With a growing global movement supporting environmental protection and sustainability, green burials are gaining traction as a viable funeral option among consumers as they consider their end-of-life plans.
Many people who are concerned about their environmental footprint in life also want to minimize it upon their death. But what does a green burial entail? And is it possible to have a so-called "green" funeral in Canada? This article will discuss everything you need to know about green burials and how they can be achieved in Canada. We also look at the trend in the U.S., U.K. and other nations.
Sections of this green burial guide are as follows:
- What is a green burial?
- How are green burials achieved?
- Green burial sites in Canada
- Green burial sites in Ontario
- Green burial sites in Nova Scotia
- Green burial sites in Alberta
- Green burial sites in British Columbia
- Canadian provinces without dedicated green burial sites
- Green burial sites in the USA
- Green burial sites in the UK
- What do green burials cost?
- Alternatives to green burials
- Cremation vs aquamation
- Next generation green burial options
What is a green burial, and why choose one?
"Green burial" is a term that is often used as a blanket term to describe death and funerary practices that aim to minimize environmental impact, and does not just refer to burials specifically.
People choose sustainable funeral practices, under the banner of "green burials" because modern funerary practices in North America, the U.K. and in most western countries are not considered eco-friendly. Here’s why:
- Funerals are resource intensive and can involve rites, products and activities that are damaging to the environment. They often span several days.
- In a funeral event with a casket present, embalming fluids and other toxic chemicals are usually used for body preservation. After burial, these chemicals can leach into surrounding soil and groundwater, which can lead to contamination.
- Traditional caskets are typically manufactured using materials like paints or varnishes that can have environmental impacts from production, transportation, and use.
Many people choose cremation as a more sustainable or "greener" option. It is often less labour intensive, and the use of embalming chemicals can be eliminated. However, flame cremation involves burning fossil fuels that emit harmful greenhouse gasses and uses a fair amount of energy. Nonetheless, the overall environmental footprint is smaller when compared to a traditional burial funeral.
It is impossible to have a funeral that does not impact the environment in some manner. However, the goal of green burials is to find ways to reduce the impact on the environment and allow the body to return to the earth more naturally. Green burials can also help reduce carbon emissions, aid in nature conservation and preservation, contribute to new life, and protect and promote worker health and safety.
How are green burials achieved?
There are many options for green burials. You can go the route of a more standard green burial or incorporate green elements into more traditional funerary practices. These more sustainable funerals are sometimes called "eco funerals".
There are five principles of green burial, according to the Green Burial Society of Canada:
- No embalming
- Direct earth burial
- Ecological restoration and conservation
- Communal memorialization
- Optimized land use
Let's look at each principle in detail:
Traditional burials will often use chemical forms of preservation on a body to slow the effects of decomposition. This is to preserve a body long enough to make it presentable for a visitation or viewing.
Additionally, these chemicals can leach into surrounding land and water during decomposition. Therefore, embalming is not permitted in a green burial.
However, green burials embrace the natural processes of decomposition after death and accept that a body must be allowed to decay to incorporate its base elements back into the earth.
However, this does not mean that people that choose a green burial cannot have a viewing or visitation. As a rule embalming is not required in Canada for any funeral service, except in some situations, such as international body transportation.
The green burial approach to preserve a body is to temporarily use refrigeration, which slows or temporarily halts decomposition and decay. There are two funerary refrigeration options: Positive refrigeration and negative temperature refrigeration.
Funeral homes use positive temperature refrigeration. The body is kept between 2.22 C (36 F) and 3.89 C (39 F), which is ideal for bodies that will be buried in less than two weeks.
Negative temperature refrigeration is used when a body needs to be preserved for an extended period. Bodies are often kept between -50 C (-58 F) and 10 C (14 F), reducing the effects of decomposition for several months.
Learn more about the topic here: What is embalming and is it legal required for a funeral in Canada?
Direct earth burial (in biodegradable casket or shroud)
Bodies must be wrapped in a shroud or placed in a casket made of natural, biodegradable fibres and then buried directly in a grave. A grave liner or a protective vault is eliminated.
The biodegradable caskets or shrouds are made from biodegradable materials such as wood, cardboard, paper, plant fibres, etc.
Simple caskets are made of wood, without metal, varnish, or glue. These caskets can be easily personalized and are accepted by most green burial sites.
Woven caskets are usually made from wicker, bamboo, or willow but can also be created from sugarcane or banana leaves. These caskets are unique and well-made pieces that are sturdy, making for easy transport of bodies.
A shroud is a piece of fabric used to wrap the body. Shrouds are made of many materials, including cotton, silk, muslin, wool, bamboo, and hemp. These are highly customizable and often preferred for green burials as fewer resources are used to make them. Fewer resources also mean that shrouds usually take less time to create and break down over time.
Ecological restoration and conservation
Preservation of the eco-system is paramount in the interment area of the cemetery. Visitation of individual graves is discouraged and may be prohibited where possible.
After a burial, the grave plot is covered with local plants to promote the creation of new life and to allow integration into the local ecosystem. For this reason, grave site visitation and memorialization is discouraged. However, many green cemeteries create communal memorials and offer walking space or paths to visit the cemetery and admire the living memorials that flourish thanks to those that are interred there.
Sustainability is also vital to green burials. That is why many green cemeteries aim to reuse plots over time. In Canada and the U.S., perpetual interment rights are common, which means that when you buy a grave plot, the land belongs to you and your descendants forever.
Green burials change this idea. Interment space is a finite resource and so graves are reused over time in green burial cemetery. This can alleviate the limited space in traditional cemeteries, especially in urban areas.
The use of individual memorials is discouraged. Replacing the practice is communal memorialization using naturally sourced materials. Simple, basic inscriptions are used.
Optimized land use
This principal encourages the re-use of graves is as a highly sustainable practice. Any additional land use for access or around the periphery should be reallocated over time for scattering ashes or burial of ashes.
Green burial sites in Canada
There are currently a handful of green burial cemeteries across Canada. Additionally, some hybrid cemeteries have expanded to offer small sections for green burials or to allow for green elements (e.g., biodegradable caskets). Locations that offer some or all of these services are listed below by province.
Provinces with green burial only cemeteries certified by the Green Burial Society of Canada include:
Green Burial Sites in Ontario
Here is information about green burial sites in Ontario.
Willow's Rest, located at Fairview Cemetery - Niagara Falls
Willow's Rest was unveiled in 2017, after over a year of development by the Niagara Falls Cemetery Services and Park in the City Committee; and support from several partners.
The location spans two acres, with nearly 200 native trees and plants, a wildflower meadow serving as a central memorial, and seven monarch butterfly pollinator gardens found throughout. The image at the top of this article shows the green burial area at Fairview Cemetery in Niagara Falls. Also, see drone video footage of the facility here.
Glenwood Cemetery - Picton, ON
Glenwood Cemetery has a dedicated section for green burials. The area is in a natural forest within the cemetery. The first green burial occurred there in 2019 when Bill Henry laid his wife to rest under maple trees in the corner of the woods. This is believed to be one of the first green burials in Eastern Ontario.
Other green burial facilities are offered in the following hybrid cemeteries in Ontario:
- Woodland Memorial Park - Guelph, ON
- Williamsburg Cemetery - Kitchener, ON
- St. John's Cemetery - Jordan Station, ON
- Meadowvale Cemetery - Brampton, ON
- Cobourg Union Cemetery – Cobourg, ON
- Duffin Meadows Cemetery – Pickering, ON
- St. James Anglican Churchyard Cemetery – Roseneath, ON
- Parkview Cemetery – Waterloo, ON
Green Burial Sites in Nova Scotia
There is currently one dedicated green burial site in Nova Scotia, located at Hatchet Lake, outside of Halifax and a few cemeteries that offer green burial plots.
Sunrise Park Interfaith Cemetery - Hatchet Lake
This is the first approved green burial cemetery found in the province of Nova Scotia. It is located on top of a hill on a plateau, approximately 10 minutes from Halifax and the Armdale Rotary. The site is filled with nature and the public is welcome to feed the birds or take their families and pets for a walk down the trail behind the cemetery. The location also offers cremation plots in the ground and a columbarium.
Other green burial locations in Nova Scotia include sections of these hybrid cemeteries:
- Pleasant Hill Cemetery – Halifax County, N.S.
- The Burlington Kings County Cemetery Society – Burlington, N.S.
Green Burial Sites in Alberta
There are three green burial locations in Alberta. These are found in Calgary, Edmonton, and Lethbridge.
Prairie Sky Cemetery - Calgary, AB
Prairie Sky cemetery is the first new cemetery built by the city since 1940. The location offers traditional burial, cremation, and green burial plots. It is located east of Ralph Klein Park in a beautiful area with rolling fields and mountains to the west.
Rosehill Cemetery - Edmonton, AB
Rosehill is a multi-denominational cemetery with 68 acres divided into sections to meet different needs. One of the sections is a meadow for green burials. The location also offers traditional burial and multiple cremation options.
Grassland Green Burial Grounds - Lethbridge, AB
Lethbridge was the first municipality in Alberta to offer green burials in the province; completed in 2019. It is located on the edge of Royal View Memorial Cemetery, with a view of Pavan Park and Chief Mountain on the horizon.
Green Burial Sites in British Columbia
There are numerous green burial sites in British Columba, Canada. Here are several listings with details and locations.
Salt Spring Island Natural Burial Cemetery - Salt Spring Island
Salt Spring Island Natural Burial Cemetery features several acres of forested land in the Burgoyne Valley on Salt Spring Island. They provide space for green burials, cremation burials, cremation scattering, tree planting, and space for gatherings.
Chilliwack Cemeteries - Chilliwack, B.C.
Chilliwack Cemeteries is the fourth largest cemetery in B.C. It spans 20 acres of mountainside facilities on Mount Shannon, with views of the farmland of Fraser Valley and Mount Cheam mountain range. The green burial section is located in Heritage Woods. The cemetery also offers traditional burials, interment in the ground or columbarium, direct cremation, ash scattering, and memorial markers.
Nature Grove Garden - Parksville, B.C.
Nature Grove Garden is part of the cemetery at Yates Memorial Services. The area is under Little Mountain and closed off by locally sourced cedar fences. The cemetery offers single and double depth plots so that two individuals can be buried on top of one another.
Woodlands Natural Burial section at Royal Oak Park - Victoria, B.C.
The Woodlands Natural Burial section is found in a Coastal Douglas Fir ecosystem, surrounded by a forest full of several different types of trees. After burials, native plant life is planted in clusters on and around the gravesite. In the future, a walking path will also be available to visitors.
Green Burial Garden at Heritage Gardens Cemetery - Surrey, B.C.
The Green Burial Garden is found in the SouthEast region of the Heritage Gardens Cemetery grounds. It is located in a meadow with tall grass, wildflowers, and other native plants. Deer also often graze nearby, and you can hear the Little Campell river nearby.
Other green burial locations in B.C. include:
- The Denman Island Natural Burial Cemetery – Denman Island
- Mountain View Cemetery – Vancouver
- Memorial Park Cemetery – Prince George
- Lakeview Cemetery – Penticton
- Powell River Regional Cemetery – Powell River
- Village of Cache Creek Municipal Cemetery - Cache Creek
Canadian provinces without dedicated green burial sites
As of 2021, there were no full green burial cemeteries or cemeteries with green burial only areas in the following Canadian provinces and territories:
- New Brunswick,
- Northwest Territories,
- Newfoundland and Labrador
- Prince Edward Island
However, some provinces have cemeteries that offer green elements, such as accepting biodegradable caskets, shrouds, and urns.
* Notes about Saskatchewan and Manitoba: There is a small, private, hilltop green burial cemetery in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, but it is full. In addition, three cemeteries in Winnipeg (Brookside, St. Vital, and Transcona) allow for green burials within the existing burial sections.
Green burials sites in the U.K
The concept of a green burial has been practiced for thousands of years and modern green burial facilities were first established in the United Kingdom.
In the early 1990s, England had almost a 98 percent cremation rate, which raised concerns about fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. At the same time, land was being purchased and developed rapidly. Green burials stemmed from the desire to reduce environmental impacts while also protecting and conserving natural areas across the nation.
Since then, green burials have spread rapidly throughout England, Wales, and Scotland, with nearly 300 green burial grounds across the UK. (See a full list here: https://www.naturaldeath.org.uk).
Green Burial Sites in the USA
Tthe first official green burial site was established in the United States in the late 1990s. Since then, over 300 green burial sites are now available across the US and Canada. (See this green burial sites map). The green burial process is legal in all U.S. states, however local laws and regulations are used to regulate the process. For example, some state laws mandate refrigeration or embalming of bodies for more than 24 hours. Nonetheless, green burials and related green funeral options are widely available and accessible across the United States.
Green burial cemeteries have also popped up worldwide in Europe, Australia, and New Zealand. Other countries on other continents are also working on legalizing green burial practices and allowing for their use.
What do green burials cost?
Because green burials use significantly less resources and services, they cost in the range of $3,000 to $5,000. The bulk of the expense comes from green cemetery fees and biodegradeable casket or shroud costs ($100 to $1,500+). By comparison, traditional burial funerals cost $6,000 to $12,000. Direct cremation or aquamation funerals cost $1,000 to $4,000, depending on what products and services are used and if a basic or more decorative urn is selected.
Read our in depth article on the cost of green burials and the cost of green funeral alternatives.
Alternatives to green burials
If you are not sure if you want to commit to a green burial or it is not offered in your area, there are other ways to make traditional funeral practices more sustainable. Below we explain how you can do this.
Direct cremation and aquamation
If you are yet committed to your end-of-life choices, but want a more sustainable funeral than a traditional burial, then you will likely be considering flame cremation or aquamation (alkaline hydrolysis) and more specifically direct cremation or direct aquamation.
Flame cremation exposes the body to extremely high temperatures in a cremation chamber. Organic material in the body is consumed by extreme heat, except for bone and any non-combustible materials. The remaining bone fragments are mechanically processed into fine ash and placed in an urn.
Although often viewed as more sustainable than burials, flame cremation still has an environmental impact relative to green burial. It requires the burning of fossil fuels. Harmful chemicals such as carbon monoxide (embalming fluids if used), and mercury from dental fillings and body implants.
Yet flame cremation is more sustainable for the environment than burial because it is quicker, less labour-intensive, requires fewer resources, and embalming is unnecessary. A gravesite is also unnecessary if you scatter the ashes instead of burying them. Nonetheless, the environmental impact varies more depending on the type of cremation chosen.
Aquamation or Alkaline Hydrolysis
Aquamation uses the chemical process of alkaline hydrolysis to cremate remains. The body is treated with a combination of water, alkali (a chemical called potassium hydroxide), heat, and pressure, which produces a reaction that speeds up the body's decomposition. When complete, it leaves behind bone fragments and a sterile liquid. The fragments are reduced to a powder and put into an urn; the sterile liquid can be disposed of into municipal wastewater and sewage systems.
Aquamation reduces the environmental impact by eliminating direct emissions of harmful greenhouse gasses or mercury, burning fossil fuels, and using less energy than flame cremation. The cost of aquamation is also similar to flame cremation, so you would not be paying much extra to achieve this.
- Read our in-depth aquamation guide to learn more.
- See a cost comparison of direct cremation compared to green burials
Availability in Canada
Flame cremation is available in all Canadian provinces and aquamation is available in Saskatchewan, Ontario and Quebec. In the U.S., see the legality and availablity of aquamation state by state here.
Flame cremation vs aquamation
Flame cremation is less sustainable than aquamation as fossil fuels are used to fire the crematory.
The byproduct of aquamation is a brackish water that is released into the municipal wastewater and bone ash, which is returned to the family.
Aquamation uses use less energy and results in less toxic emissions and is considered more sustainable (and "eco-friendly" as some call it) than flame cremation.
Learn about these more sustainable options:
Mushroom burial suit
A unique shroud option is the Infinity Burial Suit made by Coeio. This is a black biodegradable burial shroud that incorporates a bio mix of mushrooms and other microorganisms.
These organisms are designed to aid in decomposition and neutralize toxins from the body. This helps provide nutrients while avoiding contamination to surrounding plant life and groundwater.
Learn more here: How a mushroom burial suit-works.
Green cremation urns
Regardless of your choice, you can further reduce the environmental impact by choosing a green urn when burying. Biodegradable urns are made of materials include paper, clay, plant material, bark, wood, sand, etc., which will naturally decompose over time.
The choice of material will depend on what you intend to do with the ashes. For example, if you would like to bury the ashes at sea, it is a good idea to pick an urn made from a material that degrades more easily in water, such as paper or cardboard.
A unique option is a biodegradable urn with seeds or seedlings. These urns are designed to convert the ashes into a tree or another plant of choice. It can be an excellent option for those who want to give back to the environment after death.
Green choices for a traditional burial
One of the easiest ways to make a traditional burial green is not to use embalming chemicals on the body. As mentioned above, these chemicals can leach into surrounding land and water during decomposition.
The same idea would apply to traditional caskets. Traditional caskets are made from materials that are difficult to break down and can leach chemicals into surrounding soil and plant life. Instead, opting for a biodegradable casket will reduce your environmental impact.
Another way to do this is with a direct burial, a funeral practice that involves burying a body shortly after death. This eliminates burial services such as a viewing or visitation. Therefore, embalming and other chemical preservation techniques are not needed.
Direct burials can occur at a green burial cemetery or in a regular cemetery. Therefore, this can be an excellent way for someone to make a standard burial greener. It can also be cost-effective, as many of these services and preservation practices are expensive.
Next generation green burial options
Throughout the years, several new eco-friendly green burial options have been introduced. Many of these are still in development or have not been made available to the public. Nonetheless, we have summarized some of these options below.
Natural organic reduction or human composting
Natural organic reduction is a process that transforms bodies into soil. It was developed by Katrina Spade, founder and CEO of Recompose, a funeral provider specializing in human composting.
The process begins with the body placed in a cradle, surrounded by wood chips, alfalfa, and straw. Next, the cradle is placed in the recompose vessel, covered in more plant material, and left for 30 days. Microbes break down the body during that time, resulting in nutrient-rich soil. Finally, the soil is removed from the vessel, cured, and then can be used like regular soil to grow and nourish plant life.
The first bill to legalize this process was passed in Washington state in 2019 and went into effect in 2020. Similar bills have been introduced in other U.S. states. However, the process is currently not legal in Canada, although an advocacy group in Ontario is working toward that end. There is a company in Washington state called Return Home that offers human composting or what it calls "terramation" to Canadians.
Learn more about human composting in our guide: What is human composting?
The Living Cocoon is a "living coffin" made from mycelium, which is part of the fungi kingdom and is the network of threads, called hyphae, from which mushrooms grow. The material is designed to help decompose a body and convert toxins released in that process into nutrients for plants. It was developed by Bob Hendrikx, who created the Loop company.
The coffin is "grown" by the company in seven days using local materials, without the use of heat, electricity, or light. First, the mycelium is mixed with wood chips and molded into a coffin. Once the mycelium has grown, the coffin is dried, and moss is placed inside to help with the composting process. Once it is buried, the coffin interacts with groundwater, and the mycelium breaks down the coffin within 45 days.
This may be accepted by many green burial sites. However, it is advised to contact your local green cemetery beforehand to ensure it can be used.
Promession: Freeze-drying remains
Promession is a body-disposition option that uses freeze-drying technology to reduce a body into an organic powder. Swedish biologist Susanne Wiigh-Masak created the promession process in the late 1990s.
Here is how promession works: A body is placed in a cryogenic freezing chamber. Next, it is sprayed with liquid nitrogen at a temperature of -196 C (-320.8 F). Once the body is fully frozen, the chamber is mechanically vibrated for several minutes to reduce frozen cells into crystallized particles, which are collected and placed in a vacuum chamber.
In the vacuum chamber, water is removed using a process called sublimation. The result is a powder equal to approximately 30 per cent of the deceased person's original body weight. Next, any metals are removed from the powdered remains using magnets or sieves.
Finally, the remains are placed in a biodegradable container made from corn or potato starch. The container is sealed and buried in top layers of soil, where it decomposes over a 6 to 18 month period.
The remains can be placed in an urn and kept in the home, placed in keepsake jewelry, placed in an urn containing seedlings or seeds, and more. However, Wiigh-Masak recommended in an interview with Wired UK in 2013 that the promessed remains are not scattered since they consist of organic material which can be consumed by wildlife. Instead she recommends burial, so that the remains are reintegrated in soil.
"If you spread it around you will be food for birds, or fish, or whatever. People would stop eating fish if you start spreading that into the ocean," she said.
Promession is currently only legal in Sweden, the UK, and South Korea.
To learn more read: What is promession?
Capsula Mundi: Body Pod
The Capsula Mundi project is a tree burial pod developed by Italian designers Anna Citelli and Raoul Bretzel. The pod is a new type of green burial that also supports the growth of a tree.
Here's how it works. A body is placed in the fetal position inside a biodegradable burial pod, which in turn is buried in the ground. A tree is then planted on top of the burial pod. As the pod and the body decompose into the soil, it provides nutrients to help grow.
The Italian company is still developing this project and working to introduce legislation that will allow for this type of burial. For the time being, they are selling mini versions of their capsule for cremated remains, available for purchase here: https://www.capsulamundi.it.
Read more here: What is the Capsula Mundi Body Pod and Urn?
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