Are you “dying” to be green?

Photos courtesy of Kenneth Chou

I’m often surprised at the reaction when the conversation turns around to one of the greening projects I’m involved in.  As a Director of the Natural Burial Association, I encourage people to think about their death and what will happen to their bodies when that day comes.

My surprise is that many of my colleagues in the sustainability business who are very committed to living greener, cleaner and healthier lives, haven’t given much thought to the footprint they will leave behind. Interest is now turning to how the end of our lives can contribute to greater sustainability.

Think of natural burial as the ultimate gift back to the land.

A natural burial is the return of a body to the earth as simply as possible.  Bodies are not embalmed – they are wrapped in a biodegradable shroud or placed in a simple casket and buried in protected green space.

Think compost.

Consider the costs of conventional burial. According to Greensprings Natural Cemetery outside Ithaca, New York, the average US cemetery buries roughly 9,434 litres of embalming fluid, 219 tonnes of steel and 42,333 metres of high-quality wood used in caskets in a single hectare. In contrast, a body wrapped in a shroud or contained in a plain wood box decomposes quickly, leaves behind few pollutants, and helps create new life.

Perhaps “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” and cremation resonate as a better choice. But to burn a body at a high temperature for several hours requires natural gas, which produces greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxides and nitrogen oxides. Environment Canada also lists a number of noxious gases, particulate matter, mercury and other heavy metals as emissions from crematoria.

Natural burials provide an opportunity to preserve green space. Once the bodies are buried, nature takes its course, and the bodies gracefully return to the earth. The nutrients help to feed the commemorative native trees or shrubs, which in turn create a new forest or parkland in the protected green space. I thought the tagline for one natural burial ground said it well, “Save a forest. Plant yourself.” Once land in Ontario is designated a cemetery, it remains protected in perpetuity, so it will be a green space forever.

Natural burial grounds are spreading, fast. Started in Britain in 1991, there are now more than 225 sites opened or planned, large and small, scattered across the United Kingdom. There are more than two-dozen sites in the United States, with more in development. In Canada, there are two natural burial grounds, one in Victoria, B.C. the other in Cobourg, Ontario. There are also two others in the works in the Greater Toronto Area, one by the Mount Pleasant Group of Cemeteries due to launch later this year, and another still in the planning process.

When a group of volunteers started the Natural Burial Association back in 2006, almost no one knew there was an alternative to cremation and conventional burial, and there were no natural burial grounds in Canada. Slowly, things are changing and it’s been interesting to witness the transformation.

Part of the change has been driven by our aging population, and the Baby Boomers who are rejecting traditional values. They are redefining how they want to be memorialized and do it their own way. People who haven’t been inside a religious building for forty years are no longer choosing to have memorial services in places of worship or stodgy funeral homes, and with families now scattered across the globe, often these services can take place several months after the death itself.

Like every other industry, there is greenwashing to contend with. There are funeral home owners who drive hybrid cars and put solar panels on the roof and call themselves green, and casket companies that self-certify their products as environmentally friendly. With the profusion of choices in the market, the US Green Burial Council has stepped up and developed credible third-party certification standards for burial grounds, funeral providers, cremation disposition programs and products.

Technology is also playing a part. Two new technologies, resomation (where the body is broken down chemically through a water and alkali-based method) and promession (freeze drying the body by submerging it into liquid nitrogen) are entering the market to offer more choice, with proclaimed environmental benefits. Bamboo and FSC wood caskets and urns, as well as non-toxic embalming fluid are available across the US and more and more in the Canadian market.

While you might not like to think about it, your time will eventually come. Take a moment to think about your final resting place. As you make your wishes known, ask questions and make a choice that’s right for you and the planet.

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Janet McCausland is the principal at Get it Done Communications where she helps companies with strategic communications, project management and green initiatives. Janet also serves on the Board of Directors of the Toronto Environmental Alliance and the Natural Burial Association. Janet can be reached at