Growing interest in green burials
By Sue Tiffin
Published May 15, 2018
Highlands East could become one of the first places in Canada offering a space for green burials.
After being approached last year by a funeral director in Maynooth who had received inquiries from the public about green burial opportunities, the municipality’s environment committee is looking into the feasibility of creating such a space in the area.
Green burial, or natural burial, is a growing trend in which space – either separate from or within an existing conventional cemetery – is designated for burials that are designed to have less environmental impact than traditional burials or cremation. Requirements for green burial cemeteries vary, but are often naturally landscaped with wildflowers and trees native to the area, and maintained using a scythe with no use of pesticides on the land.
Bodies are not embalmed to avoid the effects of embalming fluid later seeping into the ground, and are buried using a shroud or an alternative casket made of wicker or natural wood that biodegrades.
Rather than being marked with a headstone, grave sites are acknowledged with a tree or plant marker, or a small stone and a directory at the entrance to the site. Space for cremated remains exists as well.
Besides environmental impact, green burial can also be more economically viable for people, ranging in cost from $1,500 to $2,500, compared to $7,000 to $10,000 for a traditional burial or $3,000 for cremation.
Green burial sites haven’t caught on as quickly in Canada as they have in the United States, where there are more than 300 sites.
The first green burial site in the country was created alongside a conventional cemetery in Victoria, B.C., in 2008.
Since then, green burial spaces have been established throughout the country including in Cobourg, Brampton, Pickering, Niagara Falls and Waterloo with potential sites to come in London, Renfrew and Brussels.
Mark Richardson, an Ontario director of the Green Burial Society of Canada and manager of cemetery services for Niagara Falls, is an advocate for green burial and proud of the two-acre wildflower and butterfly reserve opened last year that serves as a green burial option alongside a traditional cemetery for residents in the Niagara Falls area.
“It’s really a misconception that a green burial is something entirely different – it isn’t,” he said. “We need to get over the stigma that green burials are different. A green burial is a beautiful process to recognize the last wishes of our loved one, and ensure they leave earth in a better condition than when we first got here.”
Richardson said his own parents are interested in a green burial.
“We are starting to deal with the largest population segment in Canada, the baby boomers,” he said. “Baby boomers were actually responsible for the development of environmental policy throughout government, in schools, basically everywhere. Now those baby boomers are getting to the point where they’re planning their end-of-life arrangements. People are beginning to recognize that the traditional cemetery or what we envision as the traditional cemetery with monuments across a green field, a lot of people don’t have any affinity towards that. My parents are two of those people. My mom says, ‘I really don’t care what you do with me, don’t waste your time or money. Have me cremated and find somewhere nice for me.’ My dad says, ‘I’ll do whatever your mom does.’”
Richardson said that as people learn more about the environmental impacts of cremation, which requires massive amounts of energy and releases emissions including greenhouse gases, there is a move away from that process toward alternatives – but at one point, cremation was a new idea, too.
“So this is no different than cremation,” he said. “That’s how people have to look at this. When cremation was first introduced to the industry, people were appalled by it. They thought it was awful. There were funeral homes back then who said, ‘there’s no way we’re going to do cremation, this will never take off.’ And now, our current rates in Niagara of cremation are anywhere between 60 and 70 per cent cremation. Vancouver is 98 per cent cremation. But it’s taken 30 years to reach that point.”
Richardson said green burials in rural areas are a good fit because the natural aspect of the cemetery easily fits into the surrounding area.
“I think it’s a great opportunity and sets you aside as being unique to the region or the county you’re in so that you would be bringing new people there,” said Richardson.
“To me, it just makes sense,” said Deputy Mayor Suzanne Partridge, who chairs the environment committee. “It’s just a natural way to do things.”
Last year, the municipality of Highlands East partnered with U-Links and Trent University to learn more about the feasibility of green burials in the area.
Fourth year Trent University geography students Monique Sheehan and Brittany Pedersen, presented their findings to the environment committee in February, and then at the Celebration of Research held in Minden on March 24.
Sheehan said the two students chose the project with no prior knowledge of green cemeteries, but through their research have become interested in the subject of sustainable death care.
They hope their work can raise community awareness about green burials so that the public understands the environmental and economical benefits of the process.
Their report makes three recommendations: become certified as a provider of green burials; conduct further research investigating suitability as it relates to specific soil composition and groundwater runoff; and raise awareness of green burials.
“We are feeling very good about our recommendations and think it would be an amazing step for the municipality if they were to be accepted,” Sheehan told the Echo. “They would be at the forefront of the green cemetery movement and would set an example for other municipalities.”
The environment committee has asked Jim Alden, property supervisor, to join in a discussion about the green burial option and what it might look like in Highlands East.
“I think it’s going to happen,” said Partridge. “I really do. I think there’s an uptake with our council – our current council is very receptive to the idea. As long as the hurdles are crossed, we can make sure there’s a good place to do it, the soil’s right, and all of that.”