As noted in our blog post about Aquamation, popular methods of handling human remains have significant environmental drawbacks. It is estimated that cremations in the United States release as much CO2 as operating 70,000 cars and embalming uses 800 gallons of formaldehyde per year. The desire to limit the release of harmful chemicals and reduce our carbon footprint has led to a search for methods of disposition that reflect environmentally conscious values. Natural burial is one such option.
What exactly is natural burial?
There is no universally accepted definition of natural burial (also known as green burial). The tenets of natural burial are:
When people envision natural burial they are generally picturing a natural burial ground. Natural burial grounds usually have the following characteristics, they:
Natural burial grounds are intended to serve as a reminder of the cycle of life – providing sanctuaries for both the living and the dead. Some have bee hives, pollinator gardens, hiking trails, or places for school groups to plant wildflowers. The point is not to minimize death by limiting the “pomp and circumstance” associated with burial, but rather to prioritize the environment after death as you would in life.
Since the Bereavement Authority of Ontario does not have a formal definition for what constitutes a “natural burial”, funeral homes will often market something as a “natural burial” if it contains one or more of the above elements, so be careful if you’d really like a natural burial in a natural burial ground.
Why is natural burial a “greener” option?
Natural burials offer clear environmental benefits. For example, by avoiding embalming and using a biodegradable casket we can avoid the use of:
All of this is in addition to the benefits of creating protected green-space at natural burial grounds.
Is embalming required?
No. In Ontario embalming is not required by the Bereavement Authority of Ontario. Funeral homes may suggest it for cosmetic reasons, but it is not required by law.
If embalming is bad for the environment, why do so many people do it?
Embalming helps preserve the body and, in combination with makeup and other cosmetic procedures, keeps it looking lifelike for longer. Funeral homes profit from embalming and will often encourage families to consider it. However, it is important for families to know that embalming is not mandatory and that they can have a viewing without embalming. Each body is different, but if a body is cared for in a cold room it can be viewed for approximately five to seven days after death.
What is the history of embalming?
If you died 200 years ago in North America, it is very unlikely you would have been embalmed. As described in the Smithsonian Magazine:
“You would be interred without any preservative chemicals, without being cosmetized with touch-ups like skin dyes, mouth formers or eye caps. No headstone, flowers or any of the other items we relate to a modern funeral. In essence, your demise would be respectful but without pomp.”
During the US Civil War, most deceased Northern soldiers were left to decompose on battlefields in the South because returning a body to the family pre-refrigeration was near impossible. Some wealthy Northern families were willing to pay a hefty fee to have soldiers returned to them, and embalming the bodies made transport possible. The professionalization of the funeral industry and prevalence of embalming evolved from there.
I want a natural burial – where should I start?
The first step is reaching out to the natural burial ground where you would like to be interred and ask if there is a funeral home or a transfer service they recommend. For an up-to-date list of natural burial grounds in Ontario, check out the Natural Burial Association website. Natural burial is generally less expensive than a conventional burial so it is important to speak with the natural burial ground and/or do some additional research into what exactly you want before getting in touch with a funeral home or a transfer service.
The second step is to speak with your family and/or friends.As noted above, planning a natural burial can be more involved than planning a traditional burial so it is important that you make your wishes clear to whoever will be handling your remains.
The third step is putting a plan in place for a natural burial. There are some practical considerations at play, for example:
With advance planning, a funeral home should be able to source a biodegradable casket. If you prefer to procure your own casket, legally a funeral home must accept a casket that you purchase separately (however if the funeral home is worried about the stability, they can reject it).
Natural burials can be a bit trickier to plan than conventional burials, and not all funeral homes or cemeteries are keen on promoting natural burials. If having a natural burial is important to you, then it is important to put a plan in place.
Many thanks to Susan Greer, Executive Director of the Natural Burial Association, for her assistance with the post.