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Life beyond death: Digging deep into the growing trend of green burials

As people look at different ways to be more environmentally friendly, experts say more people are putting thought into what impact we have on the environment after death.

The funeral industry says a is a way people can ensure to have as little impact on the environment as possible.

Experts say over the last few years, more people have been drawn towards more natural burial options.

“It’s something that has a really wide appeal, and it is more than the environment. People like it because they like the idea of this final resting place being in nature. They like the idea that it would be a place that people could come and visit, and they’re leaving a legacy of nature,” says Susan Greer.

Greer is the executive director of the Green Burial Association, which was founded in 2005 to advocate for green burial and build awareness about the practice in Ontario.

The association shut down for a time but then restarted in 2018 when they saw awareness starting to grow.

The difference between green and standard funerals.

Since 2018, Greer has also seen more Ontario cemeteries expand to offer green burial options.

“If you look on our website, when we first started, there were maybe four or five natural burial grounds, and now there’s probably triple that. They’re all hybrids. We haven’t got a dedicated natural burial ground yet, not in Ontario.”

But one business hopes to be the first in Ontario and one of the first in Canada to have an entirely all-natural cemetery.

The first all-natural burial site in Ontario

Lauren Andrew and Amanda Kelly co-founders of AWAKE.

AWAKE is a company based in Oro Medonte that is in the beginning stages of trying to open what they call a “Living Cemetery”.

“So when our loved ones are laid to rest under their particular family tree or in their particular place in the nature reserve, they truly do return to life. They nourish new plant life, they support the ecosystem in the reserve,” says Amanda Kelly, AWAKE’s co-founder.

The idea does away with the traditional burial plot model and is instead set up more as a nature preserve with walking trails.

“What it has are natural memorials that are part of the natural environment instead of manmade pieces. It also has community space, so part of the living cemetery is that it isn’t only a place for the afterlife. It’s also a place for our lives. It’s a place to bring your family. It’s a place to go for a hike. It’s a place to create new memories,” says Kelly.

The plan is to have at least two-thirds of the space as forest, with the remainder of the space saved for celebrations of life as well as a space for new plants if people would prefer their loved ones’ ashes be laid to rest by planting a new seedling or sapling with their loved one’s remains.

The company works with a process that turns ashes, which are generally toxic to living plant life, and mixes them with a patented soil mixture, which makes them capable of helping new plant life grow.

In Canada, 86 per cent of people chose cremation. This process is not considered the most environmentally friendly, but what some experts describe as the lesser of two evils as opposed to traditional burial in a concrete-lined coffin.

Through their practice of transforming the ashes, Kelly says they can make it so they can be fully returned to the earth. She says people can now also opt for a less harsh form of cremation in some areas that is water-based called aquamation.

How much does it cost?

The standard cost for a funeral in Ontario can cost anywhere from $5,000 to $20,000 according to Dundas Life Insurance. The average burial can be between $5,000 to $10,000 while cremation comes in at $2,000 to $5,000.

In the case of AWAKE, Kelly says the cost could be as low as $1,000 if someone wants their ashes scattered in a community garden and upwards of $10,000 if they’re going to purchase a dedicated family tree.

Sarah Sunnucks is a funeral director at Smith’s Funeral Homes, which she says is the first funeral provider in Canada to be recognized by the Green Burial Council.

The Green Burial Council is one of several organizations that set standards and raise awareness about green burials in North America.

Smith’s started offering greener options for people in their four locations in 2018, when more people started asking about green options.

“That’s when it really opened my eyes that a lot of people are starting to ask questions, and they might not have all of the resources to get all the answers that they need,” Sunnucks says.

From there, she started looking into the practice of green burials and what options they could provide to people planning for their loved ones passing, and she says they also started educating others in the funeral industry about more environmentally friendly options.

The home gives people the option of green coffins made of wicker or wood and biodegradable urns. They also have cold rooms where bodies can be kept fresh for several days without embalming.

The cost of a green or standard funeral.

Sunnucks also notes that biodegradable or wooden urns on average cost less than ones made out of metal or marble.

While there has been an increase in people planning greener options, Sunnucks said families generally choose the standard option when loved ones haven’t made their end-of-life wishes known.

Rendering of what AWAKE wants their Living Cemetery memorial garden to look like.

Kelly and her business partner are still looking for the right location in the Oro Medonte area and investors to make the project happen, which could cost upwards of $1 million.

She says they are looking to find the location and will purchase it in 2025, within it, and take between six months to a year and a half to open.

Hybrid burial sites in Ontario

Although it will still be some time before Ontario sees its first fully green cemetery, many pre-existing locations have started to add green sections.

The City of Hamilton opened its first natural burial section in the city’s Mountain district in September.

Cemeteries Supt. John Perotta says there was “quite a bit of interest” with some 180 people signing on to a waitlist for one of three options: burial, natural cremation or garden scattering.

Planning for a site started in 2018 after staff became aware of the natural burial trend culminating in a master plan supported by “strong community input” and the subsequent securing of funding by a local councillor.

“So the past … let’s say six months, we’re at about 10 or 11 scatterings and we’re up to around maybe five or six burials,” said Perotta.

“Plus there’s pre-sales, so it’s pretty good.”

All interments are done in an area consisting of 250 full-size graves and 250 cremation graves all connected with a walking trail and seeded with wildflowers and native plants.

Perotta says the burial process itself is slightly more in cost, just under $100 more compared to the traditional offering, but with no headstone, monument, marker, foundation or concrete outer container a family can expect some savings.

“Environmentally it’s the biggest benefit in my opinion, since it allows for pollinators like birds and bees. It’s just beautiful,” he remarked.

Willow’s Rest Green Burial Area in Niagara Falls boasts a similar atmosphere through a grassy wildflower meadow surrounded by trees.

Opening in 2017 as a section of Fairview Cemetery, Willow’s Rest came to be through years of demand from families making queries about the region’s natural burial options.

After the city received grants for the development, some 600 trees and 15,000 wildflower plugs and seeds were deposited in the two-acre site that once was home to a leaf compost area.

Cemeteries manager Mark Richardson says utilizing areas deemed as unworkable for conventional burials is another benefit to the green concept.

“In many instances, we have incorporated areas of Fairview that at one point would have been viewed as not usable from a sales or for an from an interment perspective,” Richardson explained.

Five plots were sold in its first year of existence with demand soaring in 2021 and close to 30 lots being purchased, which has been the annual average for three years now.

Willow’s Rest hosts nearly two hundred new native trees and a monarch butterfly garden where bees tend to be active.

Willow’s Rest Green Burial field with flowers at Fairview Cemetery.

The space has attracted students from Niagara College who maintain beehives while local school groups come to plant pollinator gardens.

Richardson, who sits on the Green Burial Society of Canada and on the Natural Burial Association, says he’s seen grow “exponentially” in just the last few years encompassing all corners of Ontario he’s travelled to between North Bay and Niagara Region.

“The interest really has been driven by community groups,” he says. “Organizations put together by volunteers have just decided … we’ve been doing a lot for the environment, let’s see if we can drive this message home.”