Returning to ‘green’ burial practices

By Jenn Watt


When Terry and Shirley Moore’s son Kyle died in February of this year they had to make a difficult decision on how to bury him.

Kyle had felt a deep commitment to the environment and to being as gentle on the land as possible. He also was connected to the specific place itself.

“The problem that our family encountered was that there are no winter burials green or otherwise in Haliburton County. So Kyle died on Feb. 21 in the middle of a difficult winter and so we had to make a choice between honouring his environmental and ecological sensibility on one hand and his sense of place on the other” Terry Moore told the large audience assembled at the Haliburton United Church for a talk on green burials last week.

The only way to have him buried in Haliburton County was to have him embalmed: not a green burial practice.

“We had to choose between place and his environmental sensibility. We don’t want to have other families placed in that same predicament in the future” Moore said.

A green burial initiative was formed through Environment Haliburton which led to the talk on May 14 part of the organization’s monthly Enviro-Cafes.

Ellen Newman of the Good Green Death Project and Mark Richardson manager of cemetery services with Niagara Falls spoke about the options available for individuals who want to lessen the environmental impact of their own interment as well as what can be done more broadly to establish green cemeteries and to change municipal bylaws to permit greener practices.

The Green Burial Society of Canada has identified five core principles of green burial: no embalming; direct earth burial with no vaults or grave liners using instead a biodegradable container or cloth; ecological restoration of the site; using communal memorialization instead of individual stones at each site; and optimal land use.

Some of those principles are easier to achieve than others. For example choosing not to embalm is less difficult to carry out than optimal land use which can include reusing grave sites or creating temporary pathways that may be eventually converted into plots.

Newman explained the thinking behind the principles.

On the topic of embalming she said there’s debate about what the fluids used in the process do to the environment which hasn’t been definitively settled. Where foregoing embalming becomes a “green” practice is that it slows the body’s decomposition – and green burials are all about returning the body to the earth.

“Embalming preserves the body and doesn’t allow it to naturally decompose” she said. “It’s not about the toxicity because the main toxicity is to us the funeral directors that are being exposed to those chemicals.”

The second principle is based on the same goal: to allow the body to decompose in the natural environment. For that reason there would be no concrete vault or grave liner; nothing metal and no varnish. Instead caskets are made of natural materials and lined with fabric that breaks down easily such as unbleached cotton or linen. A shroud fabric that wraps a body is another option.

Newman pointed out that the first two principles could be asked for by anyone when consulting with a funeral home and depending on the municipality’s bylaws would likely be carried out.

The three other principles require larger changes for cemeteries. Ecological restoration includes planting of native plants and shrubs and returning the land to its natural state.

In many places this process has created beautiful communal spaces that work to further protect land the presenters said.

Richardson talked about Willow’s Rest which is a two-acre portion of the 77-acre Fairview Cemetery in the Niagara region.

There they hired a habitat restoration specialist who brought 15000 wildflower seeds to repopulate the land with native species.

They installed nine beehives to pollinate and found that the land began to transform into a welcoming space.

“The development of this green burial section of Willow’s Rest in essence breathed new life into Fairview Cemetery” Richardson said. “We’ve had nature groups come out to witness the area to sit and enjoy the beauty. We’ve had bird groups that have come out because we now have where we moved our dirt pile to is adjacent to the green burial section and we now have bank swallows that have taken up residence.”

The fourth principle is to switch from individual memorials to a group memorial reducing the impact on the cemetery itself as well as removing the need for quarried rock shipped long distances.

“This is a little bit of a stumbling block for people because we’re so used to having that monument that we’re going to go and lay flowers on” Newman said.

She pointed out however that for many people the ecological restoration of the space would provide a transcendent experience for many with trees meadows birds butterflies and flowers to surround you when you visit.

She said people who have chosen a green cemetery for their loved one they see the entire space as the memorial.

The most difficult of the principles is the fifth: optimal land use. Part of this concept includes reusing space after a set period of time.

Newman said the practice is common in Europe where space is at a premium. The principle also takes into account access roads through the cemetery and what impact they have.

Although the five principles have been defined the speakers made the point that some of them are personal decisions (embalming casket selection) while others are in the hands of the municipality.

“Green burials … have been taking place since the dawn of time and a green burial can actually happen anywhere within a cemetery” Richardson said. “A green burial simply means that the body’s not embalmed and is returned to the earth. Families may still have a monument but the burial itself was green.”

There were many questions from the audience including about how to bring winter burials to Haliburton County.

Richardson said there are tools available to make it happen some of them more ecologically friendly than others. Probably the greenest solution is to open graves in the fall before the ground freezes. However that means those who want a green burial would have to be OK with not choosing the plot.

There are also ground warming mats that can be used or machinery to open the ground.

Moore is asking anyone interested in continuing forward with the idea to sign up for the working group. He said he hopes to one day have a Haliburton Highlands Green Burial Society.