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.