wells. Cemeteries are part of complete communities and are compatible with other land uses.
  • Cemetery land uses can materialize as memorial parks, trails, memorial conservation lands that maintain detailed plant palettes, wetland and agricultural habitats.
  • Understanding that the planning horizon for a cemetery far exceeds the established provincial policy framework for 20 years. Cemeteries are planned within the context of multi-generations over 100 years.
  • Highly publicized situations like Hart Island in NYC have clearly illustrated the need to plan death spaces, and many people are probably considering this deeply for the first time.
  • The human cost of the pandemic is incalculable — allowing this to slip off our professional radar now that it’s shown up would be a disservice to the victims and their loved ones.
Where are we resilient in our communities and where do you think we need to build more resiliency as a province and/or country?
  • Cemeteries play lots of roles beyond storing and disposing of human remains, e.g. locating grief, facilitating cultural and personal expression, providing green space, and maintaining records of local history.
  • A review of cemetery needs should be required as part of any comprehensive regional/official plan (OP) review and growth management study.
  • A municipal cemetery steering committee should be considered.
  • Cemetery urbanism: cemetery land use considerations for community benefits as part of development applications (draft plan of subdivision, draft plan of condominium, rezoning/official plan amendments. How could development applications accommodate parkland for cemeteries under 50 acres (memorial parks, parkettes, scattering gardens, green/non-green spaces)? How can stormwater management ponds/fountains be a part of these cemetery landscapes?
  • Pioneer cemeteries could be integrated more into heritage programming at the local level.
  • It would be beneficial to consider equity issues around death and land spaces.
  • Public education is important to create a more positive understanding of cemeteries in society.
  • Guiding planning documents like the PPS give us the tools we need to augment and enrich our planning for these spaces:
    • PPS describes cemeteries as a key part of a complete community (PPS 2020, 1.1.1);
    • Accommodating growth inherently means accommodating more dead bodies and more grieving people; and
    • Addressing structural inequities means cultivating responsive death spaces and systems that make sustainable and culturally appropriate funerary options widely available, in convenient locations, at affordable price points.
  • What we could do and how we could start:
    • Collect more and better data and work to improve open access to relevant/appropriate information (complete listings of contact information for service providers, for example, as well as price lists, capacity information, and interment registries from individual cemeteries);
    • Conduct regional assessments of current cemetery/death space capacity and projected land/resource needs and ensure the policies and systems we have align well with other municipalities regionally; and
    • Re-examine the treatment of cemeteries/death spaces in our zoning by-laws and make adjustments to let these spaces respond better to the needs of our communities.

The views expressed in this blog post are those of the author(s), and may not reflect the position of the Ontario Professional Planners Institute.

Post by Sam Jones, MScPl and Nicole Hanson, MES(Pl.), RPP, MCIP