Forever green

The loss of a loved one could be turned into a gain for the future of our natural world.
This article originally appeared in the Fall/Winter 2007 issue of Green Living magazine. Natural goodbye It makes sense," says Jim Warrillow, chairman of the non-profit Natural Burial Association, from his Toronto office. He is speaking about an accepted practice in Britain but a relatively new movement in North America: natural burial. It's exactly what the name suggests: a simple and environmentally friendly way to bury the dead and,in the process, create and preserve green spaces. It's a concept Warrillow and the association want to promote—and one that he recently introduced to the Mayor's office in Toronto. "Instead of a traditional cemetery, natural burial sites look like woodlands or meadows," he says. "These would be places where living people want to be, as opposed to something out of the Victorian age. The idea is to get back to the natural process of burying somebody and at the same time, create beautiful spaces." Going green The traditional approach to burial includes everything from embalming and lavish, lined caskets to headstones and cremation. But in the early 1990s, with the growing concern over the health of the planet, a few groups in the U.K. decided to return to simpler practices. They didn't want their bodies to be filled with embalming chemicals that pollute the earth or to use caskets made from precious wood— caskets that also have metal handles, which take centuries to biodegrade. And cremation uses an enormous amount of energy. Nor did they want to be buried in conventional cemeteries with lawns, formal flower beds and tombstones. Instead, these groups favoured a plain casket or a biodegradable shroud. They wanted to be buried where wild flowers and glades of trees could flourish. "There are some parts of Britain where natural burial is the burial of choice," says Warrillow. In fact, there are now more than 200 natural burial sites in the U.K. and six in the United States, where the momentum is growing. Groups. "Once the movement starts," says Warrillow, "it's unstoppable." Creating green spaces Natural-burial sites protect green space. When a cemetery is established, it is protected for perpetuity -- once a cemetery, always a cemetery. Natural-burial sites are one way to convert unused land in urban centres into beautiful parks. Instead of a big headstone, a tree or engraved fieldstone marks the spot. The picture above of Colney Woodland Burial Park in the U.K. is a good example of a natural-burial site that creates a green space for generations to come Where things stand Establishing a new burial ground is a complex, costly process. In order for natural burials to become a real alternative for Canadians, there needs to be both public awareness and interest. "I think if you talk to most cemetery administrators, they would say, when there is a demand for it, they'd be happy to supply it," says Warrillow. Already, in B.C., one cemetery, Royal Oak Burial Park in Victoria, is planning to add a green-burial section for 2008, and there are a number of other organizations across Canada who intend to set up natural burial grounds soon. In the meantime
  • Plan ahead: make sure your executors know your wishes for simplicity.
  • Choose to not be embalmed.
  • Request that your casket not be put in a concrete vault.
  • Choose a casket made of local, sustainable wood or cardboard.
  • In lieu of flowers, ask that a donation be made to a land-conservation organization.
  • Help spread the word. Everyone deserves to leave the world a better place.