Green Burial: Sustainable memorial sites
Since the 1831 founding of Mount Auburn Cemetery in Massachusetts, credited with inspiring North America’s public park movement, spaces of remembrance have played evolving, disparate roles in cities. Landscape architects have been instrumental in negotiating the uses of cemeteries as parks, memorials, arboreta, and, more recently, natural burial grounds.
Today’s green burial is an iteration of the ancient practice of direct ground burial, which is still traditional in many cultures. In guidelines laid out by the Green Burial Society of Canada (GBSC), an unembalmed body is placed in a simple wooden casket or shroud, which is placed directly in the ground, without a concrete vault or liner. To complete the process, the surface over the grave must be restored with indigenous plants, and the cemetery plan must minimize the disturbance that can come with digging new graves.
The British Columbia-based GBSC was formed in 2013 to promote sustainability within the bereavement sector and share information about green burial. The GBSC is also working towards establishing certification standards for green burial practices, something its American older sibling, the Green Burial Council, has already put in place in the United States.
Catriona Hearn, BLA, Senior Associate at LEES + Associates and Vice President of the GBSC’s board of directors, emphasizes that Canadian certification will acknowledge the spectrum of green practices within the bereavement sector: “Death and choices about disposition are sensitive —and legitimately so. We should be trying to help people consider these things based on real information.”
According to Hearn, “The burial industry has become more sustainable —environmentally, socially, and, on some levels, economically. It’s incremental, and largely based on people understanding the value of land in a broader sense, especially as space becomes more precious, notably in urban areas. This has led people to see cemeteries as park space.”
Hearn points to Mountain View Cemetery as an example of the positive change sustainable practices can bring to traditional urban cemeteries. Owned and operated by the city of Vancouver since 1886, Mountain View has dealt with the space crunch by becoming a pioneer in grave reuse, allowing it to remain active. The cemetery searches out and reclaims pre-paid vacant plots, using advertisements to try to find the owners of potentially abandoned lots purchased before 1940.
As well, relatives can reuse existing plots after 40 years have passed, a practice contingent on burial without concrete grave liners, so that existing remains can be reburied deeper and eventually returned to the earth. Grave reuse is a rarity in Canada, but Hearn thinks it would be a big move forward for sustainable burial practices.
In her position at LEES + Associates, Hearn worked on the Woodlands area at Victoria’s Royal Oak Burial Park, which was created in response to community demand and opened in 2008. A shady grove surrounded by the native coastal forest of Vancouver Island, it is the first dedicated green burial area in Canada, and expresses a communal approach to the land. People are interred sequentially, and memorialized on a central monument. Hearn says that this gets people thinking of the larger picture instead of concentrating on the ownership of a single space.
While B.C. is clearly a leader in green burial, options for sustainable interment also exist in Ontario. Three non-denominational cemeteries offer green burial: Duffin Meadows Cemetery in Pickering, Meadowvale in Brampton, and Cobourg Union Cemetery north of Toronto. As well, there are a number of Muslim and Jewish cemeteries with green practices, including the Toronto Muslim Cemetery in Richmond Hill.
Both Duffin Meadows and Meadowvale cemeteries are run by the Mount Pleasant Group, Ontario’s largest not-for-profit cemetery. At these sites, graves are not individually marked, and memorials are inscribed on central monuments. Meadow grasses are allowed to grow tall, and naturalization is encouraged. Rick Cowan, Mount Pleasant Group’s Assistant Vice-President of Marketing and Communications, describes natural burial as a niche market:
“While much has been written about natural or green burial, demand for this choice of disposition, in our experience, remains relatively low. Our goal is to provide choice regardless of the market size.”
Stephanie Snow, OALA, a principal at Snow Larc Landscape Architecture, has worked with private cemetery clients to increase environmental stewardship through use of low-impact design, such as xeriscaping at Toronto’s Prospect Cemetery. She sees green burial as one option among many for cemeteries trying to appeal to a diverse population: “Some cultures have embraced natural burial for a very long time. For example, the Bahá’í faith does not permit embalming unless required by law. Jewish burial restricts embalming and places the body in as close contact with the earth as possible. Muslim tradition restricts embalming, and the deceased is wrapped in a simple shroud. Traditionally, the casket is carried to the gravesite by members of the community, on foot, and shovels are provided at the graveside. If a vault is used, and it most often is not, it is open bottomed to allow the remains to be in direct contact with the earth.”
Snow and Cowan both point to cremation as an option for people searching for an environmentally conscious choice, citing the development of nearly emission-free crematoria, such as those added to Elgin Mills and Mount Pleasant cemeteries in 2014. These advancements come as the bereavement industry makes a major shift towards cremation. Between 1985 and 2014 the number of cremations in the Greater Toronto Area jumped from 8,500 to roughly 55,500. However, according to Snow, 50 percent of the remains were either left at the crematorium or “stored” at home, reducing the number of interments. As she sees it, “The business challenge for cemeteries and landscape architects alike is that while designers create more options to attract families back to cemeteries, fewer people are using them.”
As well, Snow reports that peoples’ burial requests are changing: “In addition to scattering forests and scattering gardens, I’m seeing my clients incorporate a range of green burial options, from mausoleums using geothermal heating systems to communal ossuaries.”
Nicole Hanson, MES (Pl.), a community planner and former funeral celebrant who has worked as a regulator for Ontario’s Cemeteries and Crematoriums Regulation Unit, sees the challenges of access to affordable housing created by rising land values mirrored in cemeteries. People want to memorialize relatives nearby, but can’t necessarily afford the options in the city. She asks where people will go if they can’t afford to pay thousands for a plot and their culture forbids cremation: “Death is becoming an equity issue when you are looking at planning for death, and designing for death, and memorializing people. We should be allocating spaces for people to die [and be memorialized] in the city.”
Hanson points to the extensive cemetery-needs analysis done by York Region in 2015 as the kind of planning that needs to become more common. The report inventoried the region’s existing cemeteries and user demographics, and projected the need for cemetery space up to 2041, a planning horizon considered too short by many stakeholders. Notably, the report suggests that 66 percent of the users in York Region could be coming from Toronto within the next 25 years, as Toronto will have reached its interment capacity. Hanson hopes that Toronto will undertake its own cemetery-needs analysis soon, and she has been working with Deputy Mayor Denzil Minnan-Wong and Councillor Justin J. Di Ciano in an effort to make this happen.
Hanson sees opportunities for planners and landscape architects to design smaller memorial sites that serve nearby communities, or to find more capacity in currently inactive municipal cemeteries. She has seen cemetery operations consolidate as small sites no longer able to support themselves are signed over to municipal care, which provides municipalities with the opportunity to incorporate cemeteries into their long-term plans.
As Southern Ontario continues to densify, the green practices of cemeteries such as Mountain View and Royal Oak Burial Park could be examples of how to deal with space constraints in memorial sites. However, that will depend on what consumers want from the bereavement industry, and how far into the future planners, landscape architects, and cemetery operators are willing to think.
TEXT BY KATIE STRANG, A LANDSCAPE ARCHITECTURAL INTERN AT BSQ LANDSCAPE ARCHITECTS AND A MEMBER OF THE GROUND EDITORIAL BOARD.