Natural burial ceremony taking place in South Downs, UK.

What is Natural Burial?

A natural burial is the act of returning a body as naturally as possible to the earth. Buried in a simple biodegradable casket or shroud, in a protected green space, the body contributes to the earth’s renewal. Markers and headstones over the grave are replaced by native flowers, grasses or trees, creating a vibrant ecosystem that restores and protects nature. A communal memorial carved into wood or stone commemorates each of the deceased.

Natural burials offer a simple connection between life and death, and an alternative to today’s less eco-friendly options. This form of burial is referred to as ‘traditional’ burial, because it’s the way we historically cared for our dead.

Below are answers to lots of frequently asked questions about natural burial:

Common Questions

  • Is natural burial legal?+

    Yes, it’s legal. Natural burial has taken place for hundreds of years in Canada and today is regularly practiced among several religious groups. Far from being something new, the growing interest in green burial is actually a revival of traditional burial practices from before deathcare became a business.

  • How does cremation and conventional burial damage the environment?+

    While conventional cemeteries are serene in appearance, much is hidden from view. Consider all the resources buried under the ground – caskets constructed from polished wood or metal, often housed within a concrete vault, nestled beneath even more concrete marking the name of the deceased. The pristine lawn requires regular mowing, as well as the use of pesticides. Most families who choose conventional burial will also request embalming, which involves formaldehyde, a highly toxic substance.

    Cremation is considered to be slightly more sustainable, and has become quite popular, with roughly 70% of Ontarians choosing to be cremated. However, it is far from environmentally friendly. Powered by electricity, a crematorium retort will operate at 760 to 1150 degrees celsius for one to three hours for each cremation and the average cremation uses 28 gallons (106 litres) of fuel to burn a single body.

    Most encouraging, natural burial grounds are growing in popularity worldwide. With natural burial, not only are you choosing a disposition with the lightest of footprints, you are actually helping the land. You provide perpetual protection with your mere presence in the ground, and you help maintain an ecologically thriving place by allowing nutrients from your body to be recycled – not destroyed.

    There is also a movement to bring more eco-friendly options to Ontario, including alkaline hydrolysis (water cremation) and recomposition (where the body is composted organically to become earth). You can read more about recomposition at The Good Green Death Project.

  • Does a natural burial need to take place quickly after death?+

    There is no prescribed time frame, but a natural burial will typically take place within a week following death. A family may hold a viewing or a service prior to the burial if they desire, preferably within a couple days. Some families choose to have a private burial take place shortly after the death, to be followed by a funeral or celebration of life at a later time.

  • What happens to the body after burial? +

    A natural burial allows us to reconnect to the earth simply and organically. In laying the dead to rest in a biodegradable shroud or burial container, free of harsh embalming chemicals or synthetic materials, the body will naturally decompose. The nutrients and organic material from the body will regenerate the soil and vegetation above ground, helping to create a rich ecosystem.

  • Can I have a natural burial if I have a medical implant? +

    The bylaws of each cemetery vary, but most natural burial grounds accept bodies with medical devices. While it is not ideal to bury non-biodegradable materials, it is still considerably better than the alternative of a conventional burial or cremation.

  • Can I plan to donate my body to science and seek a natural burial? +

    Anatomical donations are usually compatible with green burials. When an individual specifies that they would like to donate their organs or tissues, this will typically take place immediately after death. Once the targeted organs and tissues have been removed, the family is free to arrange the burial of their loved one. However, some individuals specify that they would like to donate their body for anatomical study, often through a local university. In this case, the entire body is donated, and a green burial will not be possible. A cremation may ultimately follow this donation. For more information on anatomical donations, the Trillium Gift of Life Network is a great resource. You can visit them at https://www.giftoflife.on.ca/en/.

  • Will a natural burial ground accept cremated remains? +

    Remains from a cremation are made up of inorganic bone fragments, which will not nourish the soil in the same way that a body will, however most natural burial sites will accept cremated remains for burial or scattering.

  • How much will a natural burial cost? +

    Green burials are typically less costly than conventional burials. Most natural burial sites try to keep the price as low as possible, in an effort to make this environmentally friendly option accessible to everyone. In addition, the burial container will be modest, and there will not be a concrete burial vault or grave marker to add to the cost. Cremation, on the other hand, is usually less expensive than burial, however it is also a much greater cost to the environment.

    For families who have chosen natural burial, cost is a secondary consideration versus their desire for their final act to reflect their values.

  • Can disease leech into the soil? +

    The vast majority of diseases die when we do. Unless a person has died from an unusual and infectious disease, the dead body does not pose a public health hazard. The bacteria that promote decomposition are not the same bacteria that spread disease, and though not harmful, will be kept in balance by the microbes in soil, which act as a natural filtration system.

  • Do I require a funeral home to arrange a natural burial? +

    The assistance of a funeral home is not required by law. Many families may find funeral homes helpful, in that they can assist with the necessary paperwork and transfer of the deceased, and can provide the facilities for a viewing or funeral. Unfortunately, many funeral homes are not necessarily familiar with natural burials, and may not be equipped to serve green families. For example, the funeral home may not carry biodegradable burial containers. (Anyone can purchase such a container from various providers online, however, funeral homes reserve the right to refuse an outside casket). Some families may consider foregoing the assistance of a funeral home, and can instead look to a local “transfer service” instead. These companies are typically less costly, and aim to assist strictly with the paperwork and transportation of the deceased (though are often only available in urban areas).

     

    It is highly recommended that you look into your local death care options in advance, and contact funeral homes or transfer services ahead of time to familiarize yourself with their options. To know your rights as a consumer in Ontario, see the Bereavement Authority of Ontario’s Consumer Information Guide at https://thebao.ca/for-consumers/consumer-information-guide/.

     

    Alternatively, more and more Canadians are finding that they would like to take after-death care into their own hands. It is possible to plan the burial without a funeral home, even to hold a viewing in an individual’s own home, and there is a growing community of support to help achieve this. For more information on home funeral and holistic death practices, visit Community Deathcare Canada at https://www.communitydeathcare.ca/.

  • Can I visit the grave after the burial?+

    Those laid to rest in a green burial ground become an important part of a natural ecosystem. Instead of grave markers above each plot, trees or foliage may be planted above your loved one, or a GPS marker can direct you to the plot, but the entire meadow becomes their place of rest, and family members are welcome to enjoy the serenity of all the grounds.

  • Can I view the body prior to a natural burial?+

    You absolutely can view your loved one before the burial. In fact, grief counselors often encourage families to view the body and say goodbye. Many people will seek the assistance of a funeral home to facilitate a viewing. An embalming procedure will be offered, but it is not legally required, and is not accepted at natural burial grounds. Instead, instruct the funeral home to forego embalming and other invasive procedures, and to simply close the eyes and mouth of your loved one. Keep in mind that a viewing should take place within a couple days following a death, and it is recommended that the body be kept in a cool environment during the interim.

     

    A funeral home is not required to facilitate a viewing; this can take place in the family home. Many will find this to be a more comfortable and organic option for their family, especially if the death occurred in the home. Many people will seek an end of life doula for guidance in this area. For more information on home funerals and holistic death practices, visit Community Deathcare Canada  https://www.communitydeathcare.ca/ or End Of Life Doula Association https://endoflifedoulaassociation.org/membership-roster/.

  • Can I still have a funeral if I would like a natural burial?+

    Funerals are an important part of commemorating a life lived. Whether it be big or small, religious or secular, a celebration of life is absolutely compatible with green burials. A service may be held prior to the burial, at a place of worship, funeral home, family home, or even outdoors at the burial site. Many families prefer to proceed with an intimate natural burial first, and then host a celebration at a later time, in a manner and at a location that is meaningful to the family.

  • Is natural burial compatible with my religious beliefs?+

    An individual’s religious beliefs are personal, and so are their choices at death. Many people of faith feel that natural burials compliment their beliefs more than conventional dispositions. Natural burials may be considered an interpretation of “earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust”. In Jewish and Muslim burials, it is customary that there is no embalming, and that the body be in physical contact with the soil when buried. If you are unsure of how a green burial may fit in with your religious customs, it may be helpful to speak to your community’s religious leader for clarity.

  • What do I do if I’d like a natural burial?+

    If you are interested in green burial, you are part of a growing community that shares your enthusiasm for more sustainable and meaningful death care practices. The most important step is to share your wishes with your family and friends. It can be a difficult conversation to raise, but your family will be glad to know that they are fulfilling your wishes. If the idea of being buried in a beautiful countryside meadow appeals to you, then we encourage you to sign up for our e-news and follow the Natural Burial Association on social media so you’ll know when this lovely sanctuary is created. You may also like to explore some green burial areas within Ontario’s current cemeteries (Green Hybrids in Ontario) that we believe provide truly eco-friendly burials.

  • What’s the difference between a green burial and a natural burial?+

    Green burial and natural burial are synonymous. The Natural Burial Association favours ‘natural’ because it’s more aligned to the idea of nature and natural habitat. As well, ‘green’ is a term that has been distorted in many products, such as food, and the death-care sector is no exception.