Mortality and morals: how our funeral arrangements affect the world we leave behind

Just behind a meticulously manicured lawn, wildflowers burst with colour as they catch the sun’s rays. The brightest of them are the vibrant yellow Rudbeckia.  In the air is the distinctive smell of sweet grass. It’s a smell that seems to linger, just as much as it drifts, through the 200 trees spread throughout the property.

This is where Bert wanted to be buried. 

Bert knew his cancer was terminal, and had begun to make his funeral arrangements. Much to his family’s chagrin, he had originally chosen a burial ground that was more than 200-kilometres from the family home.

The family knew the drive to Cobourg Union Cemetery from their home in Niagara Falls would be lengthy, and wanted Bert to be laid to rest somewhere they could visit more often.

But Bert wanted a natural burial, and he had already chosen the option that was closest to his family. 

This changed in March 2017 when he came across a story about a natural burial opening in Niagara Falls. The family gave Mark Richardson, the manager of cemetery services, a call.

Richardson told Bert that he could be buried at the natural burial site they were developing. At the time, the grounds were being regraded and months of work were still needed in order to bring it to the wildflower meadow they had all envisioned.

Bert passed away just a month later. The burial ground was still just an open field, the Rudbeckia and trees had yet to be planted. 

Still, the family agreed to bury Bert on land that would eventually become the plot of nature he had so desired.

            Natural burial grounds — or green cemeteries as they’re sometimes called — are dotted throughout North America. They’re a place where the deceased go into the ground without being embalmed, having a casket or cement vault. The body gets lowered into the ground with only a cotton shroud separating the body from the soil around it.

“People like it because their body goes back to the earth. When you’re buried without embalming and in a simple manner, it completes the cycle.”

            Natural burials are seen as an environmentally friendly alternative to conventional methods.

Richardson, in addition to his work with the City of Niagara Falls, is also the director in Ontario for the Green Burial Society of Canada, a group that advocates for the use of natural burials.

When he created a masterplan for cemeteries in the area he manages, he knew green burials were something he wanted to establish. 

As a start, he created the wildflower meadow in a section of a pre-existing cemetery. He thought the natural burial ground would get more attention if it was located in a place people were already familiar with.

The idea of natural burials has had a slower start in North America than in other parts of the world, says Kim Bilous, a director at the Natural Burial Association. She points to the success of a natural burial movement in the the U.K., where there are over 270 sites. 

“People say they are very interested in natural burials, but then find out there’s nowhere in their community that does it,” said Bilous. 

She suggests that the natural burial movement hasn’t taken off as much in Canada because of a funeral industry that is “very, very powerful.”

 “Most people grieving will go with the easiest option, which is whatever the funeral director says,” she explained.

In the United States, the popularity of natural burials has followed a relatively similar course. 

One such site is the 130-acre Greensprings Natural Cemetery Preserve in Newfield, New York. 

The site is located at the end of a dirt road. Practically everyone who travels it knows exactly where they are headed. According to the burial coordinator, Jennifer Johnson, it is also the road nearly 1000 people have chosen to be transported down once they are deceased.

“From my experience, we are getting exponentially busier every year,” says Johnson. She says that once people see a burial at Greensprings, many decide that that’s how they’d like to be buried too.

“People like it because their body goes back to the earth. When you’re buried without embalming and in a simple manner, it completes the cycle,” explained Johnson. 

 “We thought people would have a ‘yuck’ response to it… but once people see it they’re really captivated by it,” said Mary Woodsen, Greenspring’s cofounder.

Woodsen claims she became involved in the green burial movement almost accidentally. As a science writer for Cornell University, she began researching the environmental impacts of conventional funerals. All of a sudden, she was captivated by the data she uncovered.

According to the Green Burial Council, conventional burial practises in the US use enough embalming fluid to fill more than six Olympic-sized swimming pools. The fluid contains the carcinogen formaldehyde.

Woodsen says that conventional burials also use 1.6 million tons of concrete, and that vaults and caskets leach iron, copper, lead, zinc and cobalt into soil.

The way people were buried hundreds of years ago is similar to natural burial practises of today. 

According to the Journal of Environmental Health, modern embalming methods didn’t take off until the mid 1800s.

Embalming ensures a body doesn’t deteriorate before loved ones can view it, a process that has become tradition for many.

It is hard to forget tradition, and Bilous says she doesn’t blame those who stick to conventional burials. 

In many cases it’s the option the family of the deceased is most comfortable with, and the only option they can find in their area.

“We changed traditions for ease of the living and the cemetery maintenance. It has nothing to do with the dead,” said Richardson, “with natural burials we’re returned to the earth the same way we came into it—perfectly naturally.”

As a lifecycle celebrant, Julie Keon has seen a lot of different funerals. 

After all of her work in the funeral industry, she has never seen a green burial. 

She blames this on the fact that there aren’t any in the Ottawa area, which is where she operates her business.

Despite this, she says that a green burial will be the right choice for her.

“I would like to be wrapped up in cotton and thrown in a hole. The bugs and worms will get me and I’ll turn into soil. I’ll nurture a tree, and that is amazing,” Keon said.

Although Richardson says the green cemetery has garnered interest from the community, there are still some myths about green burials.

He says some people, “don’t want to be at ground zero for a zombie apocalypse.” Others, are afraid that animals would dig the body up. 

Richardson explains that green burials still have to have a certain amount of soil above the corpse. Enough, that animals are an unrealistic threat.

As for the zombie scenario, Richardson has yet to come up with just the right response.

At natural burial sites, there are no marble headstones or cut bouquets. 

Instead, the Rudbeckia grows wild, and the smell of sweet grass floats through the air. 

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