Family struggles to find burial place for Quebec woman's tree urn

Hélène Blondin’s family hoped to bury her ashes in a biodegradable urn that grows into a tree. But most cemeteries in Quebec, including the one in Rouyn-Noranda where she lived, do not accept such urns.

Memorial tree urns not accepted in most Quebec cemeteries

Hélène Blondin's family can't bury her urn in Rouyn-Noranda's 11 cemeteries. (Submitted by Josée Larose)

Relatives of a woman who died recently in the Abitibi-Témiscamingue region in northwestern Quebec say they cannot find a resting place to bury their loved one's ashes.

Hélène Blondin's remains were placed in a biodegradable urn that contains the seed of a tree.

"We wanted to have something that would continue to grow because she gave so much to others," said Blondin's niece, Josée Larose.

However, as is the case in most cemeteries in Quebec, Blondin's residence of Rouyn-Noranda does not accept memorial tree urns in the 11 cemeteries it manages.

Larose said her uncle chose the tree urn for his sister, who had cerebral palsy.

"When I bought it, I was told they were not accepted in cemeteries but I thought I'd be able to figure something out,'' said Larose.

The City of Rouyn-Noranda says it was the first time authorities have received such a request and they had to turn it down.

''We're not completely opposed to the idea," said administrative co-ordinator Lise Paquet.

However, she says, the family's request opened the door to many unanswered questions that need to be answered before moving forward.

''Who is responsible for the tree? What happens if it dies? Are the tree species native to the region?" said Paquet.

Paquet said a committee would need to look into the matter while also taking into consideration the space the trees would eventually take up in cemeteries.

Les Sentiers is an urns-only cemetary in Prévost, Que. (Marika Wheeler/CBC)

Popular trend

The urn the family bought is a European product by Bios Urns. The company Arbre de Vie Québec has been distributing them in Canada for the past three years.

"People want to have an ecological option," said Arbre de Vie Québec's co-founder, Isabel Cabana. "It meets a demand to move away from the traditional funeral process."

Cabana said she started the business with her boyfriend after his own father died.

"We went through the whole thing, the preparations for the funeral, and it was bad. It was very expensive, and it's just not what [his father] would have wanted."

Cabana said sales have been steadily growing since they launched the company. They now sell about a dozen urns a month, she said.

Arbre de Vie Québec sells about a dozen biodegradable memorial tree urns per month. (Arbre de Vie Québec)

Most of the company's clients decide to bury the urn on family land.

"In Quebec, I don't know of any cemetery that accepts these urns because when the tree grows it doesn't only grow on top, it grows on the bottom too and the roots can spread to other lots," Cabana explained.

But Larose said she wasn't comfortable with burying the urn on personal property.

"My parents are nearly 70 years old and will eventually sell their house," she said. "I don't want to visit my aunt in a stranger's backyard."

Ecological footprint in life and death

While there are still limitations to choosing memorial tree urns in Quebec, some cemeteries are taking notice of this shift in people's last wishes.

In Sherbrooke, the Coopérative funéraire de l'Estrie built a natural cemetery in a wooded area behind its main building.

"The only trace we leave behind is a small plate with the person's name and their dates of birth and death," said general manager François Fouquet.

The only landmarks in this natural cemetery in Sherbrooke, Que. are the small plaques with the deceased's name and dates of birth and death. (Submitted by the Coopérative funéraire de l'Estrie)

In 2012, the funeral co-operative built a trail through the trees. Biodegradable urns are buried on either side.

''It is very popular. People are more and more conscious of the mark they are leaving behind, and I think there is a lot of potential in these new models," said Fouquet.

Fouquet says hundreds of plots have already been sold, with a total capacity of nearly 8,000.

The natural cemetery doesn't accept tree urns either, because it wants to leave the forest in its natural state.

There is also an urns-only natural cemetery in Prévost, in the Laurentians, which opened in 2009.

New Quebec bill regulates ash scattering

In February, the Quebec government passed a bill to regulate where a deceased person's ashes can be scattered.

The bill requires funeral home workers to discuss with grieving families their plans for the remains of a loved one. It also limits certain places where remains can be scattered.