Imagine a traditional North American burial and you’re likely to think of everything from a thick, lacquered casket to a heavy tombstone. In reality, however, this form of interment is a relatively new concept considering our ancestors once buried the dead in an incredibly natural fashion.
Following this idea of returning a body to the earth in its most pure form, natural or green burials have become increasingly popular in both Canada and The United States after enjoying great success in The United Kingdom.
Royal Oak Burial Park in Victoria B.C. is the province’s largest municipal cemetery and the first in Canada to have opened a natural burial site. Stephen Olson, the executive director of Royal Oak explains that after being approached by local citizens who desired natural burials, in 2006 the cemetery made a commitment to the community to open a site in the next two years.
Olson says the feedback he received to the decision was astounding.
“As soon as we were definitely going ahead with this, the amount of interest and amount of calls I got from local people was incredible. I’ve never seen anything like that in this business,” he says. “For people, the environment and the ecology and their awareness of them has increased exponentially over the past few years.”
The natural interment zone, known as the Woodlands, officially opened in October 2008 and holds space for 255 graves sites on a third of an acre. Though specific green burial methods may vary depending on the region, the common goal is to let the body decompose naturally.
At Woodlands, bodies are not treated with harsh embalming chemicals and are wrapped in natural fabric.
The bodies are then placed in a biodegradable container that could be made out of materials such as wicker or sustainable wood. After the body is buried without a grave liner, there are no markers or other items allowed directly on the grave. Instead inscriptions will be made on five large memorial boulders that are located around the Woodlands periphery.
“What we’re trying to do here is essentially match the ecosystem with where the burial plots are located,” says Olson, who adds that plant species native to Victoria will be used to help re-forest the Woodlands site.
Mike Salisbury, the executive director of the Natural Burial Co-operative in Canada, envisions that by following a green burial model, the cemeteries of the future will actually resemble lush forests and family-friendly parks.
Since Salisbury says more people in Ontario are interested in pursuing this type of burial, the cooperative is currently working to obtain land in the province for a green site.
“What this is for people is a sense of value. They look at the conventional process and options and they don’t see value in them,” says Salisbury. “The whole circle of life thing is really what people get. There’s something that feels good about allowing the circle to complete, and reaching a logical end.”