I’d like to tell you a story that my mother told me a week or two ago. When she was a young child, her grandfather and aunt would often bring her to the cemetery where her grandmother, whom she’d barely known, was buried. For my mother, visiting the cemetery was not a sad affair, but rather a day she looked forward to. When they visited, they would begin by sweeping the large, white tombstone before washing it and placing some flowers on top. And every time, after caring for her grandmother’s grave, my mother would go to another grave that was not tended to like all the others. There, she would perform the same rituals of cleaning because she felt that the person buried there deserved the same care as any other.
This cemetery was filled with trees, and different wild plants grew among the tombstones – row upon row of coffin-sized white stone boxes, each inscribed in Gujarati with the name of the deceased. In this way, it was both a place of death and a place of life, representing the cycle of death and rebirth. But as she grew older, the wild plants were uprooted and the trees were cut down, and the cemetery became a place of solely cement and stone. It had become cold and was no longer tranquil, and these changes saddened her greatly.
Which brings us to today. We stand here, in this beautiful meadow rather than any other cemetery, in part because of that story. In her last few weeks and days, my mother talked of her life having often been full of struggle, and she said that she was now ready to be at peace. All through her time on earth, she worked hard to overcome life’s obstacles, but near the end she wanted a peaceful passage to whatever lay ahead. And so, she sought out this wonderful meadow to be buried in. She wanted an eco-burial so that her body could return to the earth naturally and help nourish new life. The knowledge that she would come to rest in this place, where the trees will not be cut down, and where the wild plants will not be uprooted, gave her a sense of tranquility in her final days, and for that I’m glad.
But though we stand in this serene meadow, I cannot say I am as yet at peace with her passing. Her disease grew worse slowly, but then all at once, and just like that, she was gone. Her passing is something I will continue to grapple with – for how long, I don’t know. Just as she struggled through much of her life, I may struggle to make sense of her death for some time. But I hope that this day and this place will put me on the path to being at peace, just as she now is.
Anonymous. Cobourg, Ontario
Greg is a tall, lanky, handsome man in his 70’s. He is recently widowed. Greg met Lyn Louise in the Lutheran church where Lyn’s father presided as Minister. Greg’s “first and only real love,” they started dating when he was 18 and were married for 53 years. When Lyn was diagnosed with a neuroendocrine tumour, a terminal form of cancer, they confronted this new reality together, with the help of their family and community. “From the beginning, we spoke openly about Lyn’s diagnosis and about our evolving plans for her funeral and burial.”
Choosing a natural burial
When Lyn’s father died, “the funeral parlour swooped in, took his body and he was cremated and gone.” Lyn didn’t want to disappear like that. “Dying is a milestone in our lives and we wanted to treat it as such, with attention to the ceremony and the care of her body. We’ve always been environmentally conscientious and discovered the natural burial ground at Union Cemetery in Cobourg. It’s a lovely meadow, with tall grass and wildflowers overlooking Cobourg Creek. The managers do all they can to minimize the cemetery’s carbon footprint, including digging the graves by hand.”
“We bought two plots next to the creek, on top of a little hill. Lyn asked if I would build her a coffin. I ordered pinewood from New Brunswick and cotton rope to fashion the handles. Crafting Lyn’s coffin at our cottage was a labour of love. It felt like my special last gift to her.”
“Lyn had saved scraps of fabric from all the significant events of our lives. She had bits from her wedding dress, our children’s baby clothes, and curtains from our first home together. A close friend and quilter, Caroline, fashioned these pieces into a blanket to cover Lyn in the coffin. When Lyn saw how beautiful it was, she instructed us to remove it before we closed her coffin. This priceless quilt now lies in a cradle I built 50 years ago. The cradle is shared among friends and family, and soon will be bed to its 80th infant.”
Parting, peaches, and pancakes
“Lyn died at 4:00 a.m. on Tuesday, September 21, 2021. My daughter and I dressed her and lay her in the coffin, which we set up in the dining room. We spent the rest of the day together as a family, settling ourselves around her and sharing stories and memories. Lyn looked very peaceful. The next day people came to say their goodbyes; they wrote notes to Lyn on her pine box. “
“She was home for two days before we buried her. It was 30°C out, and unbeknownst to my children, I kept Lyn cool using frozen bags of food from the freezer. Days later, the kids squirmed when I said, “you know those frozen peaches were by your mother’s hip – they were delicious with my pancakes this morning.”
Departing in style
“Lyn loved our Volkswagen Bug. Regardless of whether it was snow or rain, I was determined to roll down the top and escort Lyn to her grave. When I first shared this plan, my children laughed and Lyn rolled her eyes. She knew I was serious.”
“As we exited the home, Lyn for her last time, our Annex neighbours watched and wondered as we loaded the coffin into the VW, for Lyn’s and my last journey together. A TTC bus driver gave us a ’toot, toot’ and a kid yelled “Hey, look at that!”
A graceful goodbye
“Our close friend and United Church Minister Joan Wyatt led the graveside service. She recalled that Lyn had hoped people would sing at her grave, which we did. Joan ended by saying, “Consistent with Lyn’s passion for the care of creation, we return her body to Mother Earth, there to be integrated completely back into creation. Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”
“We lowered Lyn into the ground. Friends and family each took fistfuls of earth and dropped them over the coffin, kneeling and making their final goodbyes. The service, there in nature, and the idea of Lyn returning to earth, resonated with us all. Lyn’s helping to protect nature in perpetuity. Near where she rests, the cemetery has expanded into woodland, with more deciduous trees. Every visitor’s footsteps help to create a trail.“
“Months later, I found a granite stone at our cottage, which was perfect to mark her grave. My daughter-in-law works in a dentist’s office, and when I asked about renting a diamond dental burr so I could engrave the stone myself, the dentist gave them to me as a gift.”
“I want to share my story in the hopes it might inspire others to confront the difficult decisions around death and create something meaningful. It helps me heal, knowing that Lyn’s ceremony was a reflection of her, and resting place in nature will contribute to new life.”
I had never experienced a natural burial. Then I learned the hard way — firsthand — just how beautiful it is.
We could no longer deny that our beloved golden retriever was old. By 2020, Gracie, at the age of 12, had become arthritic, and was growing blind and deaf. Knowing that the end of her life was nearing, we considered a special final resting place for her. The answer, at least last summer, seemed obvious: my parents live in the country, in a home we call ‘the farm’. There’s a small pond with an island that Gracie loved to swim out to so she could chase the Canada geese. Last August, with heavy hearts, we gathered shovels and dug her grave. We covered it with plywood, hopeful that we’d have more time with her.
We did. Through the fall and early winter of 2021 Gracie had happy times, as we lavished her with attention, treats and an abbreviated version of her daily off-leash walk in the Toronto ravine. But by February, her health was declining and her enjoyment of life with it, and the decision was made. Our daughters, who were now young adults, returned home.
‘The day’ was set for the following week, giving us time to prepare ourselves in every respect. At the farm we discovered a foot of slush covered the ice on the pond, rendering it impossible to carry Gracie, as well as the bags of soil we would need to fill her grave, to the island. We selected a spot in the field where Gracie loved to dig for moles. It’s near a maple tree, where there’s lots of sun — perfect for a wildflower garden. We collected cedar bows and foraged for pine cones. As it was impossible to dig the frozen ground by hand, we asked a neighbour with a backhoe for help. Then, we returned to Toronto to spend our last days with Gracie.
On the morning, Gracie had a breakfast of fresh salmon and rice. We went out front, where she loved getting attention from the kids walking to school. It was her favourite weather, sunny and 3°. I’d made a shroud from our daughters’ old bedsheets, which I laid over Gracie’s bed. They were flannel sheets, which I thought would keep her warmer. Candles were lit. All 5 of us were still out front at the horrible moment of the vet’s arrival. When we were as ready as we’d ever be, he gave her a sedative, and we led her inside to her bed. She curled up into an adorable fluffy ball; for the last time, we kissed her, petted her, and said soothing words. Then the injection was administered, and like her namesake, she gracefully passed from sleep to death.
When we could muster the strength, we wrapped the shroud around her, knowing we’d never see her again. As we carried her to the car, I recalled all the times I’d yell “Gracie, want to go to the farm?” and she’d bound for the trunk. The hour-long drive to her grave was gut-wrenching but essential. I don’t think a word was said. I’d created a playlist that was a mix of songs about love, loss and memories, which we listened to while sniffling away. It will always be my Gracie playlist.
We reached the farm, and after leaving our hardly touched bowls of chicken noodle soup, our work began. Using a sleigh that a friend of ours had crafted on top of his wife’s skis, we pulled Gracie to her final resting spot. My legs felt weak and my heart ached. Trying to balance Gracie and ourselves, we lowered her into her final resting place. I was upset she landed with a thud. We held a little ceremony, in which we tried to capture with words the many ways she had enriched our lives. We placed a blanket of cedar bows over her, and then with shovels in hand we began filling the grave. For two hours we worked. It felt good, as if we were doing something for Gracie, when in reality it was for us. When the grave was filled the area looked messy with mud, so we took another hour and carted in loads of fresh snow from further afield. Over Gracie’s smooth white snowy grave we fashioned a heart made of pine cones.
We returned to the house, where my parents led a toast to our beautiful Gracie. As we were sharing stories, we looked out the window. Not far from her grave were six deer. We’ve seen lots of deer there, but always lone deer. It was like a message, Gracie was with friends. She was back in nature, body and soul.
Executive Director, NBA
Many people are championing the natural burial movement, but in Ontario two people stand out: Mark Richardson and Helma Oonk. Mark launched a natural burial ground in Niagara Falls and Helma in Picton. You’d think that because natural burial isn’t even a new idea, it would be easy to bring create a green burial ground — but it’s not. Mark and Helma accomplished quite a feat.
This story could be about the hurdles they jumped, and the creative ways in which they got funding and approvals, but their past is . With some exceptions, natural burial hasn’t captured the interest of the mainstream funeral industry. I can’t help but wonder if the windy roads that steered Mark and Helma to the cemetery business was key to their open mindedness. They saw a void between people who are environmentally conscientious, and an industry providing two toxic options: conventional burial and cremation. With grit and heart, Mark and Helma brought a new end of life option to their communities.
Growing up in Niagara Falls, Mark’s parents actively petitioned, marched and advocated for the environment. “They’re a big reason why I am who I am. When you see people like my folks who have spent their entire lives making it a better place for us, you see the need for green burial”. Mark graduated from Brock University in 2000 with a degree in English Language and Literature. He wanted to teach creative writing, but with no job prospects, he went back to school to study Human Resources. His professor said he ought to go into marketing, which he pursued until a friend, an ecologist at an environmental engineering consulting firm, suggested he jump on board. Mark found himself in the role of an environmental planner tasked with finding the best environmental options for water and waste water infrastructure. When the city of Niagara Falls posted a job to manage the environmental portfolio, Mark was tailor made for it, and he threw himself into natural habitat and woodlot restoration projects, eliminating plastic water bottle sales in city facilities, and taking on the multinational corporation that was extracting Niagara’s water for bottling. In 2012 Mark was promoted to manage Niagara Falls 22 cemeteries.
Helma also took a circuitous route to become a cemetery manager. Originally from the Netherlands, she was a landscape designer, and then moved to Germany where she opened a very successful flower shop. She said she was “so busy I didn’t like it anymore”, and she returned to the Netherlands. For a decade Helma was a truck driver, getting up in the middle of the night to deliver fresh bread. It’s hard to imagine Helma in this sedentary job given how active she is now, running around the cemetery and in her spare time running half marathons. It was personal loss that led Helma to the deathcare industry. After losing both her mother and her partner, she wanted to help others in their time of grief. For a decade, Helma thrived as a funeral director, appreciating that with over 60 nationalities in Amsterdam, no two funerals were alike. It was love that brought her to Canada in 2009, and she’s now managed Glenwood Cemetery for over 10 years.
In 2015 Helma was at a funeral industry conference and her ears perked when she learned about natural burials. That was all Helma needed to jump on the bandwagon and create a natural burial option for her community. Back in Picton, she earmarked a part of the cemetery that was off to the side, a wooded hilly area. That makes it the only woodlot burial in Ontario. Helma’s landscaping expertise ensures the burials don’t damage the tree roots. In this serene wooded area, you’ll find birds, deer and peace. The original 35 plots have already sold and what started as only a quarter of an acre Helma has expanded to over an acre. Helma has also trained as a funeral celebrant, offering a customized ceremony either among the trees of Glenwood or elsewhere.
When Mark assumed the role of cemetery manager, it was through his environmental lens that he saw the opportunity to provide an option for body care that was gentle to the environment. He fundraised, convinced council it wasn’t just a ‘hippie’ idea, travelled to BC to see natural burials in action, and in 2017, Willow’s Rest launched. It’s a two-acre natural oasis at the edge of the municipal Fairview Cemetery. He didn’t stop there. Envisioning a sanctuary for both the dead and the living, Mark introduced bee hives, butterfly pollinators, and welcomed school trips where students plant wildflower plugs and perhaps expand their idea of what a cemetery can be.
There aren’t enough natural burials grounds in Ontario to fulfill the escalating demand. Families in Niagara Falls and Picton are lucky. And the Natural Burial Association is lucky too. We’ll never know whether Mark and Helma’s zig zag career path got them thinking outside the box, but we are grateful to them both. They generously share their vision, expertise and time to help other Ontario communities launch natural burial grounds.
NBA’s Executive Director
It’s wonderful to see that even business magazines are impressed with the growth of the green burial movement. You’ll need a subscription to read the whole article, but here’s the up shot from an article in Fortune Magazine’s April 4/2020 digital edition:
Each year in the United States more than 300,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide are emitted by a surprising group of people: the dead.
Eeks. In the US, the cremation rate is 50%, but 70% of people in Ontario opt for cremation, and in BC the rate is 90%. Natural burial saves tons of carbon.
Earth to Earth
I was nearing the end of my internship when I first heard about natural burials.
It was following a committal service in a large mausoleum in Toronto. For those scratching their heads, mausoleums are large buildings designed for the entombment of bodies and cremated remains. In lieu of ground burial, caskets and urns are placed inside a marble wall, often next to other predeceased members of their family. Popular with Catholics, mausoleums are often guarded by large statues of biblical figures.
The last rites were read, the crypt was sealed, and the family was gradually filing out of the building. Before returning to my duties at the funeral home, I took a few minutes to explore. Noticing the high ceilings, shining floor tiles, and crisp bleach-scented air, I realized that it felt as though I was standing in a luxury condo, not a cemetery. It was a beautiful building, no doubt, but I started to wonder if they would still scrub the floor tiles in a hundred years.
Being the only funeral director in my immediate family, I am often forwarded any and all death-related content encountered by my relatives. Headlines may include, but are not limited to, “Cremated alive!”, “I’m single because of a jealous ghost”, and “The untold story of cemetery squirrels.” On this day, the message in my inbox contained an article of a slightly higher caliber, and profiled the growing natural burial movement. I’ve been sold ever since.
Now an advocate of green death care, I know how beneficial natural burial grounds are for the environment, and hope that there will soon be more green burial options in Ontario. But are they practical for everyone? As I think back to the entombment service, I wonder, is a natural burial suitable for Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and other families of faith?
The Vatican has considered this question, as natural burial grounds have been growing steadily in Europe and the United States. A priest and educator on end of life topics at Rome’s Pontifical University of the Holy Cross, Opus Dei Father Paul O’Callaghan, made Catholic headlines by addressing natural burials. He acknowledged that burial is more ecological than conventional cremation, saying the ground can “just take from the body what it wants, rather than the body being burned and heating up the atmosphere.” According to Father O’Callaghan, the original Christian practice is burial “followed by natural decay.” The church is so supportive of the green burial movement, 12% of natural cemeteries in the United States are Catholic, recognizing that natural burials are a topical interpretation of “earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”
Anyone who is Jewish already knows that natural burials are compatible with their beliefs. Traditionally, Jews do not embalm their dead, and will typically use simple wooden burial containers free of nails. The sentiment is similar with Muslims as well, who have been practicing natural burial for over 1,400 years. Islamic law instructs that the deceased be laid to rest within 24 hours after death, free of embalming fluid, and in a simple burial shroud, so that the body may be laid on its side, allowing the deceased to face the direction of the holy city of Mecca.
There are some groups that strongly prefer cremation, the most prominent among them being Hindus. Following an open casket wake with prayers, Hindu families have traditionally cremated their loved ones outdoors on a funeral pyre, with relatives staying to observe until the body is entirely burned. In Canada and the United States, open pyres are prohibited, and many Hindu families will observe their cremation ceremonies at a crematorium. While cremation has traditionally been the preference of Hindus, burial is not prohibited, and the matter may be discussed with religious leaders for clarification.
How about Indigenous groups? In an article called Reflecting on Death: First Nations People, Lindsay Borrows writes about the death customs of the Chippewas of Nawash Unceded First Nation on Georgian Bay. “Few communities are entirely homogenous in belief and custom,” Borrows writes. “Ours is no exception. Some that pass away are traditional Anishinaabe, others Christian, and most are syncretic, practicing a fusion of beliefs. Within this diversity, no two funerals are the same.” Lindsay goes on to describe the rituals that often accompany a funeral service in her community. Held in a community centre, funeral home, or local church, family members and friends will gather to remember the person who has died. The casket will often be open, and mourners may place sweetgrass, sage, cedar, or tobacco inside with the deceased, accompanied by prayer.
Many of the Indigenous families that I have encountered throughout my career have chosen burial, as their ancestors may have done before them. However, some modern Indigenous families favour cremation. This is a choice that is personal to each individual. A person may feel that a natural burial compliments their Indigenous heritage, and the inherent respect of the land that is unique to their culture.
I believe that Lindsay Borrows’ comment, “no two funerals are the same,” is a vital distinction to make, when we consider not only Indigenous people, but everyone. We live in a heterogenous society where many families draw from various cultures and beliefs when building their lives, and this will be reflected in their death as well. Regardless of creed, more and more people now agree that environmental protection is important to them, and often feel that their reverence for the earth should be considered when planning their funeral.
A funeral with natural burial can be as dignified and elegant as one with a conventional burial or cremation. Contrary to popular belief, you do not need to embalm a body in order to have an open casket service, and a biodegradable burial container can be just as lovely as any other casket. If you are unsure of where you stand, talk to your religious or spiritual leader. If you decide that a mausoleum best fits you, that’s great! I am only hopeful that in the future, there will be more death care options to suit everyone in Ontario, and that intern funeral directors in 2030 will lead funeral processions to both conventional and natural burial grounds.
Katrina Wood is a licensed funeral director and a volunteer for the Natural Burial Association.
On a Saturday afternoon with no plans, I decided to check out a new shop in my area. As I entered, I was greeted by a salesperson holding a tray of what appeared to be fudge. “Try one!” she smiled, thrusting the tray towards me. Never one to turn down sweets, I relented without objection. I was greeted not by chocolate, but a soapy taste distantly familiar from a time I had been instructed to wash my mouth out after using an R-rated word. It was only then that I looked up to see the chalkboard sign next to the tray of fudge, describing the ‘all natural’ benefits of edible soap.
It didn’t stop there. There were bags of potato chips adorned with terms like gluten-free and organic. There were clean lotions containing only nontoxic ingredients. In the freezer section I found frozen desserts that were plant-based and GMO-free. Most of the products had one term in common: all natural.
At one point, natural products were part of a niche market, lumped in with hemp seed oil, hacky sacks and healing crystals. Now, products marketed as natural are part of the mainstream. Grocery stores have taken advantage of this movement, with an increasing number of food packages sporting ‘natural’ on their labels. The beauty industry has also profited off this trend, with self-proclaimed natural brands making up about a quarter of all high-end skin care sales. Consumers often assume that the more natural, the better, unaware that there is no formal regulation of this widely abused term. According to Meriam-Webster’s online dictionary, the definition of natural is simply, “Closely resembling an original: true to nature.” It suggests a packaged food or beauty product is free of artificial ingredients, but many brands exploit this term, using it instead as a profitable ploy.
As a frustrated consumer, I can see how the misuse of certain terms can breed public distrust. With that said, there are a few earnest applications of the word. The one closest to my mortal heart is natural burials.
Now, I realize that discussing burials is not quite as glamourous as considering your skincare options at Sephora or your next purchase at Whole Foods. The subject of death may be something that you avoid completely, but conversations about death and dying, as well as funerals and burials, are well worth discussing. As mankind’s effect on the planet becomes more evident, many people feel they have a responsibility to live an ecologically friendly life, and they don’t want their efforts to end after death. Sustainable options are growing universally, and death care is no exception. So, what is a natural burial exactly, and is it just another exploitation of a trendy buzzword?
The thought of burials may conjure images of towering grave stones, ornate caskets, bursting flower arrangements, and luscious green cemetery lawns. You might consider this to be the traditional way. However, this elaborate approach to burials is relatively recent. Looking back only a few generations, the North American traditions in death were much simpler. The idea was the same – to bury a loved one in a dignified fashion, in a place of peace and serenity – but without the bells and whistles. When you take away the embalming fluid, fancy casket, and concrete grave markers, you’re left with a burial closer to what our grandparent’s grandparents would consider the norm. You have something “closely resembling an original: true to nature.” Something natural.
Modern natural burial grounds are simply a place to bury the dead without the frills. There are no pesticides on the grounds, the dead are not embalmed and are buried in a biodegradable shroud or container, and there are no concrete grave stones or liners. Also called green burial grounds, their aim is not only to stay true to the traditional approach to death, but to present an option that is sustainable. In choosing a natural burial, you choose not to contribute to the air pollution and fuel consumption associated with conventional cremations, or the expenditure of resources affiliated with conventional burials.
Come to think of it, natural burials do sort of fit in with natural soaps, lotions, and potato chips. Many of the brands producing these natural alternatives also make an effort to make their products with sustainably and responsibly sourced ingredients – depending on the company, of course. However, genuine natural burial grounds differ from some natural brands in that their aim is not to turn this trend into profit. In fact, natural burials are typically less expensive than conventional burials.
Options with ‘natural’ in the name should not be dismissed as just another marketing ploy. Yes, there are lipsticks out there that will slap this term onto their package without merit in order to encourage you to spend an extra $15 on the product. As green becomes more popular, there may even be cemeteries that will abuse the term ‘natural’ without meeting all the requirements associated with this title. What’s important is that consumers do their research, and make more responsible and informed decisions. With our choices, we can shape a future in which genuinely natural choices are not just a buzzy alternative, but the norm. A future where we can be more sustainable in life, in death, and, perhaps, enjoy a soapy snack mid-bath.
Katrina is a licensed funeral director and volunteer for the Natural Burial Association.
A recent study in the journal Science suggests the best way of addressing climate change is to plant a trillion trees. Couple that with the fact that the UK is running out of burial space, plus cremation contributes to greenhouse gases, and a public health expert proposes introducing green burials alongside the UK motorways. The trees would help to absorb the carbon produced by the cars, the motorways would be visually more appealing and the deceased would be leaving a legacy of a sustainable goodbye for generations to come.
Dr. John Ashton, a public health consultant, says “it’s time to start giving people “green burials” — meaning no embalming fluid, casket or headstone — on unused public lands, such as meadows, former industrial sites and even alongside roadways.” He admits that at first glance, lying forever alongside a motorway may not sound appealing but over time the area will become a lush-filled green space. “This is very much in keeping with the movements of what’s happening, the trends towards greening,” he said.
Dr. Billy Campbell, a doctor with a great sense of humour and love for the planet, gives an engaging Tedx Talk about creating the first modern day natural burial ground in South Carolina.
An article in the Owen Sound Sun Times was brought to our attention by a concerned reader. It’s no wonder there is confusion around our options at end of life. Rev. Shearman quotes a funeral director declaring green burial “nothing but clever sales talk”. Here’s the article and the response of the Natural Burial Association.
Article from the Owen Sound Sun Times