Don Eirickson acknowledges that his family’s decision to establish a cemetery on the farm may not be one everyone agrees with.
“Some people might think we’re a little bit off the wall but we’ve never regretted it,” he says.
The Eirickson family cemetery is on a slight knoll overlooking a lush green pasture and the gently sloping ravine that runs through it. A small herd of horses graze contentedly in the coulee.
Don and his wife, Margot, have planted cherry trees, lilac and other shrubs there and a little stone bench invites visitors. A statue of St. Francis of Assis watches over the graves of Don’s parents, Oli and Irene Eirickson, laid to rest in 2010 and 2013.
The summer of 2010 was a wet year in east-central Saskatchewan with about 1,300 millimetres of rain. Burial was just not happening in the nearby Elfros cemetery but Don had a friend who had recently established a cemetery on his farm and it got him thinking. Maybe they could they do the same?
“The family discussed it and thought about it a lot,” he says. “We asked our funeral director if it was possible.”
Their funeral director assured them it was and the Eiricksons got in touch with Saskatchewan’s Registrar of Cemeteries.
Oli Eirickson was the first to be buried in the Eirickson family cemetery and before Don’s mother, Irene Eirickson, died in 2013, she made it clear that she wanted to be buried beside her husband. Don and Margot expect to carry on the tradition.
“The process wasn’t that difficult,” Don says. “And it was worth it. It’s so nice to know they are here. When you bury your loved ones in any other cemetery, you maybe make a point of going there once a year. This way, we think of them every time we drive past.”
So, how is it done?
The rules and regulations that govern cemeteries are provincially written. Seven out of 10 Canadian provinces say, “yes” to on-farm burials. However, on-farm burials are not allowed in Alberta and Newfoundland and Labrador. And although Quebec says, “oui,” it is not easy.
In Quebec, it is not possible unless the region is declared a cemetery as well, says Sophie Desgagnes, director Magnus Poirier Funeral Homes in Montreal.
“We have some zones for agriculture, etc. Otherwise, no. You must ask the (municipal) government to zone the land, which is quite a procedure.”
In Alberta, Tyler Weber, director for the Alberta Funeral Association, quotes the Alberta Cemeteries Act: “no person shall bury a dead human body in any place other than a cemetery and … no new cemetery can be established except for a religious auxiliary, religious denomination or a municipality.”
“That means no corporate entity or private individual can start a cemetery in Alberta,” he says.
In Newfoundland and Labrador, there is no legislation that speaks directly to the burying of a casket but the burial of an urn containing cremated remains is not permitted, says Geoffrey Carnell, past-president of the Newfoundland Labrador Funeral Service Association and past-president of the Canadian Funeral Service Association.
“You could probably scatter remains on the farm,” he says.
But he doesn’t completely shut the door on the subject of on-farm burials. Anyone who wants to do this would have to contact him, he says.
“I would have to be convinced this would be the right thing to do. I would assist that person by pointing him to the legislation, doing a letter, things like that. That’s the only way it’ll happen.”
He adds that anybody contemplating being buried on their farm would be starting a lengthy process from scratch, “so they had better get cracking now.”
Among the provinces that allow on-farm burials, Nova Scotia appears to be the most user friendly, where there are no restrictions on being buried on your farm or property, says Heather Desserud, media relations adviser with the government of Nova Scotia.
Cemeteries that operate for a profit are regulated and licensed but those that operate as non-profits are exempt from legislation.
However, before establishing a cemetery on your farm in Nova Scotia, you should notify the Land Registry to ensure that the burial is noted. As in all provinces you are required to disclose this if and when the property is sold.
Questions on specific regulations for burial such as how deep the casket must be buried, distance of cemetery from roads, water courses etc., should be directed to the county or rural municipality.
For other provinces that allow on-farm burials, the rules and regulations are similar. None allow a burial in any place other than a cemetery and they all require that the applicant establish that cemetery within certain regulations.
Generally, there is a licensing fee plus an annual charge to retain the license. But usually in the case of on-farm cemeteries, with fewer than 10 burials per year, the annual charge is waived.
In Saskatchewan, for example, the first step is to get permission from your rural municipality. In short, the registrar of cemeteries needs to know that you want to establish a cemetery, that you own the land where the cemetery will be located and that the rural municipality in which the cemetery will be located is OK with your plans.
The applicant must also supply two paper copies of a plan prepared by a qualified person or reasonable scale drawing for the proposed cemetery including a scale drawing showing the subdivision of the cemetery into lots and plots. A lot is space for one grave, a plot is space for two.
“Hiring a land surveyor may not be necessary,” says Eric Greene, cemetery registrar for Saskatchewan.
A draftsman may prepare a plan according to instructions without viewing the property. The owner must stake out the cemetery according to the plan.
The cemetery must be located on suitable ground (rocky or sandy soil may create future problems) at least 100 metres from any watercourse or well and at least 500 metres from any waste disposal ground.
Unless given special permission by the registrar, the cemetery shall not be located less than 55 metres from the centre of a public highway.
Public access must be provided. Roads at least seven metres in width are to be arranged throughout the cemetery so that every grave lot will be within 75 metres of a road. The cemetery must also have access to a public road at two or more locations or a suitable turning area at least 15 metres in diameter.
Records must be kept showing the name of each deceased person in the cemetery, the location of each grave and the date of each interment. If a casket is buried less than 76 centimetres below the ground’s surface, reason must be given.
Greene says he gets three or four applications for a farm cemetery each year.
“Most are accepted. Those refused are usually turned down because the proposed location is too close to a waterway or the applicant is not prepared to do the care and maintenance required.”
Once it becomes a cemetery, public access must be provided.
“There is no such thing as a private cemetery,” Greene says. “It becomes a public place. Hours can be restricted to certain times but that’s not an issue. The issue is 50 years down the line if the land has transferred, the relatives of those buried there should continue to have access for perpetuity.
“Generally, if the home quarter is seen as a cemetery, I want people to file in my office for permission (to sell),” he says, but adds, “A lot of people don’t know about that. I fully suspect a lot of transfers are happening without me knowing.”
An on-farm cemetery may pose a deterrent to future property sales.
In Quebec, a lawsuit was launched when the cremated remains of the previous owner were discovered buried in the yard in an urn by the new owner as he dug a pool.
Although cremated remains are not considered an environmental threat and generally they can be dispersed anywhere within reason, when a property is for sale it should be disclosed that ashes have been scattered or buried there, just as the presence of a cemetery should be disclosed.
As to whether the presence of a cemetery would lower the value of a piece of land, Greene says he has no statistics one way or the other.
However, if you do sell, you have to be OK knowing the graves of loved ones may not always be looked after.
It is not an uncommon story on the Prairies. On one corner of a home quarter of an old homestead, a little rise of ground exists where a man was buried more than 100 years ago. He had come at Easter in 1912, from his home in Ontario to visit his daughter and her family. He died and was buried there.
This was not unusual at the time. The province was only seven years old. Few cemeteries were established and it was a common practice to bury the dead on the homestead. This persisted into the 1920s.
Over the years, the land was sold, sometimes the markers deteriorated and were lost. In many cases, no one now living is sure where the graves are located or even that they are there.
There are graves like this across Canada where the dead lie, undisturbed, their stories lost, their names forgotten under a cover of grass or woods or wheat or maybe someone’s flower garden. If 100 years from now yours was one of those graves, would that be a blessing or a curse for you?