By Gary Kenny
Conventional rituals and practices for the burial of the dead have been deeply ingrained in our religious and cultural traditions. So much so that few people have given them much thought.
But with concern over global warming and the health of the Earth’s ecosystems deepening, that is changing. A growing movement of people are pulling back the shroud of conventional burial custom and proposing nature and climate-friendly alternatives.
West Grey County resident Christine Forand is among them. Forand has been working with a local citizens group on a proposal to West Grey Council to establish a “green burial” area within county boundaries. The West Grey Green Burial Committee’s goal is to create burial options for people concerned about the environmental footprint they’ll bequeath to Planet Earth when they die.
“This is an opportunity for West Grey to join a movement which is gaining popularity worldwide,” Forand says.
Conventional burials are not known for their environmental friendliness. The process of preserving human remains in caskets and interring them in the ground is increasingly regarded as an environmental hazard.
As bodies and coffins decay, embalming and other toxic chemicals leach into the surrounding earth. In some cases the leachate has been known to contaminate local groundwater.
From an environmental perspective, burial vaults and liners are also problematic. They are energy-intensive to produce and, cumulatively, require massive amounts of wood, concrete, and steel.
“Each year [in the U.S.], a given 10-acre cemetery contains enough wood (from the production of wooden caskets) to rebuild over 40 homes and enough formalin (a formaldehyde-water embalming fluid) to fill a small backyard swimming pool,” writes author Rebekah Katzman in Modern Farmer.
One critic of conventional cemeteries, alarmed at their environmental impacts, called them “de facto landfills” packed with hazardous and non-biodegradable materials.
In recent decades cremation has tended to be the favoured burial option among the more ecologically-minded. So much so that the rate of cremations in Canada has risen sharply, from 48 percent in 2000 to 72 percent in 2018.
But cremation also takes a toll on the environment. On average, cremation releases 400 kg of CO2 into the atmosphere per body, according to Natural Death Center.org. That’s as much energy in the form of gas and electricity as an 800 kilometre car trip.
The fumes from a crematorium can also contain toxic metals including vaporised mercury from tooth fillings, and other noxious emissions from burnt prosthetics and melted bone cement used during common surgeries such as hip and knee replacements.
For all these reasons, scientists, conservationists and others have been exploring more eco-friendly ways to dispose of our bodies when we die. Their efforts have spawned a “green” or natural burial movement. Forand and her colleagues have joined its ranks.
“I feel that a green burial is in line with my environmental beliefs and I want to be able to die leaving the least trace possible as I aim to do while alive,” Forand says.
Green burials aren’t new. They are simply a return to our pre-modern, pre-industrialized ways of caring for the dead. The modern green burial movement is viewed as an acknowledgement of the value of this longstanding practice.
Most burials before the mid-19th century were effectively green. It wasn’t until the mid- to late-1800s in the U.S. that post-mortem embalming first caught on in North America. Civil war-era chemical companies discovered a method for preserving the bodies of union army officers so their remains could be returned to their often far away families.
This invasive treatment of the dead is almost exclusively practiced in the Western world. Relatively few countries embalm bodies to any significant degree. Most of the world doesn’t even use caskets.
The Green Burial Society of Canada has identified five core principles of natural burial: no embalming; direct earth burial; ecological restoration of the burial site; using communal memorialization instead of individual stones at each site; and optimal land use.
With typical green burials, bodies are wrapped in shrouds made of biodegradable fibres and allowed to naturally decompose. Shrouded remains can also be placed in a fully biodegradable casket constructed from sustainably-harvested materials. No vaults are permitted.
At a green burial ground, individual memorials such as headstones are discouraged if allowed at all. Communal memorialization that utilizes simple, naturally-sourced materials is preferred. Ultimately, green burial enthusiasts believe, it’s the green burial site as a whole that becomes a living memorial to the persons whose remains are interred there.
Green cemeteries are typically planted with trees, shrubs, and wildflowers native to the local ecological context. People can visit their deceased loved ones and stroll along winding pathways through wildflower meadows and pollinator gardens.
A well-planned green burial cemetery (or cemetery section) will make optimum use of the land it occupies. Design elements include minimal infrastructure, temporary roads that can be removed and converted into interment lots and section lot plans that maximize interment capacity.
Site preservation and protection are also key components of green cemeteries. Land covenants, protective easements and other guarantees can be put in place to ensure the site is never repurposed and the cemetery’s natural ecosystem is allowed to regenerate and flourish, in perpetuity.
The advocacy efforts of Forand and her colleagues are supported by Mark Richardson, manager of cemetery services for the City of Niagara Falls. In September 2017, the city unveiled Willow’s Rest, the first green burial ground in the Niagara region. The site is located adjacent to the Fairview Cemetery, Niagara Falls’ largest burial ground. Richardson was one of the project’s principal initiators.
Willow’s Rest began as a germ of an idea in 2016 and quickly took off, Richardson says. Some start-up funds were secured outside official city structures, and combined with vocal public support and Richardson’s powers of persuasion, convinced Niagara Falls City Council that a green burial option could work.
Over a three-year period the site has grown from a “dirt field” to a biodiverse two-acre garden featuring winding trails, wildflower meadows, pollinator patches, seven designated monarch butterfly gardens, honey bee hives, pockets of shade under more than 200 native trees and creative earthy statuary, Richardson says.
Once a green burial is complete and the grave has settled, it is planted with locally-indigenous plants. They may include trees and shrubs along with a groundcover to stabilize the grave. The plantings, “are conducted according to a pre-established plan designed to optimize the creation, enhancement and integration of the entire interment area into its ecological context,” Richardson says.
The popularity of Willow’s Rest has grown exponentially, “lending truth to the cliché, ‘if you build it, they will come’,” Richardson says. Not only those who want to be buried there, but many community groups including nature clubs have been attracted to the naturally regenerating site.
Soon after Willow’s Rest opened, elementary and high schools began bussing in their students to use the setting as a resource to teach about nature and ecology. The students also learn to be comfortable in a cemetery setting, Richardson says, “so we’re breaking down the barriers, the stigmas about death and dying,” he adds. “Suddenly [the cemetery] is no longer a spooky place,” he adds.
Richardson says he receives calls almost weekly from municipalities and people from all over North America, and sometimes other parts of the world, asking for information about green cemeteries and how to go about creating them.
Green burials do not have to mean a revenue loss for funeral homes. In fact, funeral homes are able to modify their business plans to offer or support fully green services and still be profitable, Richardson says. Many individuals and families committed to ecological principles are happy to pay if they know they are getting something green and meaningful for their loved ones, he adds.
The West Grey Green Burial Committee had hoped to convene a public information session on green burials this spring. But the COVID-19 pandemic intervened forcing the committee to temporarily suspend its plans. Forand expects its work will resume once the novel coronavirus has been brought under acceptable control.
In 2019 West Grey Council declared a climate emergency and committed to taking action to mitigate climate change. “We will definitely ask Council to stand true to their declaration” by supporting the idea of a green burial area, Forand says.
For more information on the West Grey Green Burials Committee’s activities, contact: firstname.lastname@example.org. ◊