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Going gently

Uncovering the green burial movement in Nova Scotia

by Jen Stotland

The lawn of the established cemetary at Pleasant Hill ends at the boundary of some early-successional forest and brush that will be cleared for the Green section (Photo: Jen Stotland)
The lawn of the established cemetary at Pleasant Hill ends at the boundary of some early-successional forest and brush that will be cleared for the Green section (Photo: Jen Stotland)

In ecology we talk about cradle-to-cradle thinking, where we plan a tool ideally for its own demise. The ecologist plans the tool to be recyclable at the end of its life -- to become another tool, or to be composted and rejoin the greater cycles of nature. In the green burial movement, we extend that philosophy to ourselves.

Conventional burials have become the farthest thing from a return of our bodies to the natural world. According to National Geographic, funerals in the US are responsible each year for the felling of 30 million board feet of casket wood (some of which comes from tropical hardwoods) and the use of 90,000 tons of steel, 1.6 million tons of concrete for burial vaults, and 800,000 gallons of formaldehyde, which the world Health Organization has designated as a carcinogen, putting workers at risk and polluting groundwater. Cremations can release dioxin, hydrochloric acid and sulfur dioxide and the energy used to cremate one body is equivalent to driving 4,800 miles. Cremation uses fossil fuels, such as natural gas which might be obtained from controversial methods like fracking. Flowers can be flown in from other climes and contain plastic waste in the form of ribbons and other detritus and stone monuments can be imported from India or China. In spite of this, no state or province in the US or Canada legally mandates that embalming fluid be used, unless one is transporting a body long distances.

The green burial movement was born twenty years ago and started largely in Britain, spreading to the US and Australia. Green burials take place without formaldehyde; if embalming is used it takes the form of naturally-occurring essential oils. The graves are shallow, only two feet deep so as to remain within the active soil layer, and they are not lined with vaults of concrete or steel (which ordinarily would play the role of keeping the ground from settling and sinking). A casket must be made from compostable materials, like pine, bamboo, quick-to-replenish wood, such as poplar or even basketry cardboard or wool, or a shroud of silk, linen or cotton is used. If there is a marker local stone, native plants, or GPS coordinates are used, or names are listed on one large marker on the property.

Though Saanich Island in BC is credited with being the first Green Cemetery in Canada, owner Bill Mont of Pleasant Hill in Lower Sackville claims his was the first cemetery to have an explicitly green section, though this wasn't promoted. No embalming, cremation are permitted in the green section nor are caskets permitted that have any varnish, glue, laminate or even metal nails. There are no vaults, no refrigeration and the body is autopsied and buried within 24 hours. The green section is closest to a cliff overlooking Sackville Drive. A tangle of mid-succession thorny shrubs will be cleared to make way for more lawn with some trees remaining. Green burials are also permitted in the rest of the lands but those outside the green section would get a marker of bronze instead of local granite.

Mont informs me that having a green funeral can run cheaper than a traditional burial. Though a lot can still cost around $1500 and incur an $800 opening and closing fee, you can save a lot of money by choosing a simpler casket, and having the body spend less time above ground; every hour in the funeral home runs up expense. A headstone of local stone is also cheaper. Bodies for Mont's green section would get a shroud, as nobody yet in the Maritimes is making boxes for caskets without nails or glue.

Anyone can use the term 'Green Burial' with no license, oversight or legislation, but there are central certifying organizations in the UK, US and Canada. The Green Burial Council provides certification for burial grounds and service providers who meet standards ranging from Hybrid (a cemetery that has both conventional and green burials) to Conservation Burial Grounds, lands which combine disposition with a trust deed protecting natural land and wildlife for posterity. Pleasant Hill would be an example of a hybrid cemetery though it is not registered with any certifying organization. Hybrid cemeteries are the overwhelming option for a green burial in Canada. There are as yet no Canadian minimally developed 'woodland cemeteries' with native intact forest.

Bill Mont made me realize a possibility for improvement: religious or other groups can sub-lease a section of an established cemetery and dedicate it to green use, with the paperwork and startup cost of setting up having already been taken care of by the leasing company.

Mont confirms that while green disposition is becoming more popular, his business is following an international trend toward cremation, a preference that is dictated by cost. Because less space is necessary, upkeep fees may be cut in half: between $300-$400 rather than around $800. According to the Funeral Association of Canada in the 60s, fewer than five per cent of Canadians were cremated. Today, that figure is more than 60 per cent.

* * 

Cassandra Yonder is a grief counselor and member of a community of Death Midwives in Canada . She moved to Baddeck, Cape Breton from Toronto to bring up a family on a working homestead and farm with her husband and two children, some horses, dairy goats, rabbits, chickens, cats and dogs. She has a private practice as a death midwife, and offers education and consultation around home funerals, bereavement support, disposition alternatives and family-centred death care. In Yonder's own words, "Birth midwives acknowledge that birth doesn't necessitate intervention whereas in a hospital birth the obstetrician is in control of the birth experience. Death and dying happen to the individual in the context of family and community, and what assistance they feel they need is up to them, They are at the centre of the experience. Baby boomers as a consumer group demand autonomy and choice. They brought birth midwifery into the world, and now they're bringing death awareness into the public eye. "

When Yonder acquired land in Cape Breton she intended to develop a woodland cemetery but found the cost to license and register a new cemetery to be prohibitive. "It was assumed it would be no big deal for me to charge $1000, $1500 a plot". Yonder told me, “Nova Scotia has many rural pioneer cemeteries, some are still selling plots for around $50. Because we (in Nova Scotia) live so rurally, it's possible to achieve a green burial on these old plots. Green burial hasn't been studied outside of big urban centres. I think it's great because it's not green-washed, it's just always been done that way." Still, she is willing to look for grants as a member of a partnership, even for a model that wasn't necessarily profitable.

Green burials are part of a movement that see the environmental disconnect as part of a larger disconnect from death. Funerals that are costly, polluting and removed from the control of the dying and their families and loved ones is symptomatic of our culture that sanitizes and remains separate from death. "At this point in time everybody is acknowledging we're a death denying culture and that we want to expose those taboos around death. The ways we sensationalize death is evidence of the denial." 

"I have had trouble getting answers on if transporting human remains is legal in Nova Scotia (it is, no permit required) but even the police didn't know. Once you have a burial permit, the remains belong to you. and it is legal to transport a body even without any special license." 

Yonder sees a lot people who are interested in green burials and also have interest in home funerals. Yonder says that she sees families who participate in funerals to a greater extent have an easier time moving through grief, and relating to the bond with the person who has passed. She describes cremation as being more compatible with home funerals. "Some operators will let civilians take part and some won't." When handling a burial, by contrast, one can't purchase a plot without hiring the cemetery to use their equipment.

After studying Grief and Bereavement at the University of Western Ontario, Yonder studied to be a home funeral guide at Final Passages in California but quickly picked up on the vibe that people here aren't ready. "I don't tend to do home funerals with families, which is what I'd imagined I'd be doing at this time. A family might call and say, we're taking care of my mom, we want to make preparations and we heard we can do this ourselves, is this true? I attempt to put as much as this into their own hands as I can. I spend time each day on social media educating the public, this is a labour of love. I get paid more for public presentations at conferences, and want to produce a book one day."

She hopes to create at her homestead an interpretive centre for death and dying, and a school for practices related to death midwifery ranging from grief counseling to arranging and conducting ritual, to composing music and songs with and for the departing. She would love to be able to host an open-air funeral pyre. Because they are culturally important to many people, Yonder's land could become a destination for a wide array of Canadians. "There's been interest in education for people considering caring for their own. A weekend workshop could give all the information they need. I hope that a lot will go on here."

Green disposition is arriving hand in hand with new and novel ways to honour the departed, from turning ashes to diamonds to being shot into orbit. Promethius solar in Lunenburg already builds parabolic solar crucibles that can melt steel, and there is no reason similar technology could not perform cremations. With the passage of time, more options for those wanting a green funeral are bound to become available. Perhaps someday even composting will become an accepted alternative to cremation.

In short, many options for environmentally gentle death care are already legal and available. Though it's not popular or easy to talk about, it is usually considered socially acceptable to have a living will even for those not immediately ill. If you want to go lightly, discuss options with your partner or family before times become stressful or one is dealing with a loss. 


There are many problems with living in a culture addicted to fossil fuels. We hear about pipelines, spills, fracking, global warming and the human rights abuses associated with oil, coal and natural gas. Moving towards true and lasting justice and self-sufficiency requires that we end our oil addiction, relocalise production of our necessities,and reduce and transfer our demand for fossil fuels and reground ourselves in the solar economy. There is a vast and growing scene of alternatives in the Maritimes and beyond. In this column I hope to present solutions and create dialogue around permaculture. Feel free to ask your gardening and green living questions and I will answer.

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