'Just chuck me in a hole': Green burials are slowly becoming a thing in N.B.

·5 min read
A green burial could mean forgoing embalming, using a biodegradable casket or a shroud and burial in a natural cemetery with biodegradable grave-markers. (Nipun Tiwari/ CBC News - image credit)
A green burial could mean forgoing embalming, using a biodegradable casket or a shroud and burial in a natural cemetery with biodegradable grave-markers. (Nipun Tiwari/ CBC News - image credit)

Not many 29-year-olds pre-plan their funeral, but something about death and the way it's observed intrigues Shannon Rankine. 

One thing she's not planning for is a fancy casket — she's interested in a green or natural burial. 

"Oh, literally like — just chuck me in a hole. I know it kind of sounds bad, but it's an empty shell at that point — it's not me," said Rankine.

"So if I can be used as fertilizer for a tree, for plants, whatever, like, put me in a hole, I don't care."

Rankine attended one of several community meetings held in Charlotte County recently to learn more about natural options.

Nipun Tiwari/ CBC News
Nipun Tiwari/ CBC News

Green burials are characterized by eco-friendly practices such as forgoing embalming, using a biodegradable casket or urn — or simply a shroud.

Other options include burial in a natural cemetery with biodegradable grave-markers, where grounds are not maintained but left to return to a natural state and eventually act as a nature preserve.

But not all of these services are available in New Brunswick.

Maria Recchia is working to change that.

Submitted by Maria Recchia
Submitted by Maria Recchia

She's a strong believer in being a part of the cycle of nature. She and her husband grow and raise their own food on their property in Bocabec, a small community in southwestern New Brunswick. She wants to die as she lives — as part of that cycle.

Close to 60 people came to community meetings Recchia organized in Saint George, Saint Andrews and St. Stephen last month. More than a third signed on to help her advocate for green burial. 

"I'm really encouraged by that because I honestly didn't know if anyone was going to show up to these meetings. So I think there's maybe more interest than we realize," said Recchia.

"It's not a wide open opportunity here in southwestern New Brunswick," she said. "So I really want to make it an easy opportunity for me and for anyone who feels the way I do about it."

Recchia hopes to raise awareness among the public, and funeral and cemetery industry leaders, about green options and eventually create the province's first all-natural cemetery. 

Currently, there are no certified green cemeteries in New Brunswick and there are only 11 across Canada, according to the Green Burial Society. 

While most funeral homes can source green casket or container options, there's a challenge when it comes to the actual burial in the winter months, when many cemeteries are closed.

Amy Shaddick, the executive director of the New Brunswick Funeral Directors and Embalmers Association, said there isn't a regulation that stipulates embalming must be done.

"The only time regulations come into play is if they had to be placed in a vault for winter storage," she said.

This leaves those who wish for a green burial who die in the winter with few options for how their remains are handled.

"Most funeral homes will hold someone without embalming for a week or maybe even 10 days, depending on the situation," said Recchia. "But that's your window."

Nipun Tiwari/ CBC News
Nipun Tiwari/ CBC News

Ralph Buehler is the chair of the St. George Rural Cemetery and attended one of Recchia's meetings. 

He's unsure if he wants a green burial for himself, but he wants to be prepared for anyone in his area who does. 

"So this is just something else to learn about and to inform myself and our group at St. George Rural Cemetery … [to] have that information available for customers in case we're asked," he said.

Recchia acknowledges that demand for green burial services and sites is not high, but she thinks it's because of a lack of awareness of the options, not lack of interest.

"[Green burials are] generally not one of the options that's presented at that time of funeral planning." she said.

Recchia thinks that will change.

"I think, slowly, as the tide turns and more people find out about green burial, those of us who want it will start asking for it. And then I think the funeral homes and the cemeteries — I know they'll rise to the occasion and will help us figure out how to make this possible here."

Similar efforts are underway in Cocagne, a small community around 36 kilometres northeast of Moncton.

The Pays de Cocagne Sustainable Development group wants to make it easier for people to have an ecologically-friendly burial and its website contains a lot of information on available options.

Submitted by Louise Bell
Submitted by Louise Bell

Valerie Traer, president of New Brunswick Cemetery Association, said the Cemetery Companies Act doesn't contain any references to green burial. She sees there are challenges for anyone seeking a green burial, particularly if they want to keep their plots free of any fossil-fuel-emitting upkeep.

"For the cemeteries, it's finding space and making sure that the main part of your cemetery is well kept, well maintained and mowed and trimmed," she said. "Then finding the space to allow for the natural burials in an area — that would be basically unkept."

Traer also said that if more people start seeking the green options, it's important the cemetery association be open to it.

Shannon Rankine would like to see cemeteries more closely resemble nature reserves and public parks instead of graveyards.

"Like you could go in any cemetery … it's not illegal to walk around, but it feels like it is."

"[With] green burials like you can have it be like Rockwood Park in Saint John, where it's a beautiful place to go on a nice hike," she said.

"That's what it should be."