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We all die.
That is a fact we cannot escape. It is inevitable whether we fear it or welcome it, whether we are good or bad, religious or not.
However, we are not completely gone after we die. Our bodies remain and need to be dealt with. This process may vary depending on your religion, culture, or preferences.
For the last century in Canada, the average burial process looks something like this: the body is embalmed with formaldehyde-based fluids, placed into a coffin, laid in a concrete-lined grave, and buried in a cemetery plot that most likely cannot be used again.
This process sounds completely unappealing to many people, and not just because dealing with death is difficult. Many people who care about the environment worry about the ecological cost of this type of burial and are looking for a better and greener way.
A green burial is an eco-friendly way to dispose of human bodies that uses fewer resources. Green burial requires no embalming. The body is simply wrapped in a biodegradable cloth or casket and placed directly into the earth. No grave liner or protective vault is used. Once the body is buried, local plants are grown on the gravesite to make use of the space. Although graves in green cemeteries are unmarked, caretakers keep permanent records of each burial site and families can visit the communal memorial. The idea for these sites is to optimize land use so the graves can eventually be re-used.
Green burials may seem like a new concept, but what we now know as “traditional” or “conventional” burial, has only been around in North America since the American Civil War, when the dead bodies of 600,000 soldiers travelled long distances to return home and required a method of preservation. Before that era, families cared for the deceased at their homes.
Before the Civil War, there were no funeral homes, only home funerals.
Women often dressed and washed the bodies, while men created wooden caskets. Families buried their loved ones on their farms or in churchyards. There was no embalming, no concrete liners, and no fancy coffins. The process is very similar to how we define green burials now. Green burial funeral director, Richard Rosin describes green burials as “the way we took care of our dead before the funeral industry.”
Elizebeth Kischook knew from a young age that conventional burials were not for her. “Even as a teenager, I was saying ‘I don’t want to be embalmed.’ I don’t want them to stitch my hands together and glue my eyes. I don’t want that,” she says.
Throughout her life, Elizebeth has been involved with end-of-life processes. Starting as a nurse, she was drawn to palliative care, working with patients in the process of dying. When the pandemic hit in 2020, Elizebeth became a certified end-of-life doula, also known as a death midwife. End-of-life doulas provide care and support for those nearing death. They can bring a sense of comfort to not only the person dying but also their families. Elizebeth began working with Richard Rosin who first introduced her to green burial. She started the Green Burial Manitoba Facebook page in February 2021 to spread awareness and educate people on green burial alternatives and their impact.
“I’ve always been an environmentalist. I try to do things, as I say, from scratch, I don’t like the idea of somebody filling me full of chemicals,” Elizebeth says.
Green burials are an option for people to return to the earth in a natural and simple way without the complications of conventional burials. It’s a way to leave an environmental legacy or as Elizebeth describes it as the “returning to our roots.”
Caring for the Dead
Why do we care for the dead? While different religions and cultures care for their dead in different ways, all groups mark death in some way that goes beyond the practicalities of dealing with the body. In his book The Work of The Dead, Thomas W. Laqueur examines why.
“It matters because the living need the dead far more than the dead need the living. It matters because the dead make social worlds. It matters because we cannot bear to live at the borders of our mortality,” he writes
We care for the dead because we cared for that person. And yet, even if they are no longer with us, their body has importance in our time of grief.
“The dead are not refuse like the other debris of life; they cannot be left for the beasts to scavenge. We need to live with them in more or less close proximity,” Laqueur writes.
Our burial practices and how we care for the dead reflect our times and the values we hold as a society.
Environmental Impact of Conventional Burials
Many of us are concerned about the environment and try our best to help take care of the planet while we’re on it. Most people have taken some small actions to help like recycling, composting, or choosing a paper straw over plastic. Some people even change their diets for the environment or lead protests to address climate change concerns. The way we are buried has a significant environmental impact too.
Embalming is a practice that was created to help preserve and stiffen bodies after death. It is meant to give a body a more “life-like” appearance for public viewing. The process has been around for thousands of years, with its origins dating back to ancient Egypt. Near the end of the 19th century, the practice of embalming became increasingly widespread as open caskets became the norm and embalming became a profitable service industry.
During the embalming process, the blood is drained from the body and replaced with embalming fluid containing two per cent formaldehyde solution, a volatile acid.
Once the body is buried, the formaldehyde eventually breaks down into formic acid, a hazardous chemical, that becomes carbon dioxide. These particles are absorbed into the soil and eventually end up in our waterways. In the United States alone, enough embalming fluid is buried each year to fill eight Olympic-sized swimming pools.
Formaldehyde was upgraded to a known human carcinogen in 2004. Embalmers are directly impacted by recurring exposure to the chemical. Long-term exposure increases the risks of brain cancer and leukemia according to the National Cancer Institute.
Pressure on Burial Space
In most places in Canada, once you are buried in a grave, you own that land forever, even after you are fully decomposed. Since the Industrial Revolution, more people live in cities than ever before. With families wanting to be close to their deceased loved ones, cemeteries in cities are overpopulated. Some places are changing the way they approach gravesite policies as global burial space is running out. In Germany, they reuse the same grave space after several years. In Spain and Greece, bodies are removed after decomposition and moved to a communal burial ground. Even in Quebec, most burial plots are leased up to 99 years and then can be resold and reused again.
By reusing graves, it allows for the footprint of the cemetery to remain the same while more bodies are buried. With green burial, there’s no need to add extra space to a cemetery, since bodies decompose relatively quickly, and the space can be reused over and over again.
“We can’t keep using land,” Elizabeth says. “You can’t keep using farmland and land we need for habitat and homes.”
In a typical grave, the body is buried around five feet in the ground. In the case of green burials, the Green Burial Society of Canada says “the body should be completely covered by earth to a depth of at least three feet level with the ground.” In this shallow layer, the soil contains over 90 per cent of microbial activity — leading to rapid decomposition of the body.
For many who choose not to be buried, cremation is the alternative. The process has become increasingly popular in Canada with 65 per cent of people in Canada choosing cremation as their end-of-life preference in 2018. This may be because of its lower cost and the flexibility for remains to be scattered anywhere. Cremation is also considered to be a less labour and resource-intensive process compared to conventional burial. But for those looking for a greener alternative, cremation may not be the best choice. Cremation still creates a negative environmental impact with the amount of energy it takes to burn a human body.
Cremation ovens typically use fossil fuels and heat to a temperature of over 1800°F for more than two hours. Cremating an average adult body releases almost 600 pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. This is the same as driving a car for 500 miles.
Formaldehyde is also a by-product of combustion. When burning natural gas, kerosene, gasoline, or wood, formaldehyde is produced. So, during the cremation process, the formaldehyde that is formed becomes a colourless gas and enters the atmosphere. It clings onto moisture molecules and is eventually washed out in precipitation. This leads to the formaldehyde eventually ending up in the ground and waterways.
Scattering ashes can also have an impact on plant life. It is advised to consult with local experts, so the soil isn’t harmed by the highly concentrated PH levels of cremated human remains.
There are alternatives to conventional flame-cremation. Alkaline hydrolysis or aquamation is a flameless process that uses gentle water flow, temperature, and alkalinity to dissolve the body. The deceased is placed into a stainless-steel vessel with a solution of 95 per cent water and 5 per cent alkali and is heated to 200-300°F. After this process, only the inorganic bone minerals remain which can then be processed into a fine powder.
Elizebeth says if aquamation is operating in Manitoba at the time of her death, that’s her first choice.
“My plan would be to die at home. I would prefer to be laid out for a day with the help of the doulas because if it is possible, depending on if it’s summertime, I think I would just want to be taken to the aquamation. Then I would like to have the operation process done and be buried,” she says.
While currently not accessible in Manitoba due to low demand, aquamation is available in other provinces like Saskatchewan and Ontario.
Trevor Charbonneau, owner and funeral director at Newcastle Funeral Home in Ontario has been operating aquamation services since 2018 after hearing about it at a trade show in the United States.
“It was mostly just to give families another option. We served a lot of cremation families so seeing that this was available and accessible for people we thought we’d start offering it,” Trevor says.
Trevor says the service is very popular among his clientele with around 80 per cent of families selecting aquamation as their end-of-life option.
“They appreciate the environmental benefits of it. They also appreciate the fact that there’s no casket required so it’s a bit cheaper for them as well,” he says.
The average funeral with a burial in Manitoba can cost families anywhere from $7,000-$10,000. The funeral industry or as some call it “Big Funeral” is a billion-dollar industry, with caskets marked up 300 to 500 per cent over wholesale cost. In the United States, as many as three percent of bodies are left unclaimed each year. This number has reportedly risen due to economic inequality, the opioid epidemic, and the pandemic.
With no embalming, caskets, or grave liners, green burial alternatives can be a cost-effective option that has a positive impact on the environment.
Religion and Green Burial
Religion can play a huge role in a person’s end-of-life planning.
Some religious burial practices are actually very similar to green burial practices. Islam encourages simple and natural burials. They don’t embalm or cremate their dead as they want the body to decompose naturally in the earth. Islamic laws aim to respect the dignity of the dead, and cremation is considered “haram” which is forbidden in Islam.
Rena Boroditsky, executive director of Chesed Shel Emes, a Jewish mortuary and burial society in Winnipeg, says placing the body directly to the earth “helps in our spiritual elevation so we don’t want to do anything to impede the return of the remains to the earth.”
The non-profit organization, Chesed Shel Emes, translates from Hebrew to “charity of true loving kindness.”
“That’s the way we talk about looking after the dead because it’s a kindness that can never be repaid,” Rena says. “It’s something that we do out of love — out of humanity.”
Their caskets are made entirely of locally sourced wood. There are no nails, metal hinges or concrete liners used in the burial process. The deceased are washed and then dressed in simple clothing made from unbleached cotton.
“It couldn’t be simpler” Rena explains about the wash process. “So, you know the only chemical we have here is the nail polish remover.”
Rena says they are always looking to do things in the most traditional and simplest way possible and says the burial process is their contribution to the green movement.
She also explains how they are cautious of what gets placed inside the coffin along with the dead. Only photos or small papers are typically allowed in the coffin to keep the burial simple.
“We’ve had someone ask for a golf club or a book of matches. No,” Rena says.
In many ways, a traditional Jewish burial is a green burial. The body is placed directly into the earth, which adherents say enables the soul to attain true and final peace.
Having the Choice
In recent years, there’s been a growing awareness of green burials as environmental concerns rise. People are looking for ways to increase sustainability and green burials have become quite popular, mostly in some European countries and in places like California and British Colombia.
Cathy Valentine is the cemetery manager of Salt Spring Island Natural Cemetery in British Columbia. It is the first entirely green burial cemetery open to the public in Canada.
“It’s important to me in terms of protecting land,” Cathy says. “That’s the reason ours is a conservation green burial, so it’s not just about the green burial but it’s actually about protecting the land from any development or subdivisions.”
Cathy says it’s important to make good and clean choices that are less harmful to our environment.
In Canada, a fully certified green cemetery is a burial site that is reserved solely for those who choose green burial and is approved by the Green Burial Society of Canada.
As of February 2023, there are 371 green cemeteries in the United States and Canada. But zero in Manitoba.
“We’re a very conservative province by nature. I think it’s changing, but I just think that the market is very controlled by traditional funeral homes,” Elizebeth says.
Some funeral homes in Manitoba, like Glen Lawn Funeral Home, do offer green burial practices like no embalming, and direct earth burial. There are also hybrid cemeteries in the province including Transcona Cemetery which offers a designated green burial space in the cemetery. But Manitoba does not have a fully certified green cemetery yet. This may be due to the lack of demand or knowledge on green burials in the province.
“When I start talking to people about green burial, I get this ‘is there such a thing?’ Elizebeth says. “But it’s market-driven. The more we can get the word out, the more we get people going for prearrangements saying, ‘no, I want a green burial.’”
Elizebeth believes everyone should have access to greener solutions when it comes to end-of-life options. She wants to see green burials offered more and hopes to see a green burial co-op or cemetery in Manitoba in the next 10 years.
“As soon as I became an end-of-life doula, I wondered why there was no legislation offering green burials when you go to plan a funeral,” Elizebeth says. “I almost think you should be asked, because with the carbon footprint and the environmental impact that traditional burials now cost.”
Understanding the environmental impact of your death is essential to making end-of-life choices that reflect your values.
“It’s not the choice for everyone, I’m not that person who says everyone needs to have a green burial,” Elizebeth says. “But I think everyone should have that choice.”
Death can be uncomfortable to talk about. It’s something that we can’t control, or escape. But in the end, we should be able to decide how we want our bodies to be dealt with and have environmentally conscious options available. We have a lot of power to help the environment throughout our lives, and we can exercise that power one final time in our deaths.