Until our son, Kyle, died at the age of 36 in February of 2019, no one in our family had heard of or given a moment’s consideration to “green” or “natural” burial. To the extent that we had given any thought to what would happen to our bodies after death, we assumed that fire cremation was the greenest option available. The idea of having our ashes spread around some of our most treasured places and spaces was comforting and kind of cool.

Kyle’s death changed all of that within a matter of days. He was the quintessential tree hugger with a keen understanding of ecology and how human activity was undermining earth’s natural life support systems. He insisted that we are part of the larger natural world not apart from it. Thinking and behaving like some kind of super-species, exempt from the natural processes all other species are governed by, was a shortcut to hell on earth.

The inevitability of death led Kyle to view human bodies at end-of-life not as waste but as essential fuel and nutrients for energizing the endless cycle of death giving birth to new life. We wanted to find ways to celebrate his life and ecological values through the choices we made surrounding his death.

We were blessed to have a close friend and “end-of-life doula” living close by. End-of-life doulas are skilled in helping families make difficult “final disposition choices” even as they struggle under mountains of grief. Kyle’s fight to survive his second encounter with brain cancer had so preoccupied our lives that proper conversations about his end-of-life wishes were delayed until it was too late.

But we knew Kyle and with our friend’s assistance dove head long into a deep examination of the full range of conventional and not so conventional deposition options, using Kyle’s ecological sensibilities as our guide-post.

Conventional Burial

We were not predisposed toward elaborate caskets and memorials, so our consideration of conventional burial options began with our desire to keep things simple.

We soon learned that conventional burial typically involves very substantial material and energy inputs. This often includes the use of exotic and/or highly-finished wooden (or metal) caskets, with heavy-duty metal handles and other hardware as well as concrete or fiberglass grave liners.

The installation of individual monuments or head stones, all supported by mandatory concrete foundations, further expands the carbon budget.

Conventional cemeteries typically employ energy and carbon-intensive grounds-keeping practices to maintain manicured lawn-like conditions including the use of herbicides to control unwanted plants.  And, most landscaping equipment, from lawnmowers to weedwhackers, are powered by internal combustion engines.

While we learned that chemical embalming was optional during summer months, we also discovered that Kyle’s death in the middle of winter made burial impossible anywhere within Haliburton County.  Burial in the spring was conditional on having him embalmed – with the chemical of choice being the human carcinogen, formaldehyde – and stored in a winter locker until the soil thawed in May.

While winter burial is provided in many communities across northern and southern Ontario, the closest one to Haliburton was Roseneath, two hours travel time to the south. We knew that Kyle would have wanted to be buried in Haliburton County, a place he knew so well and loved so deeply.

Fire Cremation

With conventional burial having so many ecological challenges, we moved on to fire cremation – by far the most popular and fastest growing after-death choice in Canada. The Cremation Association of North America (CANA) estimates that in 2023 cremation occurred in over 75% of deaths in Canada. The organization predicts that “market dominance” to exceed 80% by 2030.[1]

Cremation is relatively quick and simple to arrange and is not affected by the season in which a death occurs. Opinion surveys indicate that, even among self-described environmentalists, cremation is seen as an ecologically-sustainable choice.

As we soon discovered, however, fire cremation releases a per capita average of 242kg (534 lbs) of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere[2]. With over 330,000 deaths in Canada in 2023, C02 emissions from cremation exceeded 80 million metric tonnes – an amount equal to or greater than the 2022 national emissions of 8 signatory countries under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).[3]

In addition to C02, fire cremation also releases a number of other toxic chemicals into our atmospheric commons, including nitrogen oxide, carbon monoxide, dioxins and mercury.

While crematoria technology has become more energy efficient over time, the increasing popularity of cremation has resulted in rising overall emission levels that outstrip the progress in reducing its carbon intensity.

Green or Natural Burial

With conventional burial and fire cremation found wanting on ecological grounds, we moved on to look at what “green or natural” burial had to offer.

The five guiding principles of green/natural burial as defined by the Green Burial Society of Canada (GBSC)[4] are:

  • No embalming
  • Direct earth burial
  • Ecological Restoration and Conservation
  • Simple Memorialization
  • Optimized Land Use

Off the top, we found these principles very attractive and were encouraged to learn that a sizeable majority of Canadians share an interest in green/natural burial options.

The Natural Burial Association[5] (NBA), which, like the GBSC, supports individuals and groups interested in creating both “hybrid” and “stand alone” green/natural burial cemeteries or burial grounds, commissioned an Angus Reid opinion poll in 2022 to probe people’s attitudes toward green or natural burial.

That poll found that when “natural” vs “green” was the adjective attached to “burial”, a clear majority of Canadians would “consider” natural burial across all gender, age and even political party preference lines.

So, why is there such a huge gap between the numbers of people prepared to “consider” green or natural burial and the actual end-of-life choices being made on-the-ground?

From Private Grief to Movement Building

While my family faced the “no-winter-burial-of-any-kind” problem in Haliburton County, public and private cemeteries in many, if not most, larger urban centres have no problem providing year-round burial services. What they lack are green or natural burial sections within their conventional cemeteries or dedicated green/natural burial grounds.

This is not surprising given the increased incidence of cremation and its overwhelming “market share” as the final disposition of choice. If people don’t demand more ecologically-sustainable options, public and private providers will not offer them.

Which brings me to activist part of my family’s effort to honour Kyle’s ecological legacy.

The green/natural burial movement is a relative newcomer to Canada, having developed a much earlier presence in both the UK and the US[6].

But things are changing quickly in Canada with new hybrid green/natural burial sections, in particular, being created all across the country as a result of the educational and advocacy efforts of local organizations supported by both the GBSC[7], NBA[8] and other provincial organizations. Progress in creating dedicated green/natural burial grounds has been slower due to the large upfront entry level costs involved.

In Haliburton County, Environment Haliburton (EH!), a local environmental justice NGO, created a Green Burial Working Group as well as the Kyle Moore Memorial Green Burial Initiative Fund in 2019 shortly after Kyle’s death. That group quickly spun off a new organization called The Haliburton Highlands Green Burial Society (HHGBS)[9], a not-for-profit green burial education-focused advocacy organization which achieved charitable tax status late in 2023.

Five years post-creation, we’re finally seeing our efforts pay off in Haliburton County. In 2025 the Township of Algonquin Highlands will open the first year-round green burial section in the entire County at its St. Stephen’s Cemetery. The dream now has a place to put down roots and grow.

The Township of Highlands East, while not yet embracing winter burial, will open a green burial section within its Deer Lake Cemetery later this year.

Climate Change, Environmental Justice and Your After-Death Legacy

As compared to the largest sources of climate-killing greenhouse gas emissions, like the Oil and Gas Industry, green burial sections and individual carbon-intensive, end-of-life disposition choices can appear small and insignificant.

But the sum total of those individual choices, like so many others we’re being called upon to make, will help determine whether or not we can build the social and political will to drive down GHG emissions as far and as fast as needed to pass on a liveable climate to future generations.

By choosing to treat our bodies as nutrients and not waste to be dumped into an already polluted atmosphere, we can help send an increasingly louder message that humans are part of rather than apart from the larger natural world. with serious obligations to current and future generations.

All of us, and seniors in particular, by choosing green/natural burial can contribute to the climate action needed now to pass on an ecological legacy that keeps giving long after we’re gone.

 

[1] The Cremation Association of North America (CANA), 2024 Industry Statistical Information: https://www.cremationassociation.org/industrystatistics.html

[2] Cremation Society of Milwaukee, May 2023: https://www.cremationsocietyofmilwaukee.com/what-is-the-environmental-impact-of-direct-cremation#:~:text=Cremation%20creates%20air%20pollutants%20such,the%20pollution%20of%20the%20air.

[3] EU GHG emissions of all world countries,2023 report”, downloaded and sorted by author: https://edgar.jrc.ec.europa.eu/report_2023?vis=co2tot#emissions_table

[4] Green Burial Society of Canada (GBSC): https://greenburialcanada.ca/the-five-principles/

[5] Natural Burial Association (NBA): https://naturalburialassociation.ca

[6] See, “Greening death : reclaiming burial practices and restoring our tie to the earth”, Suzanne Kelly,  2015.

[7] GBSC Certified Sites: https://greenburialcanada.ca/directory/

[8] NBA  “Two Possibilities in Ontario Hybrid and Dedicated Sites”: https://naturalburialassociation.ca/natural-burial-in-ontario/

[9] Haliburton Highlands Green Burial Society (HHGBS): https://www.haliburtongreenburial.ca

 

Terry Moore is a retired union negotiator and organizer currently active in environmental, economic and social justice issues, with SCAN, Environment Haliburton, Planet Hailburton (radio/podcast), and the Haliburton Highlands Green Burial Society.