By Kelly Corkery
“It is death that goes down to the centre of the earth, the great burial church the earth is, and then to the curved ends of the universe, as light is said to do.”—Harold Brodkey
My father died suddenly at home on December 26th. As a family, we had previously discussed his end-of-life wishes; Dad requested a green burial. Put simply, a green or eco burial is the act of returning a body as naturally as possible to the earth.
Family and friends, the funeral home, and even our pastor were surprised. Why didn’t Dad want to be embalmed or cremated? I think, for Dad, there were three main reasons: 1) He had a complicated medical history and didn’t want any more interventions or to be poked and prodded, even in death; 2) He was frugal in strange ways, willing to splash out cash for purchases of pleasure like a motorcycle but eschewing the thought of being buried in an expensive casket; and 3) He loved nature.
Dad was laid to rest in biodegradable clothing, with a quilt shroud and buried in a simple pine casket that he commissioned from a Red Seal carpenter. Without formaldehyde to preserve the body, there were no toxic chemicals. Green burials use less energy and resources, making them lower impact than conventional burials or cremations.
Historically, most families have cared for their own dead. Funerals involved burial of an un-embalmed body in a simple box or shroud. The onset of civil and world wars removed the dead from our daily lives. The popularity of embalming increased to enable transport bodies long distances. In Canada, about 2.2 million gallons of embalming fluid are used every year.
According to Green Burial Nova Scotia, it’s estimated that a single cremation uses as much energy as an 800km car trip. Holy smokes! Crematorium furnaces burn at high temperatures using large amounts of fossil fuels. The process releases dioxin, hydrochloric acid, sulfur dioxide, known carcinogens, and heavy metals into the atmosphere.
While green burials are growing in popularity, options are somewhat limited in Nova Scotia. If you are planning a green burial, you should be prepared for a few possibilities. Legally, we had to bury Dad within 72 hours of his death due to decomposition. And because he died at home, there was a chance that the medical examiner would request an autopsy. If so, his body would require embalming, making a green burial impossible. Organ donation can also complicate a natural burial.
Dad’s choice of disposition expediated the need for a funeral. This was challenged by holiday closures and Covid restrictions. For example, no florists were open or able to accommodate the rapid turnaround time. My sister and I purchased bouquets and made our own flower arrangements. It was very intimate. The obituary appeared after Dad was laid to rest.
You should also be aware that not all cemeteries in Nova Scotia offer green burials. Some have options in their by-laws to be more environmentally conscious, such as eliminating the need for concrete vaults. I know of three hybrid cemeteries that offer green options: Pleasant Hill Cemetery in Lower Sackville, Sunrise Park Inter-Faith Cemetery in Hatchet Lake, and Burlington Kings County Cemetery in Burlington. My advice is to ask first to avoid disappointment.
Ultimately, what is done with your body after death is your choice. Planning for said disposition is critical. There are options with various levels of environmental and financial impacts. I’m proud that my father chose a green burial. it was beautiful in its simplicity--a return to the earth.