Grave changes: More Albertans opt for green burials

Dana Francis has a bone to pick with the funeral industry.

'I'm a future customer. We're all future customers'

More and more Albertans are opting not to face eternity among rows of old headstones in traditional cemeteries. (freeimageslive.co.uk)

Dana Francis has a bone to pick with the funeral industry.

Lately, she has become somewhat obsessed with the idea of environmentally friendly burials.

She wants to have a natural burial one day, and is petitioning the province to ensure all communities reduce the environmental impact of cemeteries. 
Dana Francis began researching green burial after a brush with death during the birth of her daughter. (Dana Francis/Facebook)

"I have gone so far down this rabbit hole," said Francis, 35, a pipefitter by trade. "And what's made me stick to it is that people in the funeral industry have told me nothing is going to change.

"I'm a woman working in the trades. When someone tells me I can't do something, the stubborn lady in me takes over."

Natural burials forgo the use of chemicals. The deceased is laid to rest without embalming, in a grave without a reinforced cement liner. Caskets are made from natural materials, such as wool or untreated wood.

Other options include traditional funeral shrouds or biodegradable urns that help provide nutrients to saplings planted in the ground above.

A carbon footprint doesn't end at the grave, Francis said.

"Everybody picks on my industry," she said. "But there are so many other industries where we could be doing things in a more environmentally friendly way."

No one wants to talk about death.-Dana Francis

The Leduc mom has spent hours researching green burial options, reading legislative documents and local bylaws. She has emailed more than 100 funeral homes across Alberta and called dozens more.

Her latest fixation is alkaline hydrolysis, also known as water cremation, which disposes of the body through the use of heat and lye. 

Recently, she began working with her local MLA to petition for changes in the Alberta Cemeteries Act to allow for the process.

She's began canvassing her neighbourhood for signatures and has even decorated her home in green burial-themed Halloween skeletons, in an attempt to spread the word. 
Dana Francis has even adorned her home with green burial themed decor this Halloween. (Dana Francis)

Existing legislation allows bodies to be buried, cremated or donated to medical science, but does not allow for water cremation. 

Service Alberta spokesperson Neil Levine said the province is monitoring how other Canadian jurisdictions are addressing the emerging method of water cremation.

"Alkaline hydrolysis could be considered as an option during the next review of the legislation," Levine said in an emailed statement.

Francis became obsessed after the birth of her daughter two years ago. She lost dangerous amounts of blood during the birth and nearly died. 

"I've been trying to embrace the idea of my own mortality because I was there, and I wasn't quite ready to be there," she said.

"You open your eyes and you look around and you realize no one wants to talk about death."

"I'm a future customer. We're all future customers." 

Changes coming

While Francis may be especially passionate about her desire for a greener resting place, she is not the only one.

Both Edmonton and Calgary are planning to offer green burial options at city cemeteries.

Natural burial areas have already constructed in Fort McMurray and Cold Lake and are in the design phase for Cold Lake, Lethbridge and Slave Lake.

In Edmonton, natural burial areas are planned for two existing cemeteries.

At Northern Lights Cemetery, bodies would be laid to rest without the use of chemicals, cement liners or headstones, and only funeral shrouds or biodegradable caskets made of untreated wood or wicker will be allowed. 

In South Haven, cremated remains would be placed in eco-friendly satchels with plants as markers.

Over time, those natural burial areas would resemble a woodland park or a natural public garden, said Teena Changarathil, Edmonton's cemetery supervisor. 

"As it evolves and the area grows, it will look like a walking path garden," she said.

Concept planning for both projects has been completed. If the budget is approved during city council deliberations this year, construction could begin in 2020 or 2021. 

There is a huge demand from the public, Changarathil said.

"There is more awareness of it. We're getting a lot of questions. How can I get put on the wait list? How soon will it be rolled out?

"People are looking for more eco-friendly options." 

'Turning the clock back'

Green burial is the fastest growing sector in the industry, said Erik Lees, a landscape architect who specializes in cemetery design, and is past-president of the Green Burial Society of Canada.

"Every cemetery that we've done master plans for in the past 10 years or so have included green burial areas."

A principal associate with LEES+Associates - Landscape Architects, Cemetery Planning & Design, he said there are few regulatory barriers to green burial in Alberta.

While Lees said the Alberta Cemeteries Act is "long in the tooth" and could be modernized, there are no provincial restrictions on green burials.

Most barriers come at the municipal level, he said. Some communities, for instance, still mandate the use of cement liners in all graves.

He said funeral directors have also been slow to offer the services.

"They go into this with a generous heart and generally provide an amazing service to our society, but I think they have been slow to realize that there is a segment of our society that expects to access a green burial," Lees said. 

"That's what we need to do. We need to educate our funeral directors." 

They don't want to put death in the closet.- Erik Lees

Green burial is appealing because it's considered the "softer touch" for the environment, Lees said. It can also be less expensive.

He said the growing demand is part of a cultural shift in how people view death.

"Green burial is really just a good old country burial, before the days of liners and caskets; a simple pine box out on the back 40," Lees said. 

"That's all we're doing here is turning the clock back to a time when burial was very much part of family life.

"Green burial families want to be more engaged. They don't want to put death in the closet."


Wallis Snowdon is a journalist with CBC Edmonton focused on bringing stories to the website and the airwaves. Originally from New Brunswick, Wallis has reported in communities across Canada, from Halifax to Fort McMurray. She previously worked as a digital and current affairs producer with CBC Radio in Edmonton. Share your stories with Wallis at wallis.snowdon@cbc.ca.