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REMEMBER THIS: Loss of farms has impacted once common family cemeteries

In this week's column, the History Hound begins the first of a two-part series on the impact of growth on, and the historic value of, these family burial grounds on rural properties

One of my favourite topics is our local cemeteries. I have written a few articles, focusing primarily on the history of the various public cemeteries in our area (see Related below for the links), but this column, the first of two, will look at the ‘family cemetery’ that predated the public cemeteries — I think it's a very interesting topic.

Family cemeteries were once common in our area, located on private properties in rural York County, but are now far less common as they are subject to increasingly strict regulations and the elimination of old homesteads in favour of sprawling subdivisions.

As we expand the boundaries of our villages and towns, it is not at all unusual, especially in more rural areas, to find a burial site on a property. We have seen in the media the stories of human remains being found during construction, prompting the property developer / owner to stop digging and notify the authorities, who must determine if any further investigation will be needed.

If the site is confirmed as a cemetery, the property owner then becomes the licensed operator of said cemetery and has a legal obligation to maintain it, mowing the lawn and providing proper access for visitors. Cemeteries on private property cannot simply be moved or closed, as burials are considered "in perpetuity."

If you are a prospective buyer of a property with an existing cemetery, you must be aware of your responsibilities. It is regulated that the seller must disclose the presence of a cemetery. It is the presence of these restrictive laws that have led the once common family cemetery to disappear in many instances. In the second part of this series, we will look at some existing cemeteries in our area that serve as reminders of this once common practice.

I found the regulations for establishing a family cemetery to be very interesting. More interesting was the fact you can still apply for a permit to establish a burial plot on your land, but it is not easy. Here's a quick overview of the existing rules as they apply locally:

Rules and regulations for all types of cemeteries within provincial mandate

  • Most provinces allow for private or family cemeteries on private property;
  • The property owner must typically obtain approval from their local government and follow certain requirements;
  • The owner must file what is known as an "exempt plat" to officially designate the area as a cemetery;
  • One must obtain any necessary approvals from homeowner’s associations or other neighbourhood groups;
  • One must ensure the cemetery meets regulations around location, size, and access;
  • Register the cemetery and pay any required licensing fees. There are location restrictions, such as requiring the cemetery to be a certain distance from property lines or existing water sources;
  • It is the property owner’s responsibilities to maintain the cemetery.

Obtaining the necessary approvals and permits can involve application fees, and paying any required licensing or registration fees to officially register the cemetery, covering the costs of preparing and maintaining the cemetery site, such as landscaping, fencing, and installing grave markers or monuments.

Any ongoing maintenance costs for the cemetery, which the property owner is legally responsible, include mowing the grass, repairs, and providing access for visitors and any potential costs associated with burials, such as digging graves, providing vaults or caskets, and funeral services. 

And finally, for properties not designated as "bona fide farms," it is generally more involved as the property owner must get approval from more interested parties.

Newmarket was once surrounded by family farms before we expanded, you can imagine all the people whose ‘final destination’ was on their family farm. The discovery of said burial plots is a reoccurring story in the news.

I obtained all this fascinating information from an incredible article by Shirley Byers called ‘Want to be buried on your farm? Could you? Would you? Should you?’

Some of the benefits associated with a family cemetery include:

  • The establishment of a natural / green cemetery with natural elements like trees, bushes, or rocks instead of traditional monuments;
  • An ability to limit who is buried there;
  • Maintain a continuity and connection to the past, providing a physical link to the family's history and past generations;
  • Tax benefits: Donations and contributions to a family-owned cemetery can be tax-deductible, as these cemeteries are often set up as non-profit organizations;
  • Ownership and dontrol: Family cemeteries are owned and controlled by the lot owners and certificate holders, giving the family control in how the cemetery is managed;
  • Personalized memorialization: Family cemeteries allow for more personalized and customized grave markers and memorials, keeping the cemetery tied to the family's identity;
  • Provides a serene, calming environment for families to visit, reflect, and connect with their loved ones who have passed away;
  • Family cemeteries can hold historical and cultural significance for the local community, serving as gathering places for important events and rituals;
  • When you begin to investigate the presence of family cemeteries in our immediate area, you quickly discovers just how many there are and just how little we know about them.

There are several excellent sources for researching the topic, but these two sources were to prove indispensable in my research for this article.

The Ontario Cemetery Finding Aid (OCFA) is a database containing over three million records of burials from thousands of cemeteries, cairns, memorials, and cenotaphs across Ontario (Ontario Cemetery Finding Aid - OCFA - Genealogy ( and the Ontario Historical Society and Ontario Genealogical Society who have documented over 1,500 unregistered cemeteries across the province so far. (Cemeteries – York Branch (

As with most heritage properties or sites, the question of how best to preserve our family cemeteries generally arises. Many of the historic family cemeteries in York Region have faced their challenges with preservation and maintenance over the years.

Some have fallen into disrepair or been encroached upon by development, which has necessitated a focus on additional conservation efforts. Our local historical societies and municipalities have worked to protect and maintain these cemeteries as cultural heritage sites. Historical organizations like the York Pioneer and Historical Society work hard to document and protect the region's historic cemeteries.

Historic family cemeteries such as the Selby Burying Ground and the Weddel Family Plot in East Gwillimbury are now maintained by local municipalities, preserved for posterity.

We are beginning to learn from our past neglect, recognizing the fact that family and community cemeteries were once common in Ontario's early settlement period, but sadly have gradually been consolidated and pushed out of urban areas as the province has developed.

Putting on my genealogist hat for a second, I think it is prudent to state that these family cemeteries have great genealogical value. Family cemeteries contain valuable genealogical information, with headstones providing names, dates, and family relationships, all golden to a local genealogist. Local researchers and genealogists consult the burial records and grave markers of these burial plots to trace the histories of early settler families in York Region.

Municipalities should also incorporate the preservation of these sites into their cultural heritage planning.

In the second part of this series, I shall highlight a few of the family cemeteries in our area in case you were unaware of their presence. I would also urge you to check out my articles on the various public cemeteries in our area, including the ‘lost’ pioneer cemetery that was located on the sire of the Alexander Muir School.

Newmarket resident Richard MacLeod, the History Hound, has been a local historian for more than 40 years. He writes a weekly feature about our town's history in partnership with Newmarket Today, conducts heritage lectures and walking tours of local interest, and leads local oral history interviews.