Color & Control:

Shades of green

Eco-friendly end-of-life options for those who care

By Mary Bart

Stephen’s mother, Ruth had been a passionate environmentalist all her life. Her last wishes were to have the most environmentally friendly funeral and burial as possible. She claimed that traditional funerals, caskets and burial preparations were not at all planet friendly. And, her son soon found out that she was absolutely correct.  

Although at first, Stephan was unprepared and overwhelmed when it came to respecting Ruth’s end-of-life requests he found several good alternatives with some expert advice. Let’s take a look at what he was able to consider.

The greenest options
While speaking his local Funeral Director, Zoellyn Onn of Riverside Funeral Home in Brussels Ontario, Stephan learned that it is not “all or nothing.” In fact, Onn let him know that were actually ‘shades of green’ that can be incorporated into every end of life celebration.

According to Ms. Onn who has considerable experience with arranging for ‘green funerals’ there are more choices than ever before for those who care about their final footprint. “Green funerals and burials also give families back the control and empower them to take advantage of the positive environmental effects of going green,” he suggests. “Some also find it a more spiritual, natural way to allow a body to better integrate with and return to the earth.” 

Green funerals and burials can be less expensive than traditional ones but are usually more about making the deliberate choice to be as environmentally friendly as possible rather than to save money, according to Onn. “Going green is about respecting wishes, values and beliefs of the deceased while ensuring their legacy and their choice of final disposition.”

During the process, Stephan was also surprised to learn that a body does not have to be embalmed and that funeral homes does not have to be used for every step of the process. He did however, opt for locally sourced products and services and solicited her help with all the necessary paperwork and the transport of his Mom to the cemetery.

Here are a few things that Stephan also learned during his quest to honour Ruth’s wishes, many of which he decided to incorporate into his plans.

Going green can be as simple as having no embalming no cremation and no place in a mausoleum or cemetery. Instead, he was able to consider purchasing a locally sourced biodegradable cremation urn, a biodegradable water burial urn or a biodegradable coffin which was made without nails and glue. His other options included a coffins made of cardboard, sea grass, willow or bamboo.

• Finding ways to avoid using paper and plastic products at the reception and having jugs of water ready instead of using one-time plastic water bottles. 

• Inviting guests to carpooling to the funeral.

• Giving on-line donations to your favourite charities.

• Picking up the phone or doing a virtual video call with the bereaved instead of mailing a traditional sympathy card. 

Eco-friendly burials
A green or natural burial is the process of human disposition that has minimal environmental impacts by encouraging and seeking greater land stewardship. Natural burials grounds are sanctuaries for both the dead and the living. 

According to Manitoba’s Richard Rosin who is the President of the Green Burial Society of Canada, “A green burial is a statement of your legacy, your personal values for those who seek to minimize their impact on the local and global environment. For people who are mindful of the cyclical nature of life, a green burial is a spiritually fulfilling alternative to conventional burial or cremation. It is an environmentally sensitive practice: the body is returned to the earth to decompose naturally and contribute to new life.” 

According to the Green Burial Society of Canada, these are the 5 principles that distinguish a green burial from a traditional burial.

No embalming.
Human remains are not embalmed, as “decomposition is nature’s way of recycling a body.” Embalming is seen as highly unnatural and invasive.

Direct earth burial.
Instead of being dressed in a suit or dress, un-embalmed remains can be dressed in a shroud made of natural, biodegradable fabrics or the shrouded remains can be placed in a fully biodegradable casket. A simple grave plot is dug by hand. There is no need for a protective vault or grave liner as the shrouded body and or casket is buried directly into the ground. 

Ecological restoration and conservation.
Site preservation and ensuring perpetual protection of the land are key components of a green burial. Green burial sites are planted with only native flowers, plants and trees which are not mechanically or chemically managed. Local indigenous plants such as shrubs, groundcovers and trees are planted following a pre-established planting plan that supports the local eco-system ensuring the natural eco-system is protected forever. Also, important, locally-sourced hand carved organic stone markers are used rather than traditional head and foot stones. 

Visitation of individual graves is discouraged but sensitive and mindful placement of walking paths and benches occur through the site to allow for visitation of the interment area. 

Optimize land use.
Strategic planning and optimized land use are critical elements of a well- planned green burial cemetery. Sound design elements will include simple, temporary roads that can be converted into interment lots that maximize internment capacity of the cemetery. 

The re-use of graves.
Although throughout history and indeed the world today, grave sites have been re-used, but Canada is not there yet. Especially in large urban cities, there is an argument for the re-use of limited interment space. Perhaps in the future Canadian traditional and green burial cemeteries will accommodate the re-use of graves. 

How green will you go?
Many traditional cemeteries are now incorporating green burials. These hybrid cemeteries have dedicated sections for natural burials and follow the guidelines for a natural burial. 

And, while ‘green end of life planning’ may not be for everyone based on a variety of cultural, religious and respected traditional practices Funeral Directors and families like Ruth’s are telling us they are a growing trend. 

What are your plans and wishes? Perhaps you’ll want to ‘go green.’  

Mary Bart is the chair of Caregiving Matters, an internet-based charity that offers education and support to family caregivers.

Natural burial vs green burial?

“Natural burial” strictly refers to the actual burial process. This means the opening and closing of the grave, the preparation of the remains, and the laying of those remains in the burial plot. “Green burial” refers to this process but also to the cemetery in which the burial takes place.

Just the facts: 

• A typical cemetery puts 4,500 litres of formaldehyde-based embalming fluid, 97 tons of steel and 2,000 tons of concrete into the earth per acre.  

• Cremation takes approximately 92 metres of natural gas and releases 0.8 to 5.9 grams of mercury. 


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