Susan Greer is Executive Director of the Natural Burial Association, a non-profit organization in Ontario. In this blog post, Susan shares her reasons for advocating so passionately in support of green burial.
I had never considered what should happen to my body after my death. Then one day, listening to CBC radio, I learned about green burial. I had no idea there was such a thing, and odd as it might sound, it resonated to the extent that I now dedicate much of my time doing what I can to promote natural burial.
I love the outdoors and I’m worried about climate change. Like many of us, it’s second nature for me to adopt eco-friendly habits, like using recyclable bags and cycling. Surely, for my final act, the disposal of my body, there ought to be an eco-friendly way to go? Neither of today’s popular options, cremation or conventional burial, appeal to me. Cremation burns fossil fuels and releases carbon into the atmosphere. Conventional burial, with hardwood and metal caskets, concrete vaults and formaldehyde (if the body is embalmed), is not at all kind to Mother Nature. Thankfully, across Canada, individuals and organizations are advocating for a way to ‘go down green’ — natural burial.
- Related: Summarizing your body options
Natural burial, or green burial, is the act of burying the body as naturally as possible in the earth. It is the most eco-friendly manner of caring for our dead. The un-embalmed body is placed in a biodegradable casket or shroud and buried without a vault. Manicured lawns are replaced with tall grasses, trees, and shrubs. The land is restored to its natural habitat, and instead of individual tombstones, there’s a communal marker or local rocks. Some people assume natural burial is illegal, but in fact, it’s the way many of our grandparents’ grandparents were buried before death-care became a commercial business.
Worldwide, natural burials are growing in popularity. There are now over 330 sites in the UK and over 200 in the US. Canada lags behind. There are two kinds of natural burial grounds: hybrids and standalones. Hybrids are an area sectioned off within a conventional cemetery which offer green burials. Standalones are expansive acres of natural land in rural areas. In Canada, there are only two present day standalone natural burial grounds and both are on BC’s Gulf Islands (Denman Island and Salt Spring Island).
The entrance to Denman Island Natural Burial Cemetery
Most communities across Canada still don’t have a green burial option, but I’m optimistic this will change, as more hybrids launch in response to the growing demand. And there’s no shortage of demand. Heartfelt messages of encouragement arrive in The Natural Burial Association’s inbox:
My father was buried in a natural burial ground in England and it was a very comforting and natural experience for those left behind and was congruent with the way he lived. I would like the same experience when my time comes.
There are lots of reasons why people are comforted by the idea of natural burial. Our final act can be giving back to Mother Nature, nourishing a planet that provided for us through our lives. Many like the idea of their final resting place being in nature, among the wildflowers of a meadow, or the towering trees of a forest. Our presence in the ground protects the land forever, leaving a legacy for generations to come. Once a body is buried, it is essentially acting as a permanent security guard, ensuring that no one can build on that habitat.
Natural burial is a sanctuary for both the living and the dead. While our bodies nurture the earth, above ground, the land is restored and the ecosystem protected. Indigenous species are encouraged. A lovely hybrid in Niagara Falls, Willow’s Rest, is home to beehives and butterfly pollinators, and school groups visit to plant wildflower plugs.
Willow’s Rest, Niagara Falls
With natural burial, families can participate in the interment ritual which is very meaningful. They may dig the grave by hand, or line the grave with cedar boughs, or place local wildflowers with their loved one. Rather than a machine, families can lower their loved one into the grave. People gather in the most beautiful of settings, seeing life and death hand in hand in a cycle of life.
There are personal and religious reasons why conventional burial or cremation may be a better choice, but for those of us who want to be gentle to the planet, I hope the option of green burial becomes available in more Canadian communities.
For more information on natural burial, including a brochure you can print to help prompt conversations with loved ones, please visit www.naturalburialassociation.ca.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Alongside being part of the communications team at Gravity Inc., a graphic design agency that supports nonprofits, Susan is executive director of the Natural Burial Association and is determined to get more natural burial grounds up and running in Ontario. She's also on the board of the US Green Burial Council and is a funeral celebrant, creating personalized end of life ceremonies.