My partner and I recently spent a few days in Montreal with friends, where we stumbled on The Inca, Treasures of Peru, a visiting exhibit at the Musee Pointe a Calliere. This beautiful exhibit contained several rooms filled with artifacts from an ancient Inca burial site. The richness of the items people had buried with them was overwhelming, and the burial rituals were fascinating.
These traditions are a far cry from what most of us think about if and when we consider what we want to happen with our bodies after we die. Most of us consider two options: burial, with all of its attendant ceremony and accessories, or cremation, which is free of at least some of the accessories and more easily free of ceremony.
I have long planned to have my body cremated after I die. No taking of favourite books, tools, clothing, jewellery, servants or pets into an afterlife that I don’t believe exists. No taking up of green space, either: if someone wants my ashes on their mantel, they are welcome to them, or they can be scattered or dug into the garden.
The perils of cremation and formaldehyde
However, neither cremation nor traditional burial is environmentally friendly. A standard cremation releases about 400 kilograms of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and uses as much energy as an 800-kilometre (or longer: sources disagree about this) car trip. While cremation technology and equipment continue to develop to reduce these emissions, they remain considerable.
A traditional Christian burial involves embalming the body before it is placed into a casket, which may be made of endangered or exotic woods, and the formaldehyde that forms the base of most embalming fluids leaches into the soil over time. Both caskets and graves are further lined with steel and/or concrete, which slows decomposition.
In Canada, a cemetery typically buries 4,500 tonnes of embalming fluid, 97 tonnes of steel and 2,000 tonnes of concrete for every .4 hectare of space. Those cemeteries also require upkeep, which includes the use of lawnmowers, trimmers, leaf blowers and the like, often gas-powered, as well as chemical herbicides and fertilizers to keep everything looking both lush and tidy.
(It should be noted that traditional Muslim and Jewish burial rituals do not permit either embalming or cremation. Historically, Indigenous burials often placed the chemical-free body in a seated position, with their belongings surrounding them.)
Going green into the forever
Canada is beginning to explore (and regulate) green alternatives for those who want their concerns for the planet’s survival to live on after they die.
The Green Burial Society of Canada works to increase awareness about environmentally friendly approaches to burial and commemoration of those who have died. Established in 2013, it has five principles that must be present for an organization for its services to be certified as green:
- No embalming
- Direct earth burial: the body is placed in a shroud made of natural, biodegradable fibres and then is either placed in the ground directly or is first placed in a casket made from sustainable and biodegradable material, with no steel or concrete lining. The use of local materials is strongly encouraged
- Ecological conservation and restoration: indigenous plantings cover the grave sites, and the burial area is designed to minimize negative human impact on the land
- Group memorialization: individual burial sites do not have tombstones or other markers; rather, those buried are memorialized communally: “Ultimately it is the green burial site as a whole that becomes a living memorial to the persons interred there.”
- Optimization of land use: number of graves per hectare must be equal to or greater than in a traditional cemetery
Ontario has two certified green burial sites, one near Picton in eastern Ontario and one in the Niagara area. Helma Oonk, the general manager of Picton’s Glenwood Cemetery, says:
“People realize, ‘Oh, I don’t need a vault’ or ‘Oh, I don’t need any embalming,’ and it’s actually not allowed [here]. No concrete, no steel casket. If you just want to be rolled in your blanket, that’s fine, too.”
Kathy Marchen has already reserved her spot at Glenwood, saying it reminds her of the forest she played in when she was a child:
“I’ve always been concerned about the environment, and I want to leave a small footprint. The thought of being embalmed horrifies me. The thought of being in a concrete container, decomposing, horrifies me. . . . It just seemed right. The wildflowers, the trees. Right when I got there, two little foxes ran by and I thought, ‘This is perfect.’”
Natural organic restoration
While not yet legal in Canada, the state of Washington permits human composting or, as it is discreetly called “natural organic reduction” for human bodies. In this process, the body is sealed inside a canister along with, not the jewels and textiles, but wood chips, alfalfa and straw. After 30 days, the contents have decomposed into viable fertilizer which, in Washington, family and friends can take to use in their own gardens. Apparently, this process takes just 1/8th of the energy used in a cremation and saves more than a metric ton of carbon emissions per person.
Susan Koswan of Waterloo, Ontario, wants to bring human composting to Ontario. As she says:
“I decided I don’t want to be cremated and I don’t want to be buried. But I would do no harm being composted and planted with a tree.”
Perhaps the time has come for a rewrite of Luther Wright’s popular song, recorded by Kingston 1990s band Weeping Tile:
“I love my mother earth/I love my compost heap/I dig it down/I dig it deep/But don’t put meat on my compost heap.”