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Greenbelt graves? Newmarket Cemetery eyes solution for space issues

With available space limited, the non-profit organization is working toward getting zoning to create new green burial site in East Gwillimbury
Newmarket Cemetery director Matt Evans.

Matt Evans and his family have cared for the Newmarket Cemetery for generations.

The non-profit cemetery has been partly helped by Evans' father, grandfather and great-grandfather, with Evans now serving on the board of directors. Those generations have watched the space gradually fill up over many decades, to the point where there are 200 full-sized lots left.

The cemetery is bracing itself for the need to find a new space for burials. To that end, the cemetery purchased land in an unlikely place: the Greenbelt.

“It’s such an amazing property, and everyone from the different levels of government would seem to agree,” Evans said. “It’s just been challenging getting things to move forward.”

The Newmarket Cemetery has proposed creating a green burial site at an undisclosed location in a property within Greenbelt and Oak Ridges Moraine land in East Gwillimbury. Evans said the organization has worked toward this for several years, negotiating with governments to try and secure pre-approval before proceeding with more advanced study.

The vision is for the site to meet environmental standards, with green burials aiming to return a body to the earth with as little impact as possible. Evans said there is a hurdle with it not being considered a permitted use in legislation, but a burial site would work well for the space.

‘We want to have ways to make it natural and fit in with the environment,” Evans said, adding that a burial site would ensure that no further development could come into the land in perpetuity. “We’re basically creating a natural space that has money to do wildlife habitat restoration for years after it’s full.” 

York Region has documented the need for more cemetery space. A 2016 cemetery needs study found that the region has enough cemetery space to meet needs through 2041 but that advance planning would be necessary. That study recommended working with the province around reducing restrictions on cemetery uses in the Greenbelt. 

The study estimated that the region can accommodate 35 to 60 years of resident demand and non-residence use. But it identifies that there is a significant land need for religious cemetery groups in the northern York Region, including Newmarket.

“This report outlines the urgent need for land use policy that will lead to the provision of sufficient cemetery lands to meet the needs of the current and future generations of residents of York Region,” an executive summary of the report said. 

The Newmarket Cemetery previously had extra land on Leslie Street, north of Mulock Drive, but eventually sold much of that to developers after realizing it would not work for a cemetery. About eight years ago, Evans said the cemetery then found land in the Greenbelt area to purchase.

In a best-case scenario, Evans said pre-approval could come in two to three years. He said the cemetery wants some assurance that it can go ahead before paying for some of the studies, given it can only afford to go through such a process once.

“We want to work with the different environmental groups,” Evans said. “There should be some thought to it and how it’s done appropriately, but also a way that’s dignified for the family.”

The 2017 Greenbelt Plan does mention cemeteries as a possible use in some rural area portions of the Greenbelt. The plan specifies that non-agricultural uses of these lands must demonstrate it is appropriate for the area, there are no negative impacts on key natural heritage features and that are no negative impacts on biodiversity. 

In the meantime, the current Newmarket Cemetery site does have plenty of room for cremation, Evans said, with that becoming an increasingly popular and more environmentally friendly option. Those remaining 200 full-body lots are something the cemetery wants to use over a long period, rather than quickly, Evans added.

Multiple levels of government have been supportive of the green burial site idea, Evans said. 

“Worst case comes, if we can never do anything with it, we got an asset we can sell,” he said.

Asked about the concept, East Gwillimbury said "the town is in discussions with the proponent to explore the proposal."

As cemetery space throughout Toronto and the GTA declines, Evans said costs are going up, which puts the Newmarket Cemetery in a difficult position of needing to raise its prices. He noted that the cemetery has got demand from the Toronto area, but they want to ensure there is space left for local area residents.

Cemeteries are ultimately a municipal responsibility, Evans said. He added that municipalities thus stand to be challenged if organizations like theirs cannot find space.

“If we’re not able to do anything, push comes to solve, each municipality is responsible for providing burial space. And if you don’t have it, what do you do?”