In a decade when you canbuy free-range eggs, organic hair gel and eco-handbags, the mind begins to turn to “greening” your final, inescapable purchase: your funeral.
Each year, traditional funerals result in more metal being put in American soil than was used to make the Golden Gate Bridge and enough concrete to build a two-lane highway from New York City to Detroit. That’s according to a 2006 article in Slate magazine.
In Canada, burial traditions are much the same, and most of the big funeral homes---such as Cruikshank’s and Snow’s---are owned by a large conglomerate based in Houston, Service Corporation International. A twinned highway made out of the concrete we bury would run from Halifax to Truro, and the amount of steel is more than what went into our Macdonald Bridge.
So what do you do if you want to shed this mortal coil in an environmentally responsible way in Halifax---no embalmment, no metal casket, no headstone, on a piece of protected, pesticide-free land where graves are located using GPS?
There are currently zero eco-burial sites in HRM---and, in fact, there are none in Canada, although two are planning to open later this year, in Victoria and Guelph. In the UK, where the green burial movement took off about 15 years ago, there are more than 100 of what the British call “woodland cemeteries.” In the US, there are seven---the first, in South Carolina, has buried fewer than 100 people in five years. The closest one to Nova Scotia is a 150-acre property in Maine. Established last fall, it’s so new that no one’s been buried in it yet. The price of an eco-plot? A relatively modest $800 US. That’s roughly equivalent to what you’ll pay here to be buried in a regular lawn cemetery.
“How do people get what they want, whether they want cremation or earth burial?” asks Susanna Eve, who says that for her green isn’t everything, but it is part of what she wants in Halifax.
Eve has just created the Memorial Society of Nova Scotia, the first organization of its kind east of Montreal. The group has its first public meeting on Sunday, and part of its mandate is to set up a working group to address green burial options in Nova Scotia. Over the long term, Eve would like to see a green burial ground, but right now she wants to make funerals more affordable.
A bottom-of-the-line funeral---being buried in the cardboard case that’s usually reserved for cremations, in a plot in a rural graveyard in, let’s say, Pinehill Cemetery in Hubbards (which you can only buy if you have some family connection to the community), with pallbearers supplied by the funeral home---that avoids cremation, embalming, viewing and a service, runs you just under $5,000.
“When people die, you have no time to shop around,” insists Eve, who’s been researching the funeral options in Halifax since her mother-in-law died suddenly two years ago, leaving her and her husband scrambling to coordinate---and finance---a funeral on the other side of the country. “The funeral industry is a really big industry and funerals are enormously expensive.”
That’s a complaint at least as old as Jessica Mitford’s 1963 book The American Way of Death, a muckraker that blew the lid off unscrupulous business practices in the funeral industry.
Lucky for Eve, her mother-in-law belonged to the Memorial Society of BC, one of a loose system of associations across North America which, using bulk-buying power, have made it their collective objective to give people some more affordable funereal options. For a one-time fee of $50, the Memorial Society of BC assists its 200,000 members in planning funeral arrangements---and, according to its website, it promotes environmentally sound arrangements for disposal of remains, such as cremation and, more recently, eco-burial.
“There are not green burial options right now,” Eve points out. “A lot of people choose cremation because it seems more environmentally responsible. But if you’re burning metals and toxic chemicals, how responsible is that?”
And what about that fuel that’s burned to burn you---and the resulting greenhouse gas emissions? Your corpse is burned at temperatures as high as 1150° C for up to two hours. That requires roughly the same amount of energy as it would take to boil all the water two Canadians use in a month. Cremation releases dioxins into the air---and mercury, if you have any silver amalgam fillings. Health Canada has ruled the amount too negligible to restrict cremation, but none of it sounds very green.
Yet since about the 1950s, North Americans who want a simple burial have increasingly chosen cremation. For millennia it was---and is---common practice for Hindus and Buddhists. The number of Canadians who chose cremation jumped from 31 percent to 39 percent during the 1990s; it’s estimated that in 20 years, more than half of us will choose to burn our bodies. And, as Eve suggests, one in five of those who do will say it’s for environmental reasons or to help preserve land.
There is also sky burial: in what was a common practice in Tibet, a human corpse is cut into small pieces and placed on a mountaintop, exposing it to the elements and birds of prey. No fuel, land or topsoil is consumed. But it contravenes the Environment Act, the Cemetery and Funeral Services Act and HRM’s Bylaw Respecting Municipal Cemeteries, three pieces of legislation that govern Halifax cemeteries.
And then there’s promession or freeze-drying, an ecological process that originates in Sweden. Essentially the opposite of cremation, it involves removing all heat from the corpse by submerging it in liquid nitrogen. This makes the remains so brittle that when vibrated, they’re reduced to a pile of calcium-rich fine powder, which is shallowly buried in a biodegradable, infant-sized casket.
Or, you may want to rocket a fraction of your remains into space---for a cost of $1,295 US per ounce, an amount that would fit in a container the size of a lipstick tube. You’re probably not adding to the carbon load of a launch that would have happened anyway; but if you’re of average size, you actually weigh 80 times that amount. Or try converting your cremated ashes into diamonds for your friends and family with the help of a Chicago company---for $14,000 US per carat, which would consume less than half of your cremains.
Locally, you can donate your body to science: fill out a form at Dalhousie Medical School’s department of anatomy and neurobiology. If it accepts your body upon your death---and there’s no guarantee that it will---it will cremate your remains up to three years after you’ve died and either inter these in the Dalhousie Memorial Gardens at its expense or release them to your next-of-kin forinterment at his or her expense. You might save some cash, but either way, youcan’t avoid cremation.
As Eve has discovered, an existing local alternative to the supermarket funeral homes is a burial cooperative. There are three in Nova Scotia---the closest to Halifax is Arimathea Funeral Cooperative in Upper Musquodoboit. Like a memorial society, the cooperative aims to lessen funeral prices for consumers; but funeral director Wanda Smith says there’s nothing green about the funerals they offer---although she’s recently read about green funerals, she’s neverheld one.
“Quakers don’t want embalming, and they want a biodegradable coffin---not lacquered, the cabinet put together with wooden dowels, no nails,” she explains, recalling her most environmentally considerate funeral. Although it falls short of an eco-burial, it’s good to know that burial in a plain box is possible here. If you’re an orthodox Jew, that’s definitely what you’ll have---and, if you died after 1893 in Halifax, the year Halifax Jews established the city’s firstHassidic cemetery, you’re likely buried in Baron de Hirsch Cemetery, adjacent to Fairview Cemetery.
In fact, until the mid-19th century and the Industrial Revolution, most people were buried in plain wooden boxes, not in metal caskets or caskets sprayed with coatings that now make the US Environmental Protection Agency’s list of the Top 50 hazardous waste generators.
Or what if, like thousands who have chosen an eco-burial, you want no box at all? Perhaps instead you want to be just wrapped in a cloth and laid right into the ground, as do Muslims.
The only Islamic burial ground in Atlantic Canada was created on Bible Hill Road in Truro in 1944. Muslim graves have markers that are generally flush with the ground: no headstones more than 20 centimetres high are permitted.
Asked if she would bury someone who just wanted to be buried in a linen cloth, Smith says: “Possibly you could be. But practically, I don’t know how---how do you lower the body into the ground? We don’t have the set-up for it. We have graves and a couple of straps that we use to lower down into the ground. I don’t think it would work---but I’m not saying it could notbe done.”
Funeral director Dale Jackson of Cruikshank’s says that they can accommodate any preferences, but that a body must be buried in a rigid container as per provincial health regulations---which is not actually true. He suggests that their most “environmentally friendly” option is the plain wooden casket---“no nails, no screws,no staples.”
You might also want a biodegradable casket, made from sustainable, locally harvested wood, wicker or even recycled paper---“Ecopods,” developed in England, are sold in the US by Natural Burial Company.
In a genuine eco-burial, the body is also prepared without embalming---although there are commercially available biodegradable embalming fluids, proponents say a refrigerator preserves a body better than the typical toxic mix of formaldehyde, methanol and ethanol, which poisons the land. While the European Union has already agreed to ban its use starting in 2020, Canada and the US have no such plans.
American cemeteries buried the equivalent of the Centennial Pool in embalming fluid last year. Like cremation, embalming’s an ancient practice---think spices and alcohol---that was popularized by Americans only since their Civil War. At that point, they used arsenic---an element that now appears in high levels in the groundwater of graveyards across the country.
And what if you don’t want a headstone, or a vault---that metal or concrete casethat the casket is lowered down into, required by many lawn cemeteries striving to keep the ground stable and even foreasy lawnmowing?
“You can’t be buried in your back yard,” exclaims Eve. “What can you do?”
Well, actually, you can be buried in your backyard---if it’s zoned P for parkland and institutional uses, and if the province will sell you the permit. Any plot must be at minimum 30 meters from a watercourse, says Danielle Kuhn of the Nova Scotia department of environment and labour, which would inspect your graveyard. There is no specific restriction on the size of the cemetery or on what you can be buried in, and like the more than 1,000 other cemeteries in HRM, you would need permission to conduct burials on the land for the duration of the deed or lease.
But as tranquil as it would be, a rural cemetery like one you could establish on your land isn’t necessarily a green burial ground. The Green Burial Council, a New Mexico-based organization that sets the standards for North American eco-cemeteries, says on its website that there are two types of green cemeteries: a natural burial ground, which is an unprotected piece of land that is designated a cemetery; and a conservation burial ground with an easement on it that has a long-term steward, like the Nova Scotia Nature Trust (NSNT) or the Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC). The council prefers the second type, because it’s more secure.
For the record, neither the NSNT nor NCC has been approached by anyone looking to preserve land in Atlantic Canada specifically as a green cemetery. “Very interesting concept though,” says Sally-Jo Gallant, the NSNT’s land stewardship coordinator.
Conservation easements through an organization like the NSNT occur when a landowner hands over an interest or rights to the land to a benefactor, such as the general public, with the NSNT as steward.
Currently, the province has a goal of protecting 12 percent of Nova Scotia by 2012, but extremely little of the land that’s currently protected is privately owned---less than 50 square kilometres. Some of that is protected under the Conservation Easement Act. If the effort to bump up that number included green cemeteries, wouldn’t that be a good thing?