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Natural burial better for the environment, advocates say


A woman goes for her daily walk in a Lower Sackville cemetery Tuesday, June 4, 2019. - Tim Krochak
A woman goes for her daily walk in a Lower Sackville cemetery Tuesday, June 4, 2019. - Tim Krochak

All lives must die, passing through nature to eternity, Shakespeare’s Gertrude pointed out.

But all that dying hasn’t been great for nature, at least in this age of embalming, cremation and concrete-lined cemetery plots, environmentalists say.

It’s estimated one cremation uses as much energy as an 800-kilometre car trip, according to the Ecology Action Centre in Halifax.

Crematorium furnaces that combust at high temperatures use large amounts of fossil fuels and release a slew of chemicals, including dioxin, acids, sulfur dioxide and carbon dioxide.

An embalmed body leaches formaldehyde and other chemicals into the soil, and those expensive metal and hardwood coffins prolong the process for decades.

These concerns have prompted a movement to return to the good old days of simple interment. Green burials, common in the United Kingdom and parts of Europe, are starting to gain ground in the United States and, to a lesser extent, Canada.

“There’s no embalming; the burial will be in something which will decompose,” said Ray Mattholie, the Atlantic region’s director for the Green Burial Society of Canada, which will hold its annual general meeting at the Halifax Central Library on Tuesday at 5 p.m.

“This could be a shroud, a casket made of plain pine. Or a wicker coffin entwined with flowers — it’s beautiful.”

The St. Margarets Bay man, who is retired from risk management consulting, was born in the U.K., where there are at least 300 green cemeteries.

The Green Burial Society, which was established about six years ago, has certified a few sites in Ontario and British Columbia. Besides the no-embalming and shroud/simple coffin rules, green cemeteries must be committed to ecological restoration and community memorial standards (as opposed to individual headstones).

There are no certified green burial providers in Nova Scotia, but three cemeteries offer the service along with traditional funerals: Pleasant Hill Cemetery in Lower Sackville, Sunrise Park Inter-Faith Cemetery in Hatchet Lake and the Burlington Kings County Cemetery Society.

“We’re catching up and a lot of it is because people don’t understand what it’s about,” Mattholie said in a recent interview at the Halifax home of Dawn Carson, a member of Green Burial Nova Scotia and co-owner of Death Matters, which helps people plan for end of life.

Dawn Carson and Ray Mattholie are advocates of green burial, which doesn’t involve embalming, cremation or elaborate coffins. The Green Burial Society of Canada will hold its annual general meeting at the Halifax Central Library (Room 301) on Tuesday evening, June 11, 2019. - John McPhee
Dawn Carson and Ray Mattholie are advocates of green burial, which doesn’t involve embalming, cremation or elaborate coffins. The Green Burial Society of Canada will hold its annual general meeting at the Halifax Central Library (Room 301) on Tuesday evening, June 11, 2019. - John McPhee

“In that capacity, we were curious about what the options were in terms of death in Nova Scotia,” Carson said. “Most of the people who are astute enough to pre-plan their end of life are astute about the effect they have on the planet. They were the ones who were asking us about green burials, so we started to meet and we asked people about it.”

While attitudes appear to be changing among baby boomers, in general we are a “death-denying culture,” she said, noting that our ancestors were comfortable dealing with their dead, washing their bodies and taking a direct role in the grieving process.

“Over the last 75 years or so, we haven’t learned how to do that. We don’t know how to take care of our own. We don’t even know how to be with each other when we’re dying. We don’t understand the gift that we give each other when we teach each other how to die.”

Carson and Mattholie acknowledge some people have qualms about unembalmed bodies but she said simply the body cool for the necessary three or four days is all that’s needed. Her business has used specialized ice packs for their funeral preparations.

The cost of a green burial is roughly half that of a conventional funeral including the burial plot, which can run into the $20,000 range, Carson said.

“Because this isn’t really very widespread and I guess, being cynical, there’s also the income to protect, if you wanted to use a funeral director to support a green burial, you need to find one that’s sympathetic to it and there are some in Nova Scotia,” Mattholie said.

The Funeral Service Association of Nova Scotia couldn’t be reached for comment.

While people should contact their municipality on possible local restrictions, in general home burials are allowed in Nova Scotia, Carson said.

With expected death, a medical certificate of death is issued by the last attending physician. The certifiicate is forwarded to provincial vital statistics office, which registers the death so a burial permit can be obtained. 

In the case of suspicious or unexpected deaths, the certificate is issued by the medical examiner's office, which forwards it to vital statistics for registration. 

The medical examiner's office approves all cremations regardless of the circumstances of death. 

A Services Nova Scotia spokewoman said anything involving the care or transport of human remains, the sale of funeral merchandise and arrangements must follow the requirements of funeral legislation, whether it’s a green burial or a conventional one.

There are no restrictions under the Cemetery and Funeral Services Act if someone wants to be buried on their own property, the spokeswoman confirmed.

“However, if human remains are buried on a property, there are restrictions on the movement of those remains,” Marla MacInnis said in an email. “Also, the burial of human remains on a property can affect property value and would need to be disclosed at time of sale.”

The society’s meeting in Halifax on Tuesday will include a panel discussion about its certification process and a question-and-answer session.

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