This Magazine

Progressive politics, ideas & culture

March-April 2019

A greener goodbye

Even in death, North Americans tend to leave a stomping carbon footprint. But there’s a better way.

Zakiya Kassam

Illustration by Dale Nigel Goble

With around 269,000 deaths reported each year in Canada, the death biz is more invested in our mortality than ever. But this billion-dollar industry needs us more than we need it: big-ticket items and services, such as embalming, caskets and tombstones, are as superfluous as they are environmentally damaging. Green burials came to North America in the early 2000s, and Canada’s first urban green burial site opened in Saanich, B.C. in 2008. According to the Natural Burial Association, there are currently four certified natural burial sites in Canada, with several other cemeteries offering hybrid green burial services. Here’s what you need to know about going green to the grave.

Though numbers aren’t readily available in Canada, the Funeral Consumers Alliance estimates that over 20 million litres of toxic embalming fluid are used, and consequently deposited into the earth, every year in the U.S. Common embalming chemicals—such as formaldehyde, a known carcinogen—can leach into the ground, compromise the health of plants and animals, and contaminate our water supply. However, green burial practices prohibit the use of these concoctions in favour of natural decomposition. For open-casket viewings, the body can be preserved via refrigeration and the use of environmentally sensitive soaps, lotions and essential oils—a last spa treatment of sorts.

Caskets and casket liners containing metal, synthetic fabrics, varnish, and concrete take years to decompose and can leave a toxic residue behind. The greenest way to go down is enclosed in a shroud made of biodegradable fibres. Some people even have it dyed (with plant-based colours, of course) or embroidered with a favourite poem. Alternatively you can let mushies work their magic, by going six feet under in an Infinity Burial Suit. The head-to-toe garment is infused with fungi and bio-organisms that speed up your decomposition, allowing you to pass on your nutrients to the plants. A no-frills casket, made with locally sourced and sustainable wood, can be used as a supplement to a simple shroud. But forget the lustre finish and leave it untreated or oiled. Also, lose the swanky padded velvet lining, unless you’re Count Dracula or a very expensive guitar.

Green burial sites discourage people from having individual tombstones to preserve the natural landscape of the grounds as much as possible. Unmarked graves and communal memorialization are standard. To mark the spot, instead of propping up a great slab of quarried marble, consider a discreet name plaque on a tree, a rock garden or smooth pebbles—or something sculptural, such as a sundial, a bird table or an art piece made from eco-friendly materials. If your last resting place is in a beautiful setting, your loved ones can just enjoy the ever-changing beauty of the seasons there—no concrete required.

Green burials take their cues from nature and follow the principle that life and death are cyclical. As such, green burial sites are maintained with indigenous wildlife in mind. The grounds are managed organically, and cuttings of native plants and flowers are cultivated, to be reintegrated, each time the earth is disturbed. After all, just because you can’t make a comeback, doesn’t mean your burial plot doesn’t deserve the chance.

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