Green burials: Everything you need to know about the growing trend
Why so many are considering this eco-friendly way to go
Have you thought about how you want to be buried?
If you haven't, you might be surprised to learn that many common methods are far from environmentally friendly. Burials often involve using toxic embalming fluids that leach into the earth over time and non-degradable grave liners to keep gravesites looking flat — techniques that are good for preserving a body (sometimes indefinitely) but terrible for the environment. Even cremations release harmful emissions like carbon monoxide and mercury into the air and soil.
Growing awareness about these issues is partly why an alternative is gaining popularity across Canada: green burials.
The technique is extremely simple; the body is wrapped in a biodegradable shroud or placed in a biodegradable casket, then laid directly into the earth in a designated section of a cemetery. Usually, the spot remains unmarked, in keeping with the low-impact ethos of the movement. Eventually the plot can, and should, be used again.
"Our green burial area has a grasslands look," says Bradd Tuck, director of Yates Memorial Services in Parksville, B.C. "So we just regrow grass and wildflowers."
While cemeteries may keep permanent records of each burial site for logistical purposes, family members of the deceased won't necessarily know where the specific plot is if they return later, due to the lack of physical grave markers. But they can often enjoy the area as a park and look at communal memorials, such as big boulders with names and quotes carved into the surface.
Yates Memorial Services has been performing certified green burials for a year now, and is one of several Canadian funeral homes and cemeteries adopting the practice (though not all are certified).
The Green Burial Society of Canada, which issues the certificates, defines green burials by five simple principles: no embalming, direct earth burial, ecological restoration and conservation, communal memorialization, and optimized land use.
"It's more about the restrictions than about what we can do," says Tuck. "We're not going to do an embalming, we're not going to have any plastics or metals as part of the casket or the clothing, and then we're not going to memorialize the space itself."
The restriction on embalming can be tricky sometimes, says Tuck, especially when the family asks that the funeral be delayed, sometimes for several weeks. "With green burials, you have to think about it differently. It's a little bit more of a hands-on approach." In these cases, the funeral home might have to host the viewing right away, but delay the burial ceremony until the family is ready.
These might not seem like huge hurdles, so why aren't more cemeteries and funeral homes providing this option? Esthetics is one big factor.
Take a stroll through an older cemetery and you might notice that the headstones are lopsided and the ground is uneven. This happens when a casket decomposes and the pocket of air inside fills with earth, causing the ground to sink downward. Most modern cemeteries have done away with this lumpy, creepy look by requiring that graves be lined with non-degradable material — often concrete, fiberglass, or plastic — trapping the air pocket inside.
"Burial vaults" are completely sealed and designed to remain so forever. "Grave liners" are only partially enclosed; though the body and casket will eventually decay, the liner persists to keep the surface of the earth level."That sounds nice from a maintenance perspective," says Trevor Crean, general manager of the Heritage Gardens Cemetery in Surrey, B.C. "But then that means that every single generation needs their own graveyard."
And we're running out of space as a result. Crean's family has been in the funeral business for four generations, and they've had front row seats to just how this dwindling availability has affected customers. Prices for burials have increased dramatically over the years, for instance. "Folks who are barely making ends meet, they know that their parents' parents are buried here, so they'll take out a second mortgage to make sure that their mother gets buried with her folks," Crean says.
Buying a burial plot in Toronto's Mount Pleasant or Vancouver's Ocean View cemeteries in the mid-'80s would have cost those grandparents about a hundred dollars, according to Crean. Buying a neighbouring plot today can cost tens of thousands of dollars. "They don't know about people privately buying plots and flipping them like the real estate market, and that that just quadrupled the price — or more — in the last year," says Crean.
Skyrocketing prices is one of the reasons why cremation — which might only set you back about $2,000 — is such a popular option in Canada. About 72 per cent of Canadians chose cremation over other burial options in 2018, according to the Cremation Association of North America.
But cremation comes with its own set of environmental pitfalls. Getting a body down to ash (called "cremains") requires a huge amount of fuel, equivalent to about two full SUV tanks. And despite filtration systems, hazardous emissions are still expelled into the atmosphere, including carbon monoxide, mercury and cancer-inducing polychlorinated dibenzo-para-dioxins (PCDDs) and polychlorinated dibenzofurans (PCDFs).
Pushback against the environmental hazards of cremation and conventional burial in the U.K. began in the early '90s, where green burials are now a widespread alternative. From there, the trend spread to the United States. The first urban green burial site in Canada didn't open until 2008 at Royal Oak Burial Park in Victoria.
U.S. lawmakers are certainly taking advantage of their head start. Washington state legalized human composting earlier this year, a process in which the deceased's remains are placed in a temperature- and moisture-controlled vessel, along with other organic matter, and rotated. The decomposition process takes just weeks and results in about two wheelbarrows' worth of soil.
Human composting isn't legal yet in Canada, but Susan Koswan from Waterloo, Ont., has been trying to bring the movement to Canada as part of her Good Green Death Project. She hopes to have it legalized in the next few years, or at least before her own death.
"My dream is to create protected conservation burial forests, where the living can practise shinrin-yoku, or forest-bathing, and hear the voices of the ancestors of many in the rustling of the leaves," Koswan wrote in a blog post in 2018. "Doesn't it beat the rows of silent granite in your average cemetery? And who doesn't want to be a tree after they die?"
Until then, Canadians with a similar inclination can consider Cimetières Catholique de Granby, in Granby, Que., the first Catholic cemetery in Canada to start a "Tree of Life" garden for the exclusive use of biodegradable urns. Made of cellulose, peat and coconut fibre, the urns can house a variety of tree or shrub seeds of your choosing. The urn breaks down over the course of one month, with the new roots feeding on the nutrients and ash.
For many Canadians, there are religious traditions to consider beyond their other personal motivations. While traditional Jewish and Muslim burial practices, which require that bodies be committed to the earth in their entirety, already eschew cremation and embalming, practicing Hindus, Buddhists, Jains and Sikhs generally consider cremation to be an important part of honouring the dead, so green burials may not be an option. More environmentally friendly cremation methods — using less wood and more efficient burning techniques, for instance — are being actively explored in India, however.
Whether or not you go green for your funeral, it's important to prepare in advance — even if it's just having a short conversation with loved ones to make your values on the matter clear.
"Doing your research before [the] time of need is so crucial," says Crean. "Talk about things! End of life is as natural as life. There's so much stigma around it, and so many families are missing an opportunity to do something really special. But if you do just a little bit of research in advance, you can make it a beautiful thing."
Chloe Rose Stuart-Ulin is a freelance writer based in Montreal. Her most recent works on tech, gender, and finance have appeared in CBC, Quartz, and Lift.