The Green Hereafter: Eco-burials gain popularity
Darcy Wintonyk, ctvbc.ca
Published Monday, September 7, 2009 5:56PM PDT
If you gotta go, why not go green?
Within the environmentally-conscious set, many are already choosing to make their funeral arrangements more eco-friendly, from using recycled paper announcements to choosing non-toxic embalming fluid to using a green casket made without harmful materials.
But now the green death care movement is taking the environmentally-friendly end one step further: The greening of the final resting place.
While many consider cemeteries quite natural already, advocates argue manicured lawns and concrete grave liners are anything but.
Offered as a natural alternative to the customary cemetery or crematorium, natural burial grounds are becoming popular for Canadians looking for an environmentally-conscious end.
"It means not using harmful products or pesticides, or metal caskets and concrete vaults," Joe Sehee of the Green Burial Council told ctvbc.ca.
"It's back to 'ashes to ashes.'"
The green burial movement took shape in Great Britain during the mid 1990s. Today, what's become known as Woodland burials represent around 12 per cent of dispositions in the UK.
Sehee says although the idea itself isn't new, the idea of doing it in conjunction with restoration planning and management techniques is.
"You could see it as a way to provide a powerful new tool for protecting endangered habitat at a time when innovative, market-based solutions are sorely needed."
The Green Burial Council, founded five years ago, has established North American standards across the death care industry so providers can easily be found by consumers wanting to go green. And now it's coming to Canada.
"One of the reasons we're coming into Canada is to support green burial movements," he said.
"It's becoming extremely popular with people who are looking for an environmentally friendly end. Many death care providers in Canada are coming forward for green certification."
While the more eco-friendly option of cremation has already skyrocketed here in recent years -- almost 80 per cent of those who died in B.C. in 2004 were cremated -- with it comes a growing concern over the amount of emissions released from the process, specifically what happens when people with mercury fillings in their teeth are cremated.
Natural or green burials are now seen as the cleanest and most eco-friendly option.
There are only two approved natural burial grounds in the country. Union Cemetery in Cobourg, Ontario, about an hour east of Toronto, allotted 181 plots for natural burial in April.
The Royal Oak Burial Park in Victoria, B.C., is the first - and largest - in the country, and opened last fall.
"The response has been amazing," Stephen Olson, executive director, told ctvbc.ca.
"Since opening the section in October we've had 12 burials there and we've also had many families make pre-arrangements."
The idea to convert part of the forested cemetery into a green burial ground dates back 10 years, when the facility was approached by local advocates.
The first phase of the project is a 255 grave forest, a one-third acre portion of second-generation forest running adjacent to the Vancouver Island facility.
Til green do us part
The natural site differs from a tradition cemetery primarily because of what's missing: Anything man-made.
"In a conventional funeral there is embalming, there is a concrete grave liner and a turf grass that is maintained as a park and an upright headstone," Olson said.
"It's not natural."
Natural burials are intended to allow human remains to be returned to the earth to decompose naturally, and contribute to new life.
Green burials must meet certain criteria. Bodies are prepared without embalming fluid and are buried in a fully-biodegradable casket or container - sometimes bodies are given a simple shroud. The human remains are placed directly in the ground with no outside (concrete) grave liner.
"Once the grave is filled in the surface is planted with native indigenous ground cover. In some cases, we will plant a tree," Olson said.
"You're really trying to reforest it into a very natural state. There will be a small walking path that walks through it where there will be a few benches to sit.
Loved ones can visit the site initially, but visitation will be discouraged as the area becomes reforested to keep the fragile ecology intact.
"When it starts to reforest you will not even be able to tell where people are buried," he said.
No grave markers are allowed in the natural burial site, something Olson admits doesn't sit well with some families.
"Not everyone is ready for a natural burial," he said.
But the uneasiness of not knowing where your loved one rests has given rise to another green alternative: The hybrid.
"What you're seeing outside of the UK, in the U.S. and Canada, is 'hybrid' or 'green-part area,' which means a partially eco-friendly burial ground," Joe Sehee said.
At Royal Oak, families are given the option of a hybrid burial at any standard plot.
Bodies are still prepared without embalming fluid and are buried in a sustainable vessel, but some traditional aspects remain.
Like a conventional burial, a concrete grave liner is used, but it does not have a bottom, allowing the body to have direct contact with the earth. The family has the option of filling the liner space with soil and a permanent memorial plaque is allowed on the site.
Stephen Olson says interest in green burials isn't limited to those in later stages of life.
"We're seeing a real cross section of the population," he said.
"It resonates with people who have lived an environmentally conscious lifestyle and this is one final thing that they can do."
Joe Sehee, for one, is a believer.
"I'd like to just go into the earth in a shroud," he said.
"I don't want a lot of chemicals in me. I'd like to return as simply and naturally as possible."